Corps de l’article


Committees are a vital facet of organizational life. This study examines how committee work is bound up in organizational cultural priorities and more specifically what role safety committees play in the development of a workplace safety culture. The prioritization of organizational safety culture comes after three decades of engagement by scholars, regulators and industry actors (Cooper, 2016). International agencies, regulatory bodies and companies have issued guidelines, policies, assessments and interventions designed to optimize such a culture (Schobel et al., 2017). Safe operations are not a straightforward matter of compliance with regulations and codes. They also depend on a host of dependent factors, including organizational design (Hopkins, 2007).

In this paper, we examine the interplay between a safety committee and safety culture in a university facilities management department. We conduct this examination by using Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model (1985, 1990). Our findings indicate that safety committee initiatives impact organizational safety culture in some positive yet unintended ways that may reveal implicit organizational assumptions. This conclusion implies that unintended consequences can serve as a privileged window for viewing a core layer of hidden, implicit and unspoken assumptions.

Organizational Culture

The concept of culture has enjoyed a vibrant life in the organizational literature as a dynamic, transactional phenomenon (Douglas, 1970; 1978), as a “software of the mind” (Hofstede, 1991) or as a pattern of “shared basic assumptions” learned by groups to solve “problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (Schein, 1985). Table 1 displays Schein’s model and summarizes the various definitions and perspectives on organizational culture in the literature.

Table 1

Model of Organizational Culture (Schein, 1985, 1990)

Model of Organizational Culture (Schein, 1985, 1990)

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For Schein, organizational culture is comprised of three basic elements. First, assumptions represent culture’s unconscious drivers. Second, espoused values reflect stated goals, ideals and beliefs and serve as explicit foundations for action (Argyris and Schön, 1996). Third, artefacts recombine culture’s manifestations that can be observed, touched or experienced (Schein, 1985). The artefact layer refers to those observable yet difficult to interpret elements. Since Schein views culture as a learned set of behaviours and attitudes safeguarding against the stressors of ambiguity and change, organizational culture can be deliberately transformed, provided the right conditions are met (Schein, 1985; 1990). To date, inadequate emphasis has been placed on the cultural dynamics occurring at deeper implicit levels in the organization, with the bulk of attention focused on external cultural “symptoms” and desired behaviours (Schein, 1990; Hale, 2000). This unequal emphasis makes connecting safety culture to actual practice a challenge, thus requiring us to focus attention on the less obvious levels of culture.

Safety Culture

The juxtaposition of both ‘culture’ and ‘safety’ reminds practitioners and researchers that accidents are not exclusively due to human error, technical malfunction or environmental factors. They are rather embedded in broader organizational and managerial attitudes, values and behaviours (Reiman and Rollenhagen, 2018). ‘Safety Culture,’ a term coined by the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, has been identified as a major causal factor in such disasters (Guldenmund, 2010; Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, 2016).

In the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, scholarly interest was revived in safety culture and produced empirical work (Reichers and Schneider, 1990; Cox and Cox, 1991; Guldenmund, 2000; Hale, 2000; Cooper, 2000; Richter and Koch, 2004). The growth of safety culture studies across a variety of disciplines has resulted not only in a multitude of definitions and constructs (Hale, 2000; Guldenmund, 2000; Hopkins, 2006; Choudhry et al., 2007; Silbey, 2009; Myers et al., 2014) but also in competing, if not contradictory, arguments and theories. This multiplicity has led to conceptual fragmentation: safety culture means different things to different researchers and practitioners (Cooper, 2016). For twenty years, scholars such as Zhang et al., (2002), Guldenmund (2000), Hopkins (2006) and Antonsen (2009c) and Seixas et al. (2013) have sought to reconcile various understandings of safety culture. As illustrated in Table 2, the concept has continued to evolve in the literature (Choudhry et al., 2007).[1]

Table 2

Safety Culture Definitions

Safety Culture Definitions

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This scholarly community converges on one central tenet: a strong safety culture places a high priority on safety-related beliefs, values and attitudes (Cooper, 2000; Guldenmund, 2000; Short et al., 2007). Researchers have recognized that safety management systems did not result in the expected safety gains. Written manuals often remain ignored or untouched (Reason, 2000). Safety culture has emerged to bring much-needed life to such systems (Hopkins, 2005), and a number of studies suggest that it plays an important role in anticipating workplace incidents (Clarke, 2000; Cooper, 2000; Hofmann and Stetzer, 1996; Mearns et al., 2003; Zohar, 2000). With a poor safety culture, the workplace may suffer from more frequent mistakes, more tolerance for violations and greater management failure to recognize and focus on discrepancies. The resulting long-term vulnerabilities increase the potential for an adverse incident (Reason, 1998).[2] Based on the foregoing, we define ‘safety culture’ as an “approach improving everyday safety behaviours in the workplace and carried out by all organizational members who are united by common values and priorities on safety-related matters.”

Safety Committees

Management research on committees has adopted a strong ‘features’ component: size, composition, procedures, structure, agenda and meeting minutes, meeting frequency and duration, scope, upper management participation and member training (Kochan et al., 1977; Coyle and Leopold, 1981; Ontario, 1986; Tuohy and Simard, 1993; Eaton and Nocerino, 2000; Hall et al., 2003). Other work has examined geographic and contextual factors (Lewchuk et al., 1996; O’Grady, 2000; Milgate et al., 2002), committee characteristics (Morse et al., 2013), effective committee implementation (Seixas et al., 2013) and factors facilitating or impeding committee success (Yassi, 2012). Regarding safety committees in particular, some studies point to their role in improving safety performance (Parker et al., 2007; Smitha et al., 2001), although empirical evidence is scarce (Bryce and Manga, 1985; Milgate et al., 2002) and therefore needed (Morse et al., 2013). Forming a safety committee is a critical juncture in an organization’s efforts to transform safety culture (Nielsen, 2014). Such efforts encompass activities aimed at identifying and emphasizing harm-reduction principles and practices (Vogus et al., 2010). A crucial remedy to safety concerns, safety committees have been formed in many safety concerns, safety committees have been formed in many workplaces through employee involvement and empowerment (Nielsen, 2014). Workplace health and safety (H&S) committees, as well as worker H&S representatives, have widely been required by law. All this fuels the research focus on employee involvement in H&S decision-making (Walters, 1996a, 1996b; Eaton and Nocerino, 2000; O’Grady, 2000; Milgate et al., 2002; Shearn, 2004). Whereas workplace politics have been described as an essential part of H&S decision-making processes (Walters, 1985), Hall et al. (2006) identified knowledge activism as the most effective aspect of H&S representation. Knowledge activists can persuade and challenge decisions by developing an arsenal of legal and scientific information aligned with expertise and competency in training, managerial reaction and communication (Walters, 1996c; Lewchuk, et al., 1996).

Assessing Safety Culture through Models

During the period between 1986 and 2000, when safety culture studies flourished, it is noteworthy that few practice-oriented models emerged. The existing ones included Guldenmund’s (2000) organizational culture adaptation model, Cooper’s (2000) reciprocal safety culture model and Reason’s (1998) interacting sub-cultures incident analysis model. All have been influential in guiding researchers, regulators and practitioners in developing organizational safety culture (Cooper, 2016). The relevance of Schein’s research on culture has resulted in its application to safety culture studies (Guldenmund, 2018). A succession of reappraisals through new empirical settings and different methodologies has accompanied its broadening (Guldenmund, 2000; Glendon and Stanton, 1998; Furnham and Gunter, 1993; Johnson and Scholes, 1999). The model was however critiqued for the unidirectional relationship between “assumptions and attitudes and between attitudes and behaviors” (Cooper, 2000) and mediating or moderating variables would be needed to develop a more complex model (Lund and Aaro, 2004). Instead of distinguishing between each layer, the scholars revisiting Schein’s model concentrated on the overall organization at large. By shifting attention to model application at the committee level, we answer the question of how safety committees influence organizational cultural change and impact employee perceptions.

Research Context

The question was answered through a case study at a private American university in a facilities department that consisted of shops and departments with skilled tradespeople performing tasks similar to those of construction workers (see Table 3). A growing stream of research on facilities management (FM) has examined facilities at institutions of higher education and the physical aspects to be managed (Lateef et al., 2010; Kok et al., 2011; Ogbeifun et al., 2016). In this rarefied context of teaching, learning or research, the FM staff may feel invisible and under-appreciated. Management staff at university facilities are said to “…complain about a lack of recognition and appreciation for their hard work” (Ogbeifun et al., 2016). The FM staff guarantee the conditions of physical amenities to the benefit of all and contribute to the overall attractiveness and life quality for every stakeholder (Lateef et al., 2010). The university’s onsite teaching and research mission would be greatly compromised without a high-functioning FM staff; ever-increasing tuition fees and expenses are associated with high expectations from stakeholders (Taylor and Braddock, 2007).

Table 3

Facilities Management at University’s Shops and Departments

Facilities Management at University’s Shops and Departments

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Safety issues in the construction industry prompted calls for improvement and a search for better approaches (Langford et al., 2000), and these calls reverberated throughout the Facilities Management Department at the university under study. In an effort to gather information on how best to transform the existing safety committee, the Facilities Management staff administered a survey in 2013 in which 310 out of 369 employees (84%) completed 50 questions on their perceptions of safety culture. The results indicated that need-driven movements of staff between shops made the ordinary safety compliance mechanisms, i.e. procedures and inspections, either difficult to respect or even irrelevant. Consequently, management focused on establishing common values and behaviours by improving the prevailing safety culture (Halligan and Zecevic, 2011). A new safety committee comprised of employees and supervisors from facilities shops and departments was formed. Members were appointed by their superiors to serve three-year terms. The committee included a senior management member, appointed as the Chair by the Associate VP, and two advisory Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) representatives. The Safety Committee was divided into three different subcommittees, each of which addressed and reported on specific safety matters. After multiple subcommittee meetings, written guidelines were promulgated and shared with facilities supervisors. Performance was measured through metrics disseminated and collected by the EHS office, hence ensuring compliance with committee guidelines.

Organizational Investment in Safety

Trends in overall safety-related expenditures demonstrate the shift in organizational priorities in four specific areas. Table 4 details the expenditures for the years 2016 through 2018 and the changes to safety-related expenses: the Safety Expo and increases in the budget for training, protective equipment or committee members’ time.

First, for the Safety Expos in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the expenditures were $15,000, $14,000 and $15,000 respectively. The increase is a sign of growing financial support from management, since the original budget of $10,000 in 2014 has been surpassed with each passing year. Second, the rules on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) usage were relatively unfamiliar to individual shops and their workers, who lacked a variety in the choices and sizes of PPE. Expenditures for PPE were increased when the new guidelines were rolled out to cover protective equipment and relevant upgrades (see Table 4). Third, evidence of greater investment in safety can be seen in employee allowances: the cost of employees’ time at committee and subcommittee meetings or other safety-related activities was three times higher than it had been with the former committee. Prior to 2014, only one hour per employee had been granted each month for committee meetings, and all safety training had been provided in-house by the EHS office, with low attendance rates. With the new committee, a budget was set aside for safety training to be given by a third-party contractor. This move ultimately led to an annual $23,000 investment in an online safety training platform, commencing in 2019.

Table 4

Expenditures Budgets after Safety Committee’s Formation

Expenditures Budgets after Safety Committee’s Formation

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Approach and Epistemology

We analyzed the formation and work of the Safety Committee using a phenomenological lens, observing the emergence of events, stories and objects as organizational phenomena.

Single Case Design

This approach has been used to explore various complex organizational processes, such as organizational identity (Dutton and Dukerich, 1991), corporate venturing (Burgelman, 1983) or sensemaking (Weick, 1993). Single case studies make it possible to achieve an in-depth understanding of complex organizational phenomena through privileged access to a specific phenomenon. We chose a quasi-experimental case study design (Yin, 2003) for two reasons: it is suitable for investigation of complex social processes, and it provides a context for better comprehension of invisible phenomena. Along the lines of the “idiographic single-outcome case study,” the explicit goal is not generalizability but greater understanding of the case (Eckstein, 1975). Pursuant to the qualitative tradition of focusing on “causes of effects,” as described by Goertz and Mahoney (2012), we sought out the “causes” attributable to the case’s outcomes; i.e., the “effects.”

Data Sources

This case study was based on 61 employee interviews, field observation notes, and archival data (an employee survey, a committee charter, official correspondence, meeting agendas, meeting minutes, budget allocation data and performance metrics: see Table 5). Semi-structured, open-ended interviews enabled us to convey not only the participants’ descriptive thoughts and experiences but also their life experiences in the workplace at the deeper layers of organizational culture (Schein, 1990). This variety of data sources made possible a granular level of detail that cannot be accomplished through multiple cases or through large-sample statistical studies. Following organizational process research examples (Van De Ven, 1992; Langley, 1999; Langley et al., 2013), we focused on “how and why things emerge, develop, grow, or terminate” (Langley et al., 2013: 1). Archival data were supplemented with memos drafted from longitudinal observations of committee, sub-committee and preparatory meetings held between the chair and the EHS representatives.

Table 5

Data Sources

Data Sources

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Interview Procedure, Guidelines and Transcription

Fieldwork and data collection were conducted by the lead author, who, as a safety engineer, had a deep understanding of the contextual background. A total of sixty-one individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with fifty-nine employee participants and two managers, each lasting between thirty to sixty minutes. Interviews were held with all sixteen committee members and all fifteen facilities shop supervisors seen as organizational safety role models (Fleming et al., 1996; Mattila et al., 1994). Because employee involvement in decision-making appears to be a key factor in safety research (Simard and Marchand, 1995), interviews included one to two employees from each shop, thus adding 28 additional participants. Cross-sectional insights were gained through two longer in-depth interviews with the committee chair and the EHS director.

Participants were briefed on the study’s objectives and asked for permission to record. These files were transcribed verbatim. Timestamps were applied to the most relevant passages. Supplemented with the interviewer’s memos, transcripts were reviewed line by line through research-question-related themes. The themes were captured through first-order codes for the timestamped segments. This initial coding resulted in over 1,200 first-order codes that were reduced and consolidated as described below.

Open coding for textual thematic analysis (Strauss, 1987; Strauss and Corbin, 1990) enabled us to develop substantial descriptive codes for the various phenomena. Interview transcripts were uploaded to Atlas.ti. We reduced the large number of first-order codes by identifying similar data segments and placing them under broader common headings. We performed code-name merging on the first-order data segments in Atlas.ti and then created second-order thematic codes under which the first-order codes were categorized. Next, we examined the coded themes and their internal relationships (in terms of co-occurrences) to detect patterns and thematic overlap. At one point, we reached data saturation (Fusch and Ness, 2015) and were applying pre-existing codes without exception. This led to 85 first-order codes.

We then sorted the codes for inclusion into either the artefact category or the espoused values category (Schein, 1984). We examined code labels with high and low frequencies to determine whether they could be combined or whether a new common category label was required. Codes were merged under a common higher conceptual code label or “code groups.” This iterative process resulted in 12 second-order codes, which were then recombined and collapsed to form 10 final second-order code groups (see Figure 1). Further analysis and reduction of the second-order codes resulted in two overarching aggregate codes (see Figure 2).

Figure 1

Dividing and Aggregating Codes (example)

Dividing and Aggregating Codes (example)

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Following Nielsen’s (2014) example, the safety culture concept could be classified under Schein’s three layers: Artefacts, Espoused Values and Assumptions. The artefact level of organizational safety culture was evaluated through the number and frequency of safety meetings per period. The espoused values reflected explicitly stated goals and ideals. The basic assumptions were identified by analyzing the codes under the artefacts and espoused value labels.


In appearance, the committee had uniform representation. In reality, it offered scant opportunities for full and equal contributions from all committee members.

Meetings and Inclusiveness in Safety Inputs

Data from committee meetings and minutes agreed with survey findings and Safety Expo matters (described below). Meetings also involved annual report descriptions of their accomplishments. Respondent data revealed asymmetrical and mainly top-down information flows at the meetings: the chair and close advisors initiated and guided conversations. Regular committee members felt less influential in the idea-sharing fora. Committee members expressed a need for more information sharing by departments about safety deficiencies at meetings: “I don’t come back with anything or any feedback. It’s all high-level management stuff. We should be able to share. We lost members because of this.” Another representative, referring to himself as “the eyes and ears” of his shop, noted the need for more voices from grassroots people.

Figure 2

Code Reduction

Code Reduction

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Training and Safety Discussion

A majority of participants deemed safety training to be deficient in two focus areas: 1- inconsistencies in implementing safety practices; 2- lack of a forum for regular group safety discussions. Committee members noted inadequate or nonexistent training. Workers lamented being “thrown in” to the job. Regarding training for safety practices, employees developed such practices from their own experiences and common knowledge as a result of “…being aware of their surroundings.” Supervisors credited training and PPE as the main means to ensure employee safety; “I ensure their safety by ensuring that they’re wearing PPE.” Data suggested that the informal discussions on safety lacked a scripted protocol or deliberate process orientation and took place only ad hoc.

Safety Expo

Another conspicuous artefact is the annual ‘Safety Expo,’ which was created to facilitate safety improvements and raise awareness. This event has positively influenced employee perceptions. One electrician conceded that the Expo “…fosters awareness. Puts it in your mind. That’s half the battle of safety, putting it in your mind.” The Paint Shop Supervisor concurred: “the Expos have been opening up people’s eyes.” The exposition acted as a culture-building tool to “keep people safe. The committee has been effective in improving safety culture by bringing more awareness,” noted a carpenter shop employee.

Espoused Values

The “espoused values” level of culture focuses on those explicit, conscious areas of organizational life that govern members’ discourses and attitudes. Participants acknowledged the importance of safety in their jobs and the improvements since the committee’s formation. “Safety awareness has changed drastically. Before we didn’t pay attention and now it is really, really good,” stated one participant. Regarding the committee’s role and purpose, participants agreed on the need to promote safety through better internal communication.

PPE Awareness

The push for PPE had raised awareness, particularly of job-specific guidelines. A carpenter shop employee noted that “[p]eople are more aware of the type of PPE they need, the supervisor is stricter. He lets us know.” A painter concurred: “We are pushed to use PPE now.” The Plumbing Supervisor made the same point: “We’ve spent much more on PPE and safety equipment in the past couple of years. It’s a different culture now.” An electrician added that PPE, like test gloves and ear plugs, had not been used three years prior, but now were. Employees from the central plant, mail services and plumbing shop attributed greater PPE usage to heightened awareness. Although supervisors did not recall the specific PPE guidelines, their expectations for their employees and for PPE usage had shifted. For example, the PPE audit form, initially required for compliance, was seen by employees as a sort of safety mechanism. Whereas they had viewed it more at the beginning just “as a means of satisfying” management, it then began “slowly moving to reinforce their own benefit,” according to the Carpenter Shop Supervisor.

Training and Incident Investigation Priorities

Interviews revealed a perception of little or no improvement in the training and incident investigation guidelines. The majority were uncertain as to how to report an incident. A paint shop employee questioned why near-misses were never investigated: “A cart almost ran into our cart. We reported to [the] supervisor but heard nothing after that.” This perception of unclear incident-reporting mechanisms was echoed by a custodial employee: “We complete [the] report and send it to HR; if we don’t find the boss, we go to HR. If no one answers, then [we go to] security.”

Among the various shops, additional inconsistencies became apparent for new employee training. Relying on notification from their EHS representatives, the majority of supervisors ignored the compulsory training. Supervisors from the lock shop, mail services and plumbing shop observed dependency on EHS representatives to determine requirements. Survey metrics confirmed low participation in both incident investigation and training.

Committee-Driven Safety Climate

The data showed a shared perception of an overall improvement in safety since committee formation. All interviewed employees indicated significant improvements in safety awareness and performance during 2015-2017. For a carpenter shop employee, people seemed to “see safety differently.” They were more conscious of their rights and “what is available to them…They yell ‘safety’ when I am around.” An HVAC representative confirmed this impression: “The committee is benefiting everyone because everyone associate[s] safety with the committee,” while some representatives felt increasingly perceived as internal safety advocates. As one noted: “[p]eople now, and not before, come to me with safety questions.” A central plant representative mentioned that, “I have been acting as the safety officer in my area. For example, we discuss hazardous waste storage and PPE (arc flash PPE). These conversations happen because I am the rep. All of this is because of the committee.”

The data on safety climate revealed that employees and supervisors possessed distinct perceptions of the committee’s work.

Employee Perceptions of Safety Climate

Irrespective of the committee’s actions, employees uncritically praised it for the positive changes made. A plumbing shop employee mentioned that the committee enabled him to obtain repairs to a ladder. A central plant employee also applauded the committee for improved ladder safety: “Things have changed in the past couple of years. For example, people ignored ladder safety, but they’re better now.” Plumbing shop employees and electricians were thankful that “the committee took care” of a longstanding blind-spot issue through installation of a blind-spot mirror. More general and abstract appreciations were also given. A ground shop worker said that the committee had given employees “more opportunities to voice their concerns.” A final example is this plumbing shop employee’s observation that “the committee has helped a lot with issues. Earlier issues weren’t taken care of but now they are. For example, wood-built structures on roofs were dangerous to walk on. Aluminum bridges and ladders that are much safer have been installed.”

Supervisor Perceptions of Safety Climate

Supervisors also commended the committee for improvements to overall safety culture and a perception of enhanced safety. The Transportation Supervisor credited the committee with fewer incidents of employees ‘phoning while driving’ around campus, whereas the Paint Shop Supervisor credited it with such accomplishments as setting up “respirator fit testing and training.” The Electric Shop Supervisor mused that, “I can’t put my finger on what the committee has done to improve safety, but it’s just pushing safety forward. The committee has grown without knowing; just like your child growing without you noticing the growth until they have bloomed.”

Perceived Management Commitment

One code included within espoused values is supervisor perceptions of upper management’s commitment to safety. For example, the management staff required that employees and supervisors post a safety statement across various locales. Supervisors saw the safety statement as the committee’s “outlining core values” (Carpenter Shop Supervisor). To them, the “committee is like the Statement because it gives people the idea that safety matters” (Electric Shop Supervisor). Custodial supervisors were also positive: “It’s coming from the boss! This tells me that upper management cares about safety, not only about accidents,” noted one. “It’s really good that upper management is thinking about this. They think because we are custodial staff, no one cares,” said another. This perception was further evident when employees conflated resource allocation by management with actual involvement by management. Such a perception was triggered by the VP’s inclusion of the Safety Committee’s events and activities in quarterly meetings, as recalled by the Carpenter Shop Supervisor. In addition, the management’s general push for PPE inspection-form compliance helped create a perception of a caring committee. One supervisor remembered that one of the ‘big bosses’ asked “our guy why he wasn’t wearing his gloves. They care about us.” Further evidence of the ‘over-crediting’ effect transpired in employee impressions of organizational support. Most perceived their supervisors as concerned for their well-being and valuing their opinions. Phrases such as “I have never been told ‘no’ on safety” was echoed by many mid- to lower-level employees.

Basic Assumptions

The results of the artefacts and espoused values indicate changes in surface manifestations: training, involvement and inclusion in committee meetings, safety equipment usage and general attitudes. Although ‘over-crediting’ is an unexpected and unintended consequence of the committee’s initiatives, it helped uncover the hidden assumptions at the core of organizational culture.


The above themes reveal that committee activities fostered the emergence of new safety-related artefacts and contributed to the espoused or ‘conscious’ values layer of organizational culture. This outcome indicates a positive change to perceptions of managerial commitment, which in turn affected the hidden assumptions underlying an organizational cultural change (Schein, 1990). We found that organizational safety culture artefacts, e.g., training, discussions and the Expo, were established, disseminated and shared by committee members. Other artefacts, such as issue resolution procedures, committee communications and safety training, were to be improved (see Table 6, Safety Culture Assessment and Development Indicators). At the espoused values level, the committee appeared effective at improving safety culture through its work to push forward increased awareness.

Table 6

Safety Culture Assessment and Development Indicators

Safety Culture Assessment and Development Indicators

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Excavating Basic Assumptions

We uncovered assumptions about safety by scrutinizing our ‘surprise’ finding: the unanticipated ‘over-crediting’ of all committee-related activities. Employees from different departments attributed a multiplicity of improvements to the committee: awareness of ladder hazards, blind-spot installations, employee driving and phone usage, respirator testing, and greater employee inclusion in safety matters. Although the committee in reality did nothing to directly address those concerns, its mere existence generated an implicit association between awareness-raising and implementation of actual safety initiatives.

Unintended Consequences … and Giving Credit where Credit Is Not Due

The ‘mental shortcut’ implicitly associating all safety improvements with the committee (Greenwald, Banaji and Mahzarin, 2017) is a form of positive bias. Supervisors and actual change agents in the field shared similar evaluations. Most of them attributed positive safety gains to the committee’s influence. That assessment was an unintended consequence of committee initiatives: one of those “unforeseen or unpredicted results of an action” (Harris and Ogbonna, 2002) or “unanticipated outcomes of attempts to create change in complex social systems” (Merton, 1936). The organizational literature has highlighted the possibility of unintended consequences (Mandelbaum, 1999; Giddens, 1984; Globerman, 2000; Lal, 1998), leading to a consensus that change initiatives are likely to produce unanticipated negative consequences (Ogbonna and Harris, 1998; Anthony, 1990; Martin, 1992; Harris and Ogbonna, 2002). Lastly, unintended consequences reveal those deeper cultural assumptions in Schein’s model that would otherwise remain hidden.

Contributions, Limitations and Future Directions

This study contributes to relevant scholarship in three ways. First, it juxtaposes unintended consequences with positive outcomes. In this case, even when group attribution errors (Allison and Messick, 1985) were detected and certain safety actions were incorrectly ascribed to the committee, the organization ‘won.’ Second, this study demonstrates how formation of a committee can provide management with a proxy and encourage positive perceptions of managerial commitment. The committee can impact the deeper beliefs of employees about its work. The committee’s internal core value is organizationally leveraged without any direct actions. Lastly, unintended consequences enable the detection and ‘excavation’ of hidden assumptions. Whereas Schein’s artefacts and espoused values are more identifiable through a case study approach, this paper has shown that uncovering the assumptions requires special detective work. By focusing on the unintended consequences in employee actions, researchers can draw a clearer picture of the assumptions driving organizational culture’s deepest layers.

Such ‘overcrediting’ of the committee meant overlooking the actual work done by organizational members. This disregard naturally could prove irritating for those deserving the credit. Yet employees deeply ‘believed’ in their management’s positive intentions and general concern for their safety. Managers and supervisors were assumed to be equally capable of shaping the immediate environment and making it safer because they were deemed powerful enough. This conflation of committee and managerial actions is linked to the concept of reputational spillover and the effects of reputation in terms of performance appraisal (Fong and Lee, 2012), corporate crises and country reputation (Ingenhoff et al., 2018) or grant provision and reputation (Willems et al., 2019). Such spillover of employee perceptions provides the organization with the benefits of unintended consequences. Retroactively examining their origins enabled us to conceptualize the process through which this effect can serve as a heuristic for uncovering organizational cultural assumptions (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Uncovering Assumptions through Unintended Consequences

Uncovering Assumptions through Unintended Consequences

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Managerial Implications

This paper also contributes to the practice and work of professionals in organizations. First, with the rise of safety committees (Morse et al., 2013) and the significant amount of resources dedicated to them, practitioners need to develop a means of ensuring management commitment to safety and encouraging employee participation. Second, by identifying, foreseeing or imagining unintended consequences, organizations can identify obstacles and untested hypotheses about ‘how things should be.’ In other words, practitioners should seek ways to embrace and leverage the value of unanticipated and unintended organizational outcomes.


Other unseen or overlooked factors might have contributed to cultural changes within the Facilities Management Department and its staff. Our exploratory phenomenological case study may thus not be generalizable. Its empirical setting, being in the United States and at an institution of higher education, may limit our findings to countries with equally high safety standards. Furthermore, our interview questions may have influenced, biased or bounded employee responses by focusing on safety concerns.

Future Directions

By conducting case studies in different organizational settings using Schein’s model to further understanding of these results, it will be possible to shed light on context-specific issues in organizational culture research. The emergence of further work on unintended consequences could provide an epistemological window into organizational assumptions. Further research work is needed in general on the influence of committees on organizational norms, values and assumptions. The impact of committee-related initiatives on employee perceptions (e.g., over-crediting, under-crediting, conflation of management staff with the committee, etc.), specifically regarding unintended consequences of these initiatives, should also be further researched. Lastly, additional studies could illuminate the interplay between the committee and management staff in cultural change scenarios.


This study reveals how safety committees influence organizational cultural change and impact employee perceptions. With Schein’s cultural layers providing a heuristic for assessing organizational culture, we identified a novel means of uncovering organizational assumptions at the deepest layer. We argue that this is a crucial, and yet elusive, stage in driving organizational change forward. We thus infer that basic organizational cultural assumptions can be inductively identified. Most studies on organizational change examine assumptions deductively, as generalized premises focusing on how attitudes are shaped. Explicit factors may often be “decoys” masking the actual assumptions, if symptoms and causes are conflated. Unintended consequences can help us identify the deeper assumptions driving organizational decision-making by providing a heuristic for organizational sense making and for grasping the organizational unconscious. Implicit, unspoken assumptions often inhibit or slow down adoption of initiatives for change or even maintain individuals in unproductive attitudinal ‘ruts.’ To reveal organizational assumptions and to understand them better, one can examine them through the lens of unexpected, unintended or surprise outcomes.