Culture is more than happy hours and touch football: it’s the “it” factor, that feeling you get from the team and managers. Cultural safety is the basis of that; without developing cultural safety, there is no company culture.

The concept of cultural safety emerged in New Zealand during the 1980s as a framework for responding to unequal access to health services by indigenous Māori people. As defined by indigenous rights leaders at the time, culturally-safe practices recognize and respect the identities of others and meet their needs, rights, and expectations. Contrarily, culturally unsafe practices diminish, demean, or disempower the cultural identity of an individual.

While the concept of cultural safety was born out of health care inequalities, it’s become part-and-parcel of discussions surrounding corporate culture. 

(Want to learn more about company culture? Check out our research report.)

Organizations are learning that, for employees to feel valued, they have to recognize the unique and diverse identities of their employees and develop safeguards and processes to protect the expression of these identities. In this sense, cultural safety means helping all employees flourish, regardless of race, religion, gender, physical or intellectual differences, or sexuality. 

There are two main components to cultural safety in the modern workplace: psychological safety and physical safety.

1. Psychological safety

Doing great work isn’t just about having the necessary skills: you need to feel comfortable with your manager and teammates, protected from harassment and bullying, and engaged in your role. If you don’t feel safe at work—knowing that one mistake won’t cost you your job, and you can’t be bullied freely—then you can’t be expected to get your job done.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety,” defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” For organizations to succeed, employees need to feel respected and accepted. Only under these cultural conditions can team members from diverse backgrounds take risks and contribute to growth in a meaningful way.

Understanding psychological safety in the workplace can be best understood by examining cases where this culture was absent. Wells Fargo’s aggressive cross-selling tactics, for example, led to business failure as employees lost trust in the company and failed to meet targets. While for some companies, failure to promote psychological safety led to collapse, for others these failures were instructive. Uber is one company that has undergone transformation from a dysfunctional culture to one centered on truth-telling and inclusion

Company cultures where individuals feel psychologically unsafe are those where employees refrain from contributing their opinions for fear of reprisal or rejection, questions aren’t posed, and innovative ideas are not offered for fear of criticism. Without efficient and open communication, teamwork and creativity are stifled, leading to stagnation and poor employee retention.

According to the WHO, depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity every year, making responsiveness to mental health challenges an integral part of cultural safety in the workplace. Psychological safety is real, and its positive and negative impacts are huge.

2. Physical safety

Just as you can’t work well if your manager is on their way over to publicly berate you for the third time today, you can’t be expected to function if you’re worried about smoke coming out of your computer monitor…again.

Physical safety entails providing safe and hazard-free working conditions and creating an environment that is comfortable and appropriate for employees. Keeping the workspace accessible, well-ventilated, adequately lit, noise-controlled, and ergonomically designed will protect employee’s health and signal a culture of care. 

According to OSHA, employers with safety and health programs will benefit in a number of ways, such as preventing injury, improving company compliance with safety regulations, reducing costs, and increasing productivity. Promoting physical safety in the workplace will also promote greater employee engagement and position the organization as an advocate for social responsibility. 

This means not just following legal guidelines, but keeping an eye out on potentially unsafe situations. Steep staircases, for example, could be a recipe for disaster. Noticing that and putting up a banister could prevent a big accident.

Accessibility offices fall under the “physical safety” category as well. Keeping employees safe means accommodating their physical needs, so folks with disabilities or limited movement can safely access coworking spaces. While the ADA defines how accessible offices need to be, these guidelines should be seen as a basis—not as the most that can be done. 

Physical safety also means preventing and responding appropriately to violence in the workplace. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines what might constitute violence, defining violence as “Rumors, swearing, verbal abuse, pranks, arguments, property damage, vandalism, sabotage, pushing, theft, physical assaults, psychological trauma, anger-related incidents, rape, arson and murder.”

Establishing a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence and implementing a workplace violence prevention program will help ensure that all employees know that any claims of workplace violence will be remedied quickly and appropriately. Failing to implement physical safety protocol can have an adverse effect on a company’s long term success.

A nationwide poll conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) in 2019 revealed that one out of seven respondents do not feel safe at work. One in four respondents report at least one incident of workplace violence at their current place of employment. When employees feel unsafe, for any reason, this will contribute to higher turnover, low trust, and productivity will likely suffer.

Why is cultural safety relevant to today’s HR leaders?

With the expansion and globalization of the tech industry, society is undergoing a period of introspection and breaking down barriers that prevent cultural understanding and support.

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, people are looking to their employers to implement positive changes and respond to inequality, discrimination, and harassment. To gain employee’s trust and loyalty, they need to feel that you’re doing all you can to protect them.

Investing in workplace safety can significantly reduce the costs of workplace injury and other cases of misconduct, saving on workers’ compensation, medical expenses, costs to replace and train new employees, and conduct investigations. Safety investments also boost employee morale and job satisfaction, encouraging retention, engagement, and productivity.

HR leaders have the tools to implement processes and protocols that protect the psychological and physical safety of employees, in partnership with other stakeholders, playing a vital role in promoting cultural safety.

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From Shayna Hodkin

Shayna lives in south Tel Aviv with two dogs and a lot of plants. She writes poems and reads tarot.