An exhausted hospital worker forgets to change her gloves between patient visits. A long-haul truck driver eager to reach his destination speeds along a narrow highway. A new scientist at a research lab fails to correctly clean up a chemical spill, contaminating a shared workspace.
Whether on the road, in a hospital, at a laboratory, or in any other workspace, managers can find themselves struggling to get frontline employees to comply with regulations — even when those regulations are designed for safety and legality.
New research from MIT Sloan professoruncovers insight into why even senior-level employees sometimes overlook regulations.
In a 17-month study of laboratory scientists, Silbey learned that the scientists used a mix of formal rules and their own expert judgment to determine how and when they complied with regulations designed to prevent risks.
She found that in making their decisions, the scientists prioritized work tasks and collegiality with coworkers.
“This is what builds the scientific community, this attention to what others are doing,” Silbey said. “It’s also about relying on each other. These labs can function only because people pay close attention to what each other are doing, and that's something we should take note of.”
For their paper “Co-Opting Regulation: Professional Control Through Discretionary Mobilization of Legal Prescriptions and Expert Knowledge,” Silbey and co-author Joelle Evans, PhD ’12, shadowed and interviewed 30 scientists at a medical school research lab, attending the lab’s weekly meetings, team lunches, and safety inspections.
They learned that the scientists complied with all aspects of a regulation when their bodily safety, environment, work tasks, and collegiality with coworkers were all perceived to be at risk. Lab work that met those circumstances included appropriately handling centrifuges, accurately logging virus samples, and correctly disposing of sharp objects.
“Our observations show quite conclusively that when legal regulations address categories of concern for frontline professionals, these regulations are more likely to be systematically implemented,” Silbey writes.
When only one, two, or three of the four named hazards were present in the lab, the scientists handled regulations on a case-by-case basis using their experience and expertise to judge the appropriateness and effectiveness of the rules. If there were no regulations to address a hazard, then the scientists implemented and expected compliance with their own locally enacted rules.
“These scientists are people of some considerable status and authority,” Silbey said. “They have a great deal of autonomy. They don't necessarily interact frequently with the compliance people, and they substitute their own judgements.”
Don’t exclude frontline workers — collaborate with them
While the lab scientists in the study had status and authority, many frontline workers do not. Some of these workers might regard regulations as a threat, or even bury hazards or problems because they fear a regulation might cost them their job. But managers who want more regulation compliance among their frontline workers can still take direction from Silbey’s findings.
Those frontline employees have expertise; managers should make an effort to listen to them and encourage frequent interactions with regulatory officials. Managers should also avoid imposing a one-size-fits-all approach, instead adapting regulations to a particular situation.
“One-size-fits-all is the enemy of regulation and compliance,” Silbey said. “There has to be room to maneuver, to adjust to the local circumstances, while still keeping in mind the ultimate goal, which is to contain and reduce the hazardous risk.”