Experts: Lay Foundation to Prevent Workplace Violence

By Kathy Gurchiek Dec 4, 2009
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Workplace violence never can be eliminated, but employers can minimize it with an overarching plan that starts with the hiring process and extends to supervisor training and a zero-tolerance policy, according to two Atlanta attorneys.

Tracy L. Moon Jr. and Edwin G. Foulke Jr. presented the webinar, “Protecting Your Workplace from the Unimaginable: Developing a Proactive Workplace Violence Prevention and Response Strategy,” on Dec. 1, 2009.

While acts such as themass shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, and the slaying of a Yale student that occurred in 2009 leap to mind as examples of workplace violence, it can take other forms, including obscene phone calls and damaging property or a reputation intentionally, Foulke reminded employers.

And it can be committed by all kinds of people, he added—a current or former employee; someone with an outside relationship with an employee; or someone with a legitimate reason for being on the premises, such as a customer.

The workplace is the most dangerous place to be in America, Foulke said, quoting the U.S. Department of Justice. It undermines an employee’s sense of safety and security and costs 500,000 employees 1.175 million lost work days annually, said Foulke, formerly the head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It costs more than $36 billion annually when factoring in injuries and death, post-incident counseling, legal actions and fees, court awards, poor morale, increased absenteeism, productivity loss, turnover, and bad publicity, he added.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) have services to help employees before an issue snowballs. They especially can play a part during the current stressful economy, Foulke noted. Offering a financial management class or showing an employee how to consolidate debt can help someone through a difficult situation.

“There’s a lot of people out there hurting … having trouble making ends meet financially,” he said. “If we’re able to help them reduce that financial stress; it’s going to make them better employees, it’s probably going to make them more productive employees … and [result in] less absenteeism. It all ties in.”

Focus on Behavior

The violence often is the result of “neglected indicators,” with people not reporting incidents that could serve as warnings, Moon said.

Although there’s a profile of the person who commits workplace violence most frequently—white male age 35 to 45, a loner, the chronically disgruntled, the high-maintenance employee—“you can’t be wedded to a simple profile,” he said.

Instead, “you’ve got to focus on the behavior.”

Some common performance issues are excessive absenteeism or tardiness; excessive work breaks; missed deadlines; poor work quality; sudden or significant job performance deterioration; difficulty with co-workers or social withdrawal.

That doesn’t mean, though, that someone who has any of these issues will commit workplace violence, Moon cautioned.

When someone exhibits troubling behavior, it’s important to report it. People often don’t because they want to avoid becoming involved. And supervisors might hesitate to report it, Foulke added, because they want to be seen as a buddy and fear hurting someone’s career or want to avoid angering an employee they depend on.

Other common errors companies make when handling threatening behavior, Moon said, are:

  • Using a confrontational approach and escalating the risk.
  • Failing to coordinate information and resources. It’s important, both attorneys emphasized, to have a crisis management plan and team.
  • Involving police prematurely or inappropriately.
  • Encouraging restraining orders against irrational or desperate people.
  • Sending people who threaten violence for fitness-for-duty evaluations.
  • Expecting EAPs or mental health professionals to change a person’s personality.
  • Failing to document misconduct.

Not disciplining people for bad behavior encourages it, Moon said, and sends the message that the organization doesn’t care about enforcing its rules and protecting workers’ safety.

He emphasized the importance of training supervisors on how to handle troubling situations, including instructing them whom to notify about their concerns.

Supervisors should report to, and consult with, HR, security or senior management—and medical or EAP personnel, if necessary—for guidance on proceeding, Moon advised.

HR, security or senior management then should report to and consult with corporate HR, legal counsel, the EAP and/or corporate security, he said.

“Action needs to be taken immediately,” Moon said. “Get the monkey off your back. Pass it along to someone else higher up in the food chain. … It minimizes the risk of your making a false call about the situation.”

Supervisors need to be trained in diffusing troubling situations so they know how to proceed if they’re unable to get an immediate response from those above them, Moon added.

Where there are critical indicators of a troubled employee who needs immediate assistance—the person talks of suicide, makes delusional statements, is paranoid, has unfounded concerns about his or her safety—the supervisor should notify HR, security, medical personnel or the EAP immediately, Moon said.

If there’s no immediate response, he said, the supervisor should use his or her judgment whether to contact an emergency room, the employee’s choice of doctor, a family member or police.

12-Point Action Plan

Foulke and Moon suggested employers take the following steps to minimize the risk of workplace violence:

  1. Adopt and publicize a zero-tolerance policy regarding threats, harassment and violence in the workplace.
  2. Update and review employment applications and pre-employment background/reference checks and interviewing procedures to identify signs of potential problem applicants. Conduct background investigations on all applicants. Institute drug and alcohol testing.
  3. Prepare and use release forms for personnel records from previous employers, course transcripts, certification records from training and professional organizations, credit reports and criminal conviction records.
  4. Update personnel policies and the employee handbook to include work rules and safety policies dealing with workplace violence. Include rules to limit access to work areas. Be sure that policies comply with state laws regarding concealed weapons.
  5. Review with the company’s temporary employee provider the procedures it uses to screen its temporary employees for potential workplace violence problems.
  6. Conduct periodic security audits and risk assessments of each facility. Provide adequate security, including access control in reception areas, parking areas, common areas, stairwells, cafeterias and lounges.
  7. Prepare a comprehensive crisis management plan for each facility, including a workplace violence prevention program. Prepare and distribute a contact list of local emergency agencies.
  8. Select and train management officials in conflict resolution and nonviolent techniques for handling hostage, hijacking and crisis incidents and counseling situations.
  9. Instruct managers and supervisors how to identify and deal with early warning signs and potential safety problems associated with workplace violence.
  10. Identify and publicize EAPs, employee support services and health care resources available to employees and their families.
  11. Institute policies to investigate all threats and complaints of harassment and violence immediately. Designate one or more company officials and/or others to handle threats and complaints confidentially.
  12. Review and publicize companywide procedures and the names of persons responsible for handling employees’ problems, complaints and concerns involving threats, harassment and violence.

Afterward

If violence occurs, the action plan should include securing the premises, according to the webinar. Also, safeguard evidence and cooperate with authorities. At minimum this will include local police; it might extend to state police or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Prepare an incidence report; identify an immediate spokesperson that is trained to deal with media; consult legal counsel. Arrange for counseling when appropriate, along with EAPs. Finally, review the organization’s actions and make any needed changes.

“Have a foundation in place,” Moon stressed.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Articles:

Workplace Violence Expert: Watch for ‘Grievance Collectors,’HR News, Nov. 10, 2009

OSHA Forms Alliance Focusing on Workplace Violence, SHRM Online Safety and Security Discipline, March 25, 2009

Report: Workplace Violence Rate Declines, HR News, Sept. 12, 2008

Work To Reduce Exposure to Workplace Violence Threats, Staffing Management, May 6, 2008

Official Outlines Strategies for Preventing Workplace Violence, Legal Issues, June 6, 2006

Related Resources:

Workplace Violence Prevention Policy, SHRM Templates and Tools

Workplace Security Measures, SHRM Poll, April 2007

Weapons in the Workplace Survey Report, 2006

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