Differentiating Responsibility and Accountability in Health and Safety
An interesting issue I’ve faced right throughout my career has been when I've tried to explain the semantics around accountability and responsibility. Whilst I'm probably not alone in this, and the topic isn’t new, nor particularly engaging, and honestly is a topic that with a little research will present you with a plethora of books, articles, blogs, discourse and opinion - it is still a topic relevant to HSE and worthy of a post.
This post is intended to prompt thought around the assertion that because responsibility and accountability are often used interchangeably and aren't universally understood as they pertain to health and safety, it creates confusion, reduces action and performance, limits positive outcomes and can be detrimental to the success of your health and safety strategy – ultimately resulting in higher incident rates and harm to your people, assets, stakeholders and possibly to the environment.
Why Accountability and Responsibility
Accountability and responsibility have always carried certain negative connotation, and therefore implications. I personally think this is the result of their continued usage predominantly in the negative form, there because of this is a realistic fear associated with both. I don't know of any individuals that would willingly accept the accountability or responsibility for something if they felt that the result wouldn't benefit them - so why would we not want to clearly differentiate what we mean when we say accountable and responsible in the context of health and safety and understand ways in which we could turn it around?
Something we need to understand is that those ‘shall’, ‘should’, ‘may’, ‘can’ statements we like to include in our health and safety documents as we align ourselves to international standards such as ISO 45001, are all some form of accountability or responsibility statement. In this, words matter.
When designing your HSE Management Systems (HSE-MS), clarity is important because in nearly each and every aspect of an HSE-MS, you’ll find the necessity to outline what needs to be achieved and how it should be achieved. Allocating accountability and responsibility will provide clarity, help to avoid confusion, and most importantly it will also help avoid the all too common mentality of ‘deferment’ or a tendency for people to see that implementing requirements in the HSE-MS is SEP (‘someone else’s problem’).
Defining Accountability and Responsibility
Accountability: [n.] is the quality or state of being subject to being accountable.
An interesting paper written by Apostolis Dimitropoulos and Vasso Kindo titled ‘Accountability in Greek Education’ discusses that the westernised term accountability is derived etymologically from the Modern Greek term ‘λογοδοσία’ (logodosia), which was understood as someone being “held responsible for giving an account of one’s actions”. Whilst logodosia wasn’t so widely used even back then, the related term ‘logos’ was more common and generally related to someone ‘giving their word’ (usually between husband and wife during their nuptials).
Accountability is simply the obligation or willingness for an individual to accept and account for their actions and to provide a transparent justification, reasoning, causes, or motives for their actions.
Many societies have embedded this into their cultures, even from a very young age - ‘my word is my bond’, ‘let’s shake on it’, ‘pinkie swear’, are all forms of someone becoming ‘accountable’. Measuring accountability is a little more difficult because it can only be deemed as having been met or not after the completion of a task or objective, sometimes in the business context we have an ongoing accountability, for example, the CEO's accountability to shareholders will remain until they step down. The interchangeable term for accountability is not therefore responsibility, but answerability.
Accountability is somewhat of a neutral concept, it implies neither blame or punishment nor for the quality of outcomes, but the intangible concept of an individual’s ability to delivery and uphold their commitments and agreements (i.e. they kept a secret, they performed to the best of their abilities, they operated in the best interests of the company).
As mentioned earlier, accountability carries the implication that the individual is able to clearly, and willingly report out on their actions and choices. In the health and safety context, we all have some degree of accountability. In the things that we have ownership of, we are accountable. For example, I’m accountable for performing my duties in a manner consistent with my training, skills and experience and I’m accountable for turning up on time and fulfilling the expectations of my manager whilst I’m at work. For each of these things, I'm accountable to articulate that I've performed in a manner earlier agreed upon.
Examples accountability statements
The CEO was accountable to shareholders for the safety performance of the organisation and explained the performance for the last fiscal year at the annual shareholders meeting.
The manager was accountable to the CEO for the Annual HSE Objectives but explained that the organisation wasn’t able to meet the objectives because of insufficient resources.
The employee was accountable for performing their duties in line with their expertise and easily met their annual performance targets.
Responsibility: [n.] the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or having control over someone.
Responsibility relates to choices and actions of a person as it pertains to a task or activity. In the business context, it generally relates to the actions a person does or doesn’t do, or the behaviours that they exhibit or don’t exhibit relating to something that needs to be done.
Responsibility in itself doesn’t imply blame or credit, the organisational feeling towards the outcome does that. In this sense, responsibility is value-neutral.
However, responsibility is generally associated with causality. This is concept that the individual’s choices and actions resulted in a given consequence – either good or bad. Unfortunately, as an industry we have a history of using accountability to blame people, or make them suffer negative consequences because they didn't meet an objective that they were deemed responsible for - "why didn't the team meet their objective, it was your responsibility!" is much more common than "you were responsible for team performance and you far exceeded expectations - well done". Unfortunately, often what we see is that when there's positive outcomes, there's a tendency for others (next-level managers) to retrospectively accept the responsibility.
Examples responsibility statements
The CEO is responsible for providing sufficient resources so that the managers can meet the organisation’s Annual HSE Objectives and targets are met
The manager is responsible for organising and monitoring the HSE team so that they are able to meet the Annual HSE Objectives
The employee is responsible for completing their assigned tasks and therefore contributing to completion of the annual HSE Objectives
The Non-Exclusivity of Accountability and Responsibility
This is the real challenging part to explain to many people. Accountability and responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive, they often coexist and this is especially prevalent when we discuss health and safety. For example, the CEO is accountable to the Board and Shareholder for organisational safety performance, but he/she is also responsible for acting safely and demonstrating safety leadership in the workplace. The Manager is accountable for ensuring fitness for work of the employees, but he/she is also responsible ensuring that each employee has completed their annual medical. The employee is both accountable and responsible for ensuring their personal health. Confusing – yes, if it isn’t made clear to everyone.
A simplified way two-factor way to explain the difference is that whilst both accountability and responsibility pertain to actions and choices, (a) accountability pertains to the reporting of results (answerability), whilst responsibility is pertains the ‘doing’ and that (b) accountability cannot be delegated, but responsibility can (sometimes multiple times).
How Can You Benefit by Definition
The unfortunate reality is that confusion between accountability and responsibility won’t be resolved by this post. The terms will continue to be confusing to your workforce and the need for continual education and awareness is paramount. Without this, a common outcome will be the omnipresent fear of your workforce accepting either. Jobs won't get done properly, efficiently or in the best interests of the company.
Another benefit of defining and educating your employees on the terms is the ability to also clear associate rewards with accountability and responsibility. Linking terminology to performance objectives, initially through job descriptions, allows employees to clearly understand who's doing what and from whom they get reports from on objectives. Employees to will innately do a cost benefit analysis, and when the positives outweigh the negatives, they'll willingly accept accountability or responsibility. If I'm clearly designated as accountable for a key deliverable, and the potential benefit is a promotion, I'm much more willing to accept that accountability and the associated responsibilities of managing a team to make it happen.
Ultimately, defining the two terms, and outlining the associated benefits and consequences allows your workforce, unfettered by fear, will draw a conclusion on their intended actions and behaviours and understand with more clarity why they’re doing what they’re doing.