Fed up with management not taking you seriously? We outline strategies for
gaining their attention, including talking to them in language they understand,
by Nic Paton
You’re worried. You’ve identified a worsening health trend among the staff
in your workplace – increasing sickness absence, for instance – and all your
experience tells you firm action needs to be taken to tackle it. But can you
get the human resources director, let alone the chief executive, to listen?
Apparently, as the latest research conducted for Occupational Health shows
this month, too often the answer is "no".
The clearest complaint among occupational health professionals polled in the
survey is that management do not take them or, more worryingly, their function
seriously, and that occupational health practitioners too often do not have
access to the board-level decision-makers they would need.
Yet with health and safety, and public health, creeping ever higher up both
the corporate and the political agenda, it should be easier now than ever to
press the case for occupational health.
Find the bottom line
However, the fastest way to attract a chief executive’s attention is, it
seems, still the most tried and trusted one – through his or her bottom line.
Talk in pound signs – what the problem is costing the company and,
critically, what your solution will save it – and you’re almost certain to get
people listening, says Anne Robinson, health care manager at British Gas
Robinson joined British Gas Services in 1997 and set about formulating an
occupational health scheme that focused on the engineers who maintained and
Her success in helping to reduce work-related sickness led her last year to
win the Health at Work Award in the prestigious Personnel Today 2000 Awards.
Days lost, turnover lost, numbers of staff lost and the overall cost to the
business – these are all arguments guaranteed to get managers listening, she
"You must be able to demonstrate that you can act to save money, or say
that you are losing money here, or there is a significant risk," she says.
Work out what it is costing the company
In Robinson’s case, she secured funding by outlining what it was costing the
company by simply waiting for work-related health problems to occur, and what
British Gas Services could save by providing a support network for its workers.
But building up credibility is an on-going process, one that is earned from
day one, and can be lost just as quickly, she argues.
Right from the start, at the job interview, be clear about what is expected
from you. There is no point sitting there thinking, "I can change that
later" – it just doesn’t happen, she argues.
Learn as much as you can about the business so you can start to see why
management are making the decisions they do.
"Yes, you need to wear your professional badge, but you also have to be
a team player, you have to contribute to the team and contribute to the
business," she says.
Also, you can’t go wrong with a management qualification, she argues, as it
gives you the confidence to speak the language of commerce, and link your
objectives to the business objectives.
For managers to know your background – and they may even have been on the
same course as you – can be a real bonus in helping to build up credibility.
Get support of a board member
Getting the support of a key board member, preferably the chief executive or
managing director, to champion your cause is also vital, if not always
And if you simply want to get results, but perhaps not all the glory, you
may also need to be prepared to let them take your initiative to the board, she
Tenacity, learning influencing skills and a knowledge of business can all
help, she adds. "It’s about trying to be a joined -up professional,"
According to Paul Kearns, a consultant with Personnel Works, a human
resources management consultancy based in Bristol, building up credibility with
management – whether in the private or public sector – is the key to a
"Anything that does not have pound signs in it tends not to win the
argument, or does not get given the same priority," he says.
For OH professionals, this often means thinking strategically – thinking how
their managers think – as well as making sure they are excellent at their
day-to-day job, he argues.
"Most managers underestimate the effect that lack of attention to
things like occupational health has on their workforce.
"If a machine breaks down everyone runs around like headless chickens
until it is up and running again properly, but they do not worry if someone
cannot get the time to see the OH nurse about something. But it is amazing how
demotivating that can be."
While there are health and safety issues which it is imperative the OH
practitioner makes clear cannot be flouted, it is also important – and a key
part in building up credibility – to be prepared to be flexible, to think
whether a suitable compromise can be reached.
Having a fair but firm reputation – and occasionally showing flexibility
where appropriate – makes it much easier to convince management when something
is wrong and needs action, now, he argues. "A realistic, mature,
intelligent, consistent approach to occupational health will win more friends
than a judgemental approach," he says.
Small things, too, can help – a tidy office, always making sure files are to
hand, responding quickly to requests or, if information is not available, being
honest, saying so and then delivering it when you say you will.
"If you do not have credibility it is bound to undermine your standing
in the organisation," says Kearns.
When it comes to presenting a case, be clear in what’s wrong, why it’s wrong
– but be constructive – and what can be done about it, he argues. However,
"a little passion never goes amiss", he adds.
Be clear, concise and succinct
Jargon, particularly complex medical or legal terms, or lists of European or
UK regulations, will often leave busy managers glazed.
"Do not use jargon – be clear, concise and succinct. For instance, do
not put regulations at the front of the paper. Use anything that grabs the
interest, then keep the regulations half-way down page two.
"If you are having to resort to a heavy-handed approach you have
probably lost the argument already in some respects," he adds.
Colin Carmichael, a consultant at Organisational Consulting, a London-based
management consultancy specialising in changing business attitudes, agrees.
Before OH professionals can expect management to take them or their function
seriously, they must ensure they cannot be faulted on their day-to-day work, he
"People must make sure they have got the basics right first, so their
day-to-day delivery is spot on," says Carmichael.
After that it is a question of making sure, not only that you are thinking
as your managers think, but that they appreciate where you are coming from.
Managers will be less likely to listen or understand if they believe the OH
department is introspective, or too focused on occupational health to the
detriment of the rest of the business or organisation.
"You need to invest the time to get alongside senior management and
understand what their agenda is. Be honest about those areas where you cannot
deliver something," he says.
Taking too long, being inflexible or making decisions that do not suit the
needs of the business can all damage the perception of occupational health in
OH will never be top of the agenda
And, at the end of the day, like it or not, OH professionals have to accept
they are unlikely ever to be at the top of their management’s agenda, he
"Some in the OH professions are being over-ambitious in wanting to get
on the board agenda. For managers, day-to-day revenue and product development
will always be more important," he adds.
But if OH practitioners can, for instance, show they have improved staff
retention and sickness, this is a real, quantifiable benefit to the business.
Even if OH is not top of the corporate tree, an argument like that is
something managers will clearly value, he adds.
Practical, user-friendly guidance for OH practitioners on how to build up
relationships with managers is something that is sorely lacking, admits Dr
Peter Verow, consultant occupational physician at Sandwell NHS Trust.
But, as a runner-up behind Anne Robinson in the Personnel Today awards last
year, Dr Verow knows all about getting management behind him.
The crux of his success in the awards was in extending his work in the Trust
on dealing with absence from work through sickness to local GP services and
independently with employers in the area.
There is no doubt that explaining clearly what sickness absence was costing,
and how much money could be saved, helped his arguments, but Sandwell’s
management was already well behind his drive, he admits, securing him £200,000
each year for the last three years for his innovative work.
Ensure there is a suitable forum
For OH professionals looking to get their message across, one way forward is
to ensure there is an appropriate forum where your voice can be heard.
This body, whether it is the safety committee, health at work committee or
some other forum, must have a high-level management representative on it,
preferably the chief executive or human resources director, to give it
However, there is no point making a case if it is not what they want to hear
– it may sound obvious, but if management are not listening, or do not appear
to understand the occupational health function, ask them what they do want from
occupational health, he argues.
"Find out what their priorities are for the next two years," he
Speaking in a language they understand, and explaining what effect either
taking action or, critically, not taking action will cost the business, is the
key to success, Dr Verow explains.
"You have got to target it with costs and a business plan. If you have
not written it up as a business proposal they are not going to listen to
you," he says.
Even if you do find a receptive ear, don’t necessarily expect results
immediately; effecting real change, especially in a big organisation, can often
But if the real change is that management are finally listening and taking
OH seriously, then success in the workplace is almost bound to follow.
Organisational Consulting Group, 020 7623 5594
Personnel Works, 0117 914 6984
Positive Presence, 020 7586 7925
Lesley Everett, LE Consultants, 01344 427977
Ten Top Tips
– Think how they think: if money is their bottom line, explain what not
taking action will cost them
– Judge how far you can be flexible and be prepared to bend rules
– Work on building up credibility, be professional at the nuts and bolts of
– Work with people, not against them
– Invest time in understanding the management’s agenda
– Get a management qualification, learn management skills
– Talk to management in their language, don’t work in isolation
– Manage expectations – accept that some things take longer to achieve
– Find a board-level champion
– Identify a suitable forum from which to put your views
How to create a positive image
If you feel uncomfortable, are worried about what you’re wearing or how you
look, it can have a major impact on how you are perceived by colleagues and
managers, according to image consultants.
Laurel Herman, managing director of Positive Presence, a "personal
image optimisation" consultancy firm based in London, says grooming,
voice, body language and facial expression all have a beneficial role to play
in improving your authority in the workplace.
How you speak can also be as important as what you say, she argues, with a
listener often influenced simply by your tone of voice, timbre and pace of
speech as much as what they are saying.
"The voice is very much part of the image identity kit, giving you
authority, approachability, sincerity and attractiveness. You can adjust the
tone, pace, pitch and passion. Test your voice on a third party and get them to
give you feedback on how they perceive you," she says.
When listening to someone, concentrate on them, don’t tap your fingers or
fidget, listen to their answers, she suggests.
Facial expression can also affect how you are perceived. If you look anxious
or frown a lot this can be taken as showing a lack of confidence, even if it’s
And if people think you are not confident, you are not going to inspire
confidence and trust. Work on appearing relaxed and on top of your job, she
Dress, appearance, personal grooming and body language present the strongest
messages about us and the points we want to get across, adds image consultant
Lesley Everett of LE Consultants.
"With a staggering 93 per cent of the overall impression we make based
on the way we ‘package’ ourselves – that is our appearance, voice and body
language – and only the remaining 7 per cent based on the words we use, we
cannot afford to become complacent with our image if we want to maximise our
professionalism and credibility and be taken seriously," she says.
Walking with an upright posture signals confidence and capability, as does
making eye contact, a firm handshake and smiling when you are talking to
people, she adds.
"If you’re not sure whether it’s appropriate to shake hands, always opt
to do so. It will increase your professionalism and tactile behaviour like this
scores points," she adds. But it is worth paying attention to clammy
View your clothing and grooming as a language. Your audience will decode
this language and subconsciously or consciously, gather information about you,