4 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Violence in the Workplace

Employees should feel comfortable reporting issues

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Businesses have a duty to provide employees with a safe workplace. So they should be prepared to handle threats of violence, particularly since workplace homicides are on the rise.

Violent deaths in the workplace rose to 866 in 2016 from 703 in 2015, according to the latest report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Five hundred of those deaths were homicides, including 394 shootings. Only transportation incidents caused more workplace fatalities (2,083) than did violent incidents in 2016.




Incidents of violence are more common in certain industries, said Travis Vance, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Charlotte, N.C. Particularly in the health care industry, patients might hit or kick an employee, or a disgruntled family member may lash out after a patient dies in surgery, he said.

In any industry, however, an employee may get upset about things that happen at work and exact revenge, he added, noting that issues unrelated to work may also prompt outbursts. Perhaps someone was served with divorce papers at work or an abusive spouse showed up at the worksite intending to cause harm.

Employers should create an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting work-related and personal issues, Vance said. Then the employer can take appropriate precautions. For example, if a worker reports that her spouse threatened her, the employer can make sure that the receptionist or security guard has a picture of the spouse and can call 911 if necessary.

Here are some additional tips to mitigate the risk of violence in the workplace.

1. Continuously Screen Workers

"An organization's workforce is its biggest asset and its biggest risk," said Alonzo Martinez, associate counsel of compliance at HireRight, an employment background-screening company headquartered in Irvine, Calif. The first thing an employer should do to secure the workforce is to ensure that it hires the right people, he said. "Background screening and periodic rescreening are key."

Employers should ensure that job candidates are who they say they are, have the credentials that they purport to have and meet the organization's risk profile in terms of previous criminal history. "But circumstances change," he noted. "That's why it's important for employers to periodically rescreen their workforce to ensure that they identify new and emerging threats to their organization."

Through monitoring and rescreening, an employer might be able to identify and address an issue before it leads to violence.

It is a good idea for employers to conduct background investigations—to the extent they are legal, Vance said. A number of federal, state and local requirements exist for—and place limitations on—background screening. For example, many cities and states have "ban-the-box" laws that prohibit employers from asking about a job candidate's criminal history until they make a conditional offer. Federal and state laws also require employers to provide certain notices and follow specific guidelines when using background information to make employment decisions.

2. Limit Access

Employers should use more than one approach to help mitigate threats to the workforce, Martinez said. Organizations should consider granting unrestricted access to the worksite only to employees and visitors who have successfully completed the organization's background check. Similarly, employers may want to restrict access to the company's data network. Under such a policy, those who haven't been adequately vetted should be escorted while onsite and should receive restricted guest access to the network, he said.

Employers may want to ask visitors for a copy of their driver's license before their visit and ask them to consent to a limited prescreening, noted Dr. Todd Simo, HireRight's managing director of transportation and drug and health screening.

Employers can also invite local law-enforcement officers to look at the worksite's physical security, Vance said. That way, if the police are called to address an emergency, they will already know the facility's layout.

3. Don't Discriminate

"It's important to remember that workers with previous criminal history should not automatically be excluded from hire," Martinez said.

Employers should offer such candidates a fair chance at hiring by conducting an assessment of the individual's criminal history and how it relates to the job, he said. "Ending criminal recidivism starts with hiring ex-offenders." He noted that periodic background checks should be conducted for all workers "equally across the organization."

4. Monitor for Substance Abuse

Another way to reduce the risk of violence at work is to address employee drug abuse and related problems, Vance noted. Opioid abuse has reached a critical level in the United States and can lead to work and family troubles. So businesses may want to refer workers to an employee assistance program that can help identify and resolve issues.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is an employee assistance program?]

A robust employee drug- and alcohol-testing program can lower the risk of violence, Simo said. Substance abuse can alter a person's mental state and make someone more inclined to do something impulsive, such as hurt a co-worker or steal money, he added. Therefore, he recommends monitoring workers for impairment and testing employees in accordance with federal and state laws.

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