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When the term "workplace safety" comes up, most people may think of construction sites and hazardous materials. But health and well-being is an issue for all workplaces—and not all dangers are physical.

In fact, the social and emotional challenges that employees can face on the job—from discrimination and harassment to lack of recognition and feedback—can be even more insidious. Recognizing this, many enlightened companies have become more determined to foster a healthy work environment with an emphasis on clear values and open communication.

“A safe work environment is one where people feel comfortable having challenging conversations with their manager," said Rachel Ernst, vice president of employee success at Reflektive, a San Francisco-based company that provides a suite of people-management programs. "Psychological safety is one of the most foundational things a company needs to set employees up for success.”

Rachel Ernst, vice president of employee success at Reflektive

From Day One talked with Ernst about the key strategies she recommends to companies aiming to foster a healthy corporate culture. Among them:

1.) Start with values

Ernst said that anyone building a company from scratch, or managing a company at a turning point, would do well to determine their values and build them into the core of the business.

“For companies looking to build a healthy culture, values are incredibly important to start with. Hire for, reward for, and act out those values on a daily basis.”

One of those values, Ernst said, should be “making sure that people feel comfortable voicing their opinions. In order to build this kind of environment, it's key that leaders are out there and are visible." This means participating in team meetings, company meetings, and one-on-one meetings, and being fully present in daily interactions.

2.) Be proactive

Employees are more likely to speak up when they feel that their voices matter. Ernst advocates a three-step process: ask, listen, and act. In this process, managers ask a question, express that they heard what their employees had to say, and communicate what is going to happen in response.

“Ultimately, we as managers exist to make sure employees feel valued in the organization and that they’re able to be productive. If managers listen to and take action based on employee feedback, employees are more likely to speak up and voice opinions or concerns.”

3.) Make training a priority

Anti-harassment training is an essential step for companies new and old. Ernst’s own company holds a mandatory "Creating a Safe Work Environment" training session each year: two hours for managers, one hour for employees. While the company's home state of California requires that training occur only every other year for managers, Ernst recommends doing this type of training annually and globally, regardless of regional minimum standards.

“Anything you do training on communicates the message that it’s important to the culture. You're saying to your employees: a safe work culture is very important to us, and this is what that means to us; when something contradictory to this happens, it’s not okay, and you need to let us know so we can take the right steps to address it."

4.) Create a feedback system

Feedback shouldn't be a random process. Having a system in place encourages employees to think regularly about their work experience. It also creates a forum for individuals who may be less likely to address issues they’re seeing on their own.

“It takes a system to really encourage the right thought process and create the right cadence for feedback to happen,” Ernst said.

5.) Address issues of all sizes

Taking small issues seriously can prevent larger, ongoing problems, as well as build confidence and trust among employees. “I’d prefer a culture where people say more things than less. We can always get ahead of little behaviors that have the potential to turn into something much bigger," said Ernst.

Employees may be unaware about how their behavior is perceived. "There are a lot of times that the behavior is very unintentional, and helping the employee understand how it could be perceived in a certain light makes all the difference. Giving someone the opportunity to change a behavior is also important.”

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6.) Build up the positive

According to Ernst, it takes three pieces of positive feedback to open a person up to constructive criticism. Systems that consistently reinforce employee successes provide a steady stream of positive feedback, making workers less defensive about feedback that might be otherwise considered negative. The idea is to create a growth-oriented mindset among employees.

One measure Ernst suggests for setting the tone is a recognition wall, where individual and team accomplishments are celebrated. “A recognition wall is a mechanism that makes it easy and fun to give positive feedback. People will be more responsive to constructive conversations because they know that they’re supported and people believe that they can grow.”

(For more information on how to implement real-time feedback and recognition walls at your organization, download Reflektive’s e-book “The Ultimate Guide to Real-Time Feedback.”)

7.) Be open with criticism

“As humans, we’re not built perfectly. If I have a good manager, he or she wants to help me understand what I’m doing well so I can continue doing that, as well as how I’m standing in my own way sometimes — whether it’s in interactions with colleagues or customers. Taking the time to say those things reassures me that my manager cares about me as a person and values me," said Ernst. "Employees are then more likely to feel motivated to want to work for you and feel comfortable asking for help.”

8.) Don't avoid the difficult conversation

Building personal rapport between managers and employees can help foster the trust needed to have difficult conversations. “If a manager shows confidence in being able to handle a challenging conversation with you, you feel more comfortable sharing with them, knowing that they will be able to handle it and take the right action. Having those harder conversations deepens trust,” Ernst said.

9.) Keep it frequent

Managers should have regular check-ins with their employees. Keeping the conversations frequent helps ensure that there isn’t any pent-up feedback that hasn’t been given to the employee. Companies tend to be moving away from the traditional annual review, said Ernst, because employees would hear feedback from a manager about something from months before. The quicker an issue comes up, the faster an employee can adjust and grow. Definitely avoid: managers canceling one-on-one meetings and failing to reschedule them.

10.) Encourage employees to communicate candidly

“Peer-to-peer feedback is one of the most important ways to motivate people. Employees are very interested in what people think about them,” said Ernst. The idea is to create bonds of trust—not just between workers and managers, but all through the staff.
"When you don’t, you’re much more likely to go somewhere where you feel better connected with the people that you work with, because we all seek that connection as humans."

Carina Livoti is a New York-based writer. She earned a degree in English at Harvard and spends a lot of time wondering whether strangers wearing earbuds on the subway are actually listening to anything