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Safeguarding Employees from Workplace Violence

Company leaders take steps to protect workers from becoming victims of violent acts at work.

​The receptionist at the family-law firm of Maddox & Gerock didn't think twice about letting the man into the office. He was a client's ex-husband who had visited previously without problems amid the litigation over his failure to pay spousal and child support. This time, however, he showed her a gun, motioned for her to leave and fired 10 shots.

"We all thought he was going from office to office shooting us down," says Julie Gerock, a partner at the Falls Church, Va.-based firm. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. He was firing at the walls before he turned the gun on himself.

The shooter's suicide note said he didn't intend to physically hurt anyone but sought to mentally scar the staff as he accused the firm of doing harm to him, according to Gerock.

"He was dead, but then there was this feeling of: 'Could this happen again?' " she says.

After consultations with security experts and the police, the law firm added more security measures, including cameras and an intercom. A bulletproof door was ordered. Counselors helped the team process the experience, which occurred in 2017, and the group spent a lot of time together, including taking a self-defense class and an art therapy class.

"We really supported each other emotionally," Gerock says.

The workplace is becoming more dangerous.

Workplace Violence Surges

Today, more companies are developing policies to protect against workplace violence, as the number of incidents surges. Episodes at private companies rose 33 percent, to 18,400, in the five years ending in 2017, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. The cause of the increase is unknown, though some speculate that it may be attributed in part to increased reporting instead of more violence, as the problem receives greater media attention.

Regardless, the threat of workplace violence is all too real. "We live in a more aggressive society," says Timothy Dimoff, president and chief executive of SACS Consulting Inc., an Akron, Ohio-based security company. "Aggression can lead to violence."

Dimoff says that a decade ago, he received about five requests a year from employers asking for a guard to stand by while someone was being fired. That number has increased to roughly nine a month, and he now has a team dedicated to providing the service.

Health care professionals, especially those in psychiatric hospitals, along with teachers and social workers, suffer the highest rates of workplace violence. Private-sector health care workers at in-patient facilities experience five to 12 times the number of injuries from workplace violence than private-sector workers overall, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

There's a bit of good news amid the bleak statistics. Fatalities from workplace violence fell 8 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. It's unclear why, but experts believe that better preparation and training for workplace violence may have helped. Still, the broader trend has not been positive, as the overall number of deaths has risen 13 percent over five years.

Prevention Efforts Evolve

The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado that left one teacher and 12 students dead (including the two murderers, who committed suicide) marked a major shift in how Americans viewed safety, experts say. Schools, places of worship and businesses started to think more seriously about security threats, adding more physical barriers and teaching people how to protect themselves.

"Columbine was a turning point in tactical response," says Brendan Monahan, chair of international crisis management and the business continuity council at ASIS International, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization for security professionals. "Now you see a more holistic approach."

Monahan says companies' focus extends beyond creating a secure physical location to creating a safe psychological space, too. It's critical for companies to provide employees ways to address personal issues such as anxiety and depression so their problems don't become so severe that they may lead to violence.

Tangible safeguards vary greatly depending on a company's size, industry and location. But organizations are more frequently using controls such as video surveillance, gates with alarm systems, locked doors and security guards. It's also crucial for companies to work with their local police forces to reduce and eliminate threats, experts say. To be as effective as possible, law enforcement should know a company's policies and physical layout.

Nearly 1 in 7 employees feels unsafe at work.

Those steps must be accompanied by systems for alerting employees to violence and providing instructions on how to protect themselves. Many companies follow guidance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation when instructing employees on how to react to an active shooter: Run if possible, hide if escape isn't an option, and fight as a last resort.

Executives in some organizations worry that raising the idea of workplace violence will upset employees, and they're often especially wary of holding live-shooter drills, says Monahan, who adds that "it doesn't have to be scary."

Another challenge is convincing employees to seek help for personal problems before the problems escalate. Many companies provide access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), which offer resources such as referrals to counselors for individuals struggling with problems like stress, debt, addiction and abusive relationships.

Highly disturbed employees pose a significant threat to the workplace. For example, earlier this year, a disgruntled worker killed five people as he was being fired from Henry Pratt Co., a valve maker in Aurora, Ill. And in May this year in Virginia Beach, Va., a public works employee shot and killed 12 people at a municipal building for reasons that remain unclear.

"We need to make sure EAPs are a part of prevention," Monahan says.

Responding to an Active-Shooter Crisis Situation

Establishing Employee Trust

Offering an EAP is a good start, but it often isn't enough. Some workers are reluctant to take advantage of EAPs or discuss issues with their supervisors for fear of losing their jobs. Battered women are often embarrassed to disclose threats from their partners to colleagues.

To combat that fear and embarrassment, managers at all levels must promote EAPs and strive to remove any stigma associated with mental health problems, says Christine Tenley, an Atlanta-based partner at Burr & Forman who specializes in employment law. Managers also should be aware of any significant changes in employees' behavior. Do they seem unusually angry and irritable? Have they made threats? Are they suddenly talking about guns and violence?

Still, employees may be reluctant to report a colleague's actions, just as they don't want to disclose their own problems. Overcoming such reluctance isn't easy, so creating a culture of trust is essential, Dimoff says. Workers want assurances that sensitive matters will be addressed discreetly. Employee conversations with EAP counselors are confidential, which means employers need other channels to learn of potential problems.

Dimoff says that, earlier this year, the staff at a manufacturing company was preparing to walk out because they feared the return of a just-fired colleague who said he was a hunter with guns and he knew how to use them. Company leaders arranged for two armed guards to be sent to the plant to protect the workers, although the dismissed man never returned. The company also held an active-shooter drill, taught managers how to defuse tense arguments and established a system for anonymously reporting concerns about colleagues.

Employees eventually told the business's owner that they had long worried that their fired colleague's explosive temper would lead to violence. The owner asked why he was never told, and the reply was "We didn't think you'd care," according to Dimoff.

"That's so common," he says. "Now they know the company cares."

Most respondents to a survey conducted early this year by the Society for Human Resource Management—71 percent—say they feel safe in their workplace. However, only 45 percent of U.S. workers are aware of workplace violence prevention programs at their companies. One auction company has been upgrading security to address employees' concerns about returning to the office after working offsite at an auction. Workers sometimes carry hold cash and valuable merchandise following onsite sales of items such as land, cattle, guns and household goods.

The auction house installed cameras and better lighting. Company leaders are considering hiring a night-time security guard.

"We want to be proactive," says the human resource manager who requested anonymity.

Liability Threats

In addition to protecting employees, establishing workplace violence prevention programs could protect organizations from lawsuits by staff in case of an incident. Such policies are a necessity if employees have expressed worries about their safety. The HR manager at the auction company said fears of potential lawsuits helped cement the decision to improve security.

"If your employees express unease and you do nothing, your company is on the hook," the manager says.

Lawyers agree. "If the company knows there's a threat and takes no action, there is liability," Martha Boyd, a labor and employee relations attorney at Baker Donelson in Nashville. Workplace violence adds up to $36 billion a year for businesses in costs such as lost productivity and workers' compensation claims, according to published reports.

One way to eliminate some of that cost and avoid lawsuits is to conduct extensive background checks on new employees. Individuals in some states can sue their employers if a colleague who commits violence had a history of vicious behavior that wasn't discovered because he or she either wasn't investigated or the investigation was incomplete.

"Don't you want to know who you're hiring?" Tenley asks.

The problem for employees in such industries as education, transportation, social work and health care is that they often can't control who they interact with at work. Taxi passengers can't be screened for prior bad acts. A social worker may not have a full history about the person he or she is visiting at home. And in health care, some professionals are duty-bound to treat a patient even if they suspect that he or she might become violent.

"You may have assaulted us yesterday, but we still have to treat you today," says Dr. Toree McGowen, an emergency room physician at Bend, Ore.-based St. Charles Health System Inc. "If you went into a McDonald's and assaulted someone, you wouldn't be allowed in again."

Nearly half of emergency room physicians say they've been assaulted at work, and 97 percent said the attacker was a patient, according to a study released last year by the American College of Emergency Room Physicians. The opioid epidemic and an increase in dementia patients have taken a toll. In fact, 70 percent of ER doctors surveyed reported that violence has become worse over the last five years. Meanwhile, half say that hospitals should be doing more to protect them and suggest improvements such as adding security guards, metal detectors and cameras.

'If the company knows there's a threat and takes no action, there is liability.'
Martha Boyd

Earlier this year, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Mass., introduced the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act. It would require hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, mental health providers and jails to develop a workplace-safety plan to protect employees from violence they experience on the job. The bill directs the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue legal standards for the plans. Currently, the agency issues only guidelines.

Some hospitals are improving their security even without the legislation. The Cleveland Clinic started a workplace violence committee roughly two years ago. It has taught employees how to spot the signs of potentially violent patients and how to calm their emotions. For example, pacing and an increasingly loud voice may signify an agitated patient. Doctors and nurses should not raise their voices. They should empathize with the patient but at the same time remain at least an arm's-length distance away and not allow the patient to get between them and the door.

At all of the clinic's roughly 20 emergency rooms, there are metal detectors and armed guards. The emergency rooms have the second-highest level of violence after the clinic's behavioral health units.

"Our caregivers are a priority," says Dr. Stephen Meldon, co-chair for the clinic's workplace violence steering committee and senior vice chair of its Emergency Services Institute. "Our message is that this violence shouldn't just be considered part of the job."

McCowen says that security levels have differed at hospitals over her 15-year career. Now, she's pleased that there's an armed guard outside the ER where she's currently employed. But the guard's gun is only one reason why she feels more secure.

"It's an extra pair of eyes," she says. "We're supposed to be concentrated on the patients."

Not long ago, McCowen had an especially tough week. She was scratched all over the arms by a violent patient, and doctors in the ER were advised that there was a threat against someone who works in the hospital.

"I'm feeling very vulnerable," she says. Yet she has no plans to leave her job. "On the good days, I get to save somebody's life."

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM. 

Explore Further

SHRM provides resources to help organizations prepare for and respond to the threat of workplace violence.

SHRM Resource Page: Workplace Violence Prevention and Response
This collection of resources and articles can help organizations make sure workers know how to stay safe in the face of a threat and respond effectively to violent incidents at work.

Ask an HR Expert: Physical Violence by an Employee
Should physical violence by an employee in the workplace result in immediate termination of employment?

SHRM Toolkit: Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Response
Here’s what organizations can do to protect their workers from becoming victims of workplace violence.

SHRM Study: Workplace Violence
How common are incidents of violence at work? How safe do employees feel? Are they prepared to respond to threats? See this SHRM study for answers.

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