How Safety Leaders Define Accountability and Responsibility

Safety is a shared responsibility with each individual being accountable for their actions.

accountability03.pngOn a recent LinkedIn post about accountability, I was asked the following:

Hi Kevin, I'm constantly engaged in discussions around accountability and responsibility with all levels of hierarchy within the business as almost no one understands the difference. What's your experience?

Awesome question. I too, used to think they were two interchangeable words. In fact, the dictionaries interchange them at least once on each word. So, it's not surprising that your clients and colleagues struggle with it. But to me, they are not interchangeable at all. In fact, each word has very specific differentiators.

This post will help you to arm your colleagues, employees and clients with a new and unique way to understand accountability and responsibility, to use them more effectively, and to be able to align themselves with each word personally and within the scope of the safety program.

Be forewarned, these definitions may not be the classic dictionary version of the words. 

Responsibility defines it as follows: a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of.

The key word here is "obligation." As a manger, safety person or supervisor, you have been given a specific job description in your work. It is your specific list of roles and "responsibilities." It is that list of things that you are obligated to do, both morally and within the law. You are not allowed to step outside of those things without reprisal and consequence.

Meeting the minimum requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Code is one of those obligations. It is a condition of your employment. It is an obligation that has been thrust upon you and comes with your acceptance of the job. You cannot shirk this responsibility. It is yours.

Every employee is as much responsible to safety as senior managers. Senior managers may face their responsibilities on a larger scale. But those same responsibilities are there. Employees, meanwhile, face their responsibilities at the local level: in the things they have direct control of. Every person in an organization has responsibilities when it comes to safety. The least they are allowed to do is to meet the minimum requirements of the Safety Code.

Responsibilities are thrust upon you in the performance of your job duties. You have a moral and legal obligation to accept those responsibilities without question.

Responsibility is that list of things that you are required to respond to; by word or action.

Accountability defines it as: the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable.

Too many will get hung up on the liable part of accountability and make it all about the legal implications. But accountability is bigger than that. Take all three parts of the definition and put them together and you see accountability as a measure of one’s integrity.

Once you have accepted the responsibilities of your position, accountability is the measure of your performance in fulfilling those responsibilities. Will you barely meet the minimum standard or will you far surpass it? Will you do just enough to not get fired or will you above and beyond voluntarily? Can you feel good about how you handle your responsibilities or could you be doing more? Are you prepared to stand-up, feel proud and account for your performance?

What separates the true safety leaders is that they voluntarily choose to become the "go-to" person of those things for which they are responsible. They adopt an “I’ve got this” attitude. They have little fear of reprisal in being able to account and to justify for their actions. They act with integrity and in so doing, they have a clear conscience.

Accountability, in action, is found in your ability to account for your actions.

A Clearer Definition

To put it in shorter form, responsibility is an obligation thrust upon you; accountability is what you voluntarily do with that obligation. Responsibility can be shared. Accountability cannot.

The phrase "safety is a shared responsibility" is true, but incomplete. We are collectively responsible for safety. But, we are individually asked to account for our actions. So, if a truer statement were to be written, it would read as follows: Safety is a shared responsibility with each individual being accountable for their actions.

Your job description and the law outlines your responsibilities. Accountability is how well you will answer for the way you handled your responsibilities.

Responsibility: your obligation to take action.

Accountability: your ability to defend that action.


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Kevin Burns collaborates with safety departments, safety committees, management and front-line supervisors to accelerate safety programs. Through consulting services to create a personalized plan to accelerate safety teamwork, or a safety meeting speaking presentation to rally your employees around safety, Kevin helps improve engagement and teamwork in safety.

Kevin Burns is a management consultant, speaker and author of “PeopleWork: The Human Touch in Workplace Safety.” He believes that the best place to work is always the safest place to work.

Topics: safety speaker, safety leadership, kevin burns, peoplework