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Viewpoint: Workplace Violence—Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Why HR managers should champion proper preparation and training within their organizations

A close up of a yellow crime tape.

One of the more intimidating safety-related responsibilities that may fall to HR managers is preparing for and dealing with issues of workplace violence. 

Active-shooter incidents grab the headlines. Just this January, seven current or former co-workers were killed by a mushroom farm worker in Half Moon Bay, Calif. The past two years have also seen the deaths of six employees at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va.; nine at the Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, Calif.; and eight at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, all at the hands of current or former employees. 

Those incidents, however, account for only a portion of all workplace violence. There are also acts of terrorism, sexual assaults, civil disturbances, bullying, stalking and many more. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports approximately 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year, including around 1,000 homicides. 

While the chances of an incident occurring at a given place and a given time remain relatively low, emergency action planning is not an odds game. It's not about the likelihood; it's about the potential devastation. 

"We hope for the best, but we plan for the worst in emergency management," 911 Consulting President Bo Mitchell said. "We don't plan for small tornadoes. We plan for big tornadoes. Because if we plan for big tornadoes, we're going be able to take care of the small tornadoes." 

Altogether, the DOJ reports workplace violence is 18 times more likely to occur than a fire. While most organizations know they are required to have a fire plan, Mitchell perceives negligence when it comes to workplace violence. A qualified court expert in some of the nation's largest states, he most often sees decisions citing employers' "failure to plan" and "failure to train" for such instances. Often, this happens because companies fall victim to thinking it won't happen to them. 

There are resources available to help. The Board of Certified Safety Professionals offers certifications to help build strong safety cultures and battle these challenges. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Federal Emergency Management Agency all offer resources of their own. 

[SHRM Resource Hub Page: Workplace Violence

However, Mitchell and Steve Webb, president of safety training company Safe Secure Systems, stress more is needed to ensure all employees are prepared for potential incidents. The legal system is holding employers to a higher standard—comprehensive written plans and thorough, annual employee trainings. 

"The courts are no longer agreeing that a little video of workplace violence suffices as training for employers," Webb said. "There's court case after court case saying it's not enough. You need to have simulation. You need to have true thought teams. To understand that this is a complex issue." 

For companies without large, dedicated safety departments, this responsibility may seem daunting. It is then beneficial or even necessary to seek out knowledgeable and impartial third-party training. 

About one-third of clients now utilizing Mitchell's training and emergency action plan services are HR managers. They have assessed their organizations' level of preparedness and recognized the need for more. 

Webb devotes a significant portion of his training to behavioral threat assessment, teaching clients to recognize warning signs like unresolved grievances, paranoid behaviors, excessive temper, intimidation, verbal threats, suicidal ideation and many more. While these signs don't necessarily mean an employee will act violently, Webb says they are worth closer examination. Recognizing warning signs could help prevent an incident from ever occurring. 

"There are actually indicators that we have found in almost all of these shootings taking place," Webb said. "I want people to look for the signs. Quit just thinking about the active shooter and think about 'What do somebody's eyes look like when they are distraught?' " 

As we approach Mental Health Awareness Month in May, it is important to remember that well-rounded violence prevention programs include a plan and resources to support the mental health of employees. That plan is a key piece of an overall leadership culture that views employees holistically as human beings and treats them kindly even in difficult situations such as discipline or termination. Organizational attention to workers' emotional needs can help to curb instances of violence. 

At the end of the day, organizations have ethical, legal and financial reasons for taking workplace violence seriously. Ethical because protecting employees is the right thing to do. Legal because courts are holding employers responsible for preparation. And financial because the monetary ramifications of court rulings often cause companies to go out of business. HR managers can play a significant role in preparing their employees and protecting their companies. 

"Every employer in the United States of America has a duty of care—a legal term—to keep everybody on their premises safe and secure," Mitchell said. "And that duty of care is affirmative, their lawyers will tell them, meaning it's not something that is supposed to be on the to-do list for next quarter. It's supposed to be today." 

Tyson Mathews is a writer for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.


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