Complacency Presents Challenge for Preventing Workplace Violence

By Bill Leonard Aug 10, 2010
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Eight employees of a Connecticut beer distributor were killed on Aug. 3, 2010, by a co-worker, who then committed suicide. Two other employees, including the senior vice president in charge of human resources for Hartford Distributors in Manchester, Conn., were wounded in the shooting rampage.

This shooting—as have workplace shootings before it—raises questions and discussion about why it happened and if it could have been avoided. Experts and workplace security specialists say that most violent incidents can be prevented if employers take appropriate steps, such as implementing periodic security audits, conflict resolution training and a zero-tolerance policy for workplace threats.

Have a Plan, Audit It

“It really helps to have an action plan in place, and businesses need to appoint someone to stay on top of the organization’s action plan and security,” said Linda Snyder, a principal with ReGroup Business Solutions in Auburn, Maine.

“The idea that ‘it could never happen here’ is a very dangerous and risky attitude to have,” said John Toay, a risk management consultant based in Murrell’s Inlet, S.C. “We have a short attention span in this country, so employers and their managers have to find ways to be more vigilant.”

Employers should perform security audits at least once a year, and every six months is even better, Toay said.

“Personnel changes, people are hired and promoted, so you need to make sure all your supervisors understand their responsibilities,” said Toay.

One mistake many businesses make is to fail to assign responsibility for overseeing the security plan to one person. Disconnected or confused lines of communication can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to workplace security and crisis situations.

“If one person is responsible for an organization’s security and crisis management plan, then it should be part of [his or her] annual job duties or goals to conduct the security audits,” Toay said. “This should guarantee that someone reviews the plans and keeps them up-to-date.”

Investigate All Threats

A zero-tolerance policy for threatening and harassing behavior is another key preventive element employers should have in place, according to Edwin G. Foulke, a partner in the Atlanta law office of Fisher and Phillips. Zero tolerance for harassing behavior doesn’t have to mean automatic disciplinary action or termination. Instead, a zero-tolerance policy can mean that an employer pledges to investigate all credible reports of threatening or harassing behavior.

“It really doesn’t make sense for an employer not to have a zero-tolerance policy in place,” said Foulke, who served as the assistant secretary of the Department of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the tenure of President George W. Bush. “By investigating reports of threats and harassing behavior, employers send an important message that this type behavior is not tolerated, and also it can help keep situations in check and from spiraling out of control.”

See the Signs

Foulke says employers that are aware of problem behaviors and take steps to help employees deal with stress and workplace conflicts can defuse bad situations before they get much worse.

“Most workplace violence incidents happen because an employee or maybe the spouse of an employee believes that they have lost control of their lives,” Foulke said. “Offering benefits like EAPs [employee assistance programs] and providing information on how employees can find counseling services does help, and just showing you care about a person’s well-being can do wonders.”

Snyder said that there generally are signs that employees are under stress and could potentially lash out in the workplace.

“Nobody just suddenly snaps and starts shooting up an office,” Snyder said. “And if you pay attention, you can easily pick up on the signs. Not everyone is going to take it to the extreme and start shooting, so it’s difficult to predict how anyone is going to react. But by being aware of problems and troubling behavior patterns, you can certainly take steps to help keep the situation under control.”

Providing employees an outlet to vent their problems and frustrations can be very helpful. Some managers offer open-door policies, which can work well. However, many employees may not be comfortable discussing workplace conflicts or complaints personally, so hotlines or web sites where employees can register their complaints and discuss their problems anonymously can be helpful.

The signals may not be clear in every instance. In the Connecticut shooting, the gunman, Omar Thornton, was the only black delivery driver working for the beer distributor. In a five-minute 911 call released on Aug. 5, 2010, Thornton told a call dispatcher that he worked in a racist place and that he was forced “to take care” of the situation himself. He told the dispatcher that he wished that he had time to “get more of them.”

A spokesperson for Hartford Distributors told reporters that the company had received no complaints or claims of discrimination from Thornton or from other minority workers. An official for the Teamsters, which represents drivers for the beer distributor, said the union was not aware of any charges of racism or discrimination filed by Thornton or any other drivers.

If, however, a supervisor or manager is aware of a problem and fails to report or act to stop the behavior, then a company could find itself liable in charges of negligence and endangerment.

“Under the [Occupational Safety and Health Act] general duty clause, employers have the responsibility of providing workers a reasonable safe and secure workplace. If there’s evidence of negligence and that an employer ignored warning signs and potentially dangerous behavior, then an organization could be facing a litany of legal problems,” Foulke said.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

Related Article:

Workplace Violence Expert: Watch for ‘Grievance Collectors’

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