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Priority or Core Value – What’s the Difference?

When it comes to corporate safety culture, there is one—even if we don’t initially see it.

Contributor: Chris Williams, CAE, Executive Director, VPPPA

“Safety is our top priority at (insert company name here).”

It’s a line we hear from hundreds of executives, safety managers and marketing teams around the world when asked about their corporate safety culture. And, for many of these companies, they mean it—safety IS a priority, and their programs, processes and lagging indicator performance reflect that belief.

Along those same lines, we also hear from those who espouse that “safety is a core value.” And, much like their peers who proclaim that safety is a priority, many have the programs and record to back up that statement. So, what’s the difference? Priority, core value—isn’t it just semantics as long as you have that commitment to worker safety and world-class performance?

When it comes to workplace safety and health, the answer is…on the surface, yes. But, when you dig deeper, there is a difference. A big one.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a priority as, “something that is very important and must be dealt with before other things”. Core value, meanwhile, is defined by Cambridge as a “value, belief, etc. that is basic and more important than any other.” On the surface, one could (and would) argue that these definitions are similar—even interchangeable.

But there’s more to it than that. When viewed through a business (and life) lens, it becomes clear that there is a distinct difference. Take the Harvard Business Review which, in an article published in July 2002 by Patrick Lencioni (author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team), defines core values as, “…the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones.” In that same paragraph, Lencioni goes on to remark that, “…(Jim) Collins and (Jerry) Porras (in their book Built to Last) succinctly define core values as being inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain.”

Now do you see the difference?

To put this in real-world life terms, think of it this way—many of us, myself included, use New Year’s Day to make resolutions that, in the afterglow of New Year’s Eve celebrations, we vehemently identify and commit to. For example, each New Year’s, we might proclaim that “my priority this year is to get to the gym and lose weight.” In fact, statistics show that 12% of new gym members join in January. Yet, the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association found that 50% of all new health club members quit within the first six months of signing up and that, by March of each year, new member attendance has “diminished considerably.”

But why? Wasn’t getting in shape our priority?

It turns out, priorities change. Why does new member gym attendance diminish considerably by March? For most of the country, March marks the return of pleasant weather. Instead of going to the gym, our priorities might have shifted to spending time with friends on the patio, visiting that local brewery or winery (drink responsibly and always use a designated driver), or taking the kids to baseball/softball/soccer/track practice. In short, our priorities are affected by external environmental factors—literally and figuratively, climate reorders our priorities.

The same can be argued for safety and health cultures—that, when safety is a priority, it can be affected by the safety climate within a company or work site at any given time. That climate is shaped by any number of factors, from workforce shortages (internal) to the economy (external). While temporary, safety climate can have tremendous effects on a company’s overall safety culture if protecting the health and well-being of every worker isn’t ingrained in every employee.

Like, say, a core value.

In life, much like business, a core value is a cornerstone belief that influences behavior and decision-making. Core values are so ingrained in one’s belief system that they operate in the background—we don’t think about them when making a decision because it’s part of who we are. The same goes for safety as a core value. From day one, every employee is taught that there is no compromise when it comes to workplace safety. It’s ingrained in our psyche to the point where decisions at all levels—from front-line workers to the CEO—are guided by a subconscious commitment to the safety and health of every employee, not just oneself.

None of this takes away from those companies who proclaim safety as a priority and who back that up with a commitment to a total safety culture that focuses on sending everyone home in the same condition in which they arrived. Indeed, there are many examples of companies like this who would argue that the safety as a priority vs. core value debate is semantics at its finest (the old to-may-to vs. to-mah-to). However, a persuasive case can be made that there is a difference—one need only look to the lagging indicator performance of VPP sites compared to industry averages to see that there is merit to holding safety as a core, a company-wide value that directly influences every worker’s decision-making process, no matter how big or small the decision.

VPPPA member S&B Engineers and Constructors answers the question best. When describing its safety culture, S&B begins with the following: “We make NO compromise with respect to Morality, Ethics, and Safety. If a design or work practice is perceived to be unsafe, we do not proceed until the issue is resolved.”

That’s safety as a core value.

About the Author

Chris Williams, CAE joined the VPPPA as its new Executive Director in July 2022. Chris brings with him more than 22 years of professional nonprofit experience – primarily in the construction industry – where he successfully led membership growth, program development, and safety and health for a variety of organizations.

Before joining VPPPA, Williams was the Director of Membership for the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (AWCI). During his tenure at AWCI, Williams served as the project manager for the association’s new SMS, redesigned membership categories, and developed AWCI’s Emerging Leaders Program to develop the next generation of industry leaders. Williams also served as the Director of Member Safety & Regulatory Initiatives for the Association of Builders and Contractors where he created the association’s current STEP program and delivered testimony that has been successful in impacting numerous OSHA proposed rules. In 2010, he received his Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).