Tailoring Safer Systems

How good reporting makes your organization safer

Incident Reporting and Reporting Culture

Today, numerous companies are subject to regulatory requirements to have an incident reporting system at heir disposal. A corresponding tool and the associated process can be introduced relatively quickly, which often means that the regulatory requirements are met. But even if a reporting system is physically available, this does not say anything about the reporting culture and thus about the quality of the reporting system.

In this article I will look into the necessity and the advantage of a positive reporting culture and the prerequisites for it.

Of course, an incident reporting system is not only useful for companies that are legally obliged to do so. Every organization benefits from a good quality reporting system and a positive reporting culture, in that it becomes visible what is happening in the organization and weaknesses of the organization can be identified and remedied. Depending on the industry this leads to an increased level of safety and trust among stakeholders, or to higher efficiency and a decrease in production losses. With a positive reporting culture, a significant competitive advantage can be achieved. Furthermore, a reporting system is an important management tool for senior management.

Companies are complex, socio-technical systems, the property of which is that it is not possible to know, let alone understand, all of the interactions within the organization. With reports directly from inside the system, that is, from employees at all levels, an organization receives important information from the various areas. These reports can provide information about existing processes, risks, established standards, hidden or open deviations from processes, uncertainties of employees, etc. Such information enables the organization to identify weaknesses and thus to continuously improve and develop.

For this it is important to get away from the attitude that humans are the weakest link in the chain and that mistakes are seen as weaknesses. Rather, it is helpful to consider that employees come to work to do a good job. If mistakes happen, it is important to understand why this action made sense to the person in this specific situation. Will the employee just be punished for his mistake or – in an extreme case – be excluded from the organization, the system has not learned anything from the mistake and it is just a matter of time until some other employee will make the same mistake.

The first step is the introduction of a reporting process, which is supported by a more or less extensive IT tool, depending on the situation. Unfortunately, many organizations fail in the following step of establishing a positive reporting culture. Reasons for failing are insufficient employee trust in the organization, fear of suffering negative consequences or doubts about the effectivity of incident reports.

Employee trust

At the beginning, voluntarily reporting errors is a difficult task for many employees. It is often our first reflex to look around to see whether someone has noticed our mistake or not. We would most like to sweep the mistake under the carpet, especially when nothing has happened, which fortunately is mostly the case. This on the one hand out of shame, on the other hand out of fear of negative consequences, be it direct consequences in connection with our employment or negative reactions from our colleagues. Reporting an error means making yourself vulnerable to others – superiors and colleagues – and requires a high level of trust.

Even if a colleague’s mistake is noticed, the hesitation to report it is often great. This may be because the person who committed the mistake is a superior, or you may not want to be perceived as someone who denounces the other persons. There may also be the fear that someone else might report your own mistakes.

In order to be able to deal with errors openly, a high degree of trust of the employees in the organization with all their employees must be present. It is important that errors are reported solely to improve the system and that the message does not contain any hidden personal agenda. Employees need to know that they will be valued and not punished for their reports.

Anonymous reporting

Of course, an organization may substitute trust by anonymity. However, no organization can fully guarantee this anonymity. Furthermore, anonymity significantly limits the organization’s ability to learn from a report, since a detailed analysis of the report is hardly possible. In a first step, such a substitution may make sense, but it should not stay that way. In a sustainable, positive reporting culture, anonymity hinders the organization’s ability to learn.

Doubts on the effectiveness of a reporting process

The step of submitting a report is not only associated with the expectation that the report will not have a negative effect on the reporting person, but also that the report will be taken seriously. If there is no feedback from the reporting process, the reports will soon be viewed as meaningless and a waste of time. The number or reports will decrease.

For the credibility of the reporting system, it is essential that the reporter receives feedback on the reporting person. This can be a comprehensible reason why the report is not being followed up or information about what will be done with it. It is also important to connect changes that are introduced on the basis of a report in communication with the corresponding report – in a mature reporting culture even with the reporting person itself. This further underlines the meaningfulness of the reporting system.

What needs to be reported?

Reporting is often limited to reports of events that have already occurred. These are events that must be reported in accordance with the reporting process, or events where reporting is voluntary, i.e. at the discretion of the employee. These backward-looking messages are without any doubt useful and help companies to make adjustments to the system to make it more robust based on past events.

It often happens that people in the organization say that they have seen this event coming for a long time and that it was only a matter of time for the event to happen. It could have been avoided proactively. For this reason, it is important to give employees also the opportunity to express concerns and fears in the reporting system. Ideally, the employees also actively participate in problem solving through a suggestion for improvement.


The introduction of an effective reporting system is a challenge that should not be underestimated. The implementation of the process and, if necessary, an IT tool follows the demanding cultural change within the organization. In order to achieve this, numerous employees’ fears must be addressed, which initially stand in the way of this change. If the employees can be shown in a top-down approach that they can trust the organization and that the newly implemented reporting system will bring benefits to everyone together, the ideal conditions are created for a cultural change towards a positive reporting culture.

Fabian Landherr

Managing Director at safety & risk solutions GmbH

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