Toolbox Talks: Trust me when I say ‘you can’t trust me’


Near-miss reporting is incredibly valuable to an organization. It’s a chance to learn all the same lessons that an accident or event would teach us, without actually going through the pain of an accident or event.

In a previous article, “3 Do’s and 1 Don’t for More Near Miss Reporting,” we discussed how to encourage more of it. The one “don’t” covered was this: Don’t discipline based on a near-miss report. If you don’t want people to be disciplined, then perhaps the best way to prevent it is to keep the person reporting it completely anonymous. If you can’t find ’em, you can’t whack ’em.

On the surface, this may seem like a good idea. If all we want are the “lessons learned” then does it really matter “who” was involved? Aren’t we less interested in “who shot J.R.” and more interested in why the process was set up in a way that allowed J.R. to be shot in the first place? (If you don’t get this dated reference, trust me, it’s OK. It’s a cliffhanger from an early ’80s soap opera called Dallas, and for some reason, the whole nation was riveted by it.) If you’re confident your organization is severely lacking in trust, then anonymous reporting might be the place to start. However, anonymous reporting has its problems and it’s not the same as protecting the worker.

What’s wrong with anonymous reporting? Well, two things. First, any time there is a near-miss report, there is often the need to follow-up with the person who reported it to get a better understanding of what actually happened. It’s hard to truly understand the root cause of an event without talking to the people involved.

Second, anonymous reporting sends exactly the wrong message. Near-miss reporting shouldn’t be some terrible, negative event that makes people so nervous they need anonymity for fear of embarrassment or reprisal. If your workers won’t participate in near-miss reporting without it being anonymous, then there is no trust in the organization and you have a much bigger problem to address.

To be clear, anonymous reporting is NOT the same as protecting the worker. I’ve worked in places where completely anonymous reporting was the long-term norm. You couldn’t determine who wrote the report if you wanted to. This often resulted in reports yielding no benefit. Sometimes the information in the report was so incomplete the event was closed out with no corrective actions. We don’t understand what happened and have no way to get more information, so we just close it out with nothing gained.

Other times people would abuse the anonymous reporting to air personal grievances or make jokes. While both could be immensely entertaining (like the guy who was losing it because he didn’t know there would be free hot dogs and he packed his lunch! Or perhaps the third Yeti sighting on the plant access road this year.), they don’t really add any value. Anonymous reporting can quickly go off the rails.

What we really want is to protect the worker. This doesn’t require complete anonymity, from beginning to end; it requires discretion and tact. The worker’s identity should be protected by the people handling the near-miss report. Use discretion while gathering the facts. Once you have all the information and have determined the lessons learned, talk to the worker about their comfort level with communicating the event details to the rest of the organization. Ideally, the conversation should be, “We really appreciate you reporting this near-miss and would like to publicly thank you for your effort to make us all better. Are you comfortable with this or would you rather keep your name out of it?”

Again, if you are looking around your organization and thinking, “Right now, people don’t feel comfortable enough to report near misses,” then you may need an anonymous process until the team learns to not fear repercussions. But your goal should be to build enough trust to one day transition away from completely anonymous reporting.

We should have enough trust in our organization that we can celebrate near-miss reporting; not hide from it. You build that trust by always protecting the worker. When you always protect the worker, you eliminate the need for anonymity. Until you can get to that point, you are subtly sending the message that “we can’t be trusted to do the right thing. It’s best if you just keep your identity from us for your own protection. Trust me when I say, ‘You can’t trust me’.”

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.