Engaged Leadership’s Role with an Organization’s Safety and Success

By Bill Whitmore Feb 16, 2011
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Book excerpt from Potenti​al: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success (Highpoint Executive Publishing, 2011), written by Bill Whitmore, Chairman, President & CEO, AlliedBarton Security Services

There’s a direct connection between engaged leadership, workplace security and organizational success, regardless of your product or service. Psychologist Abraham Maslow identified safety and security as among the most basic human needs on the road to self-actualization — achieving one’s full potential. It therefore follows that if your employees don’t feel safe and secure, they’re not going to do the best job for you.

Even the lower levels of workplace violence can create that insecurity, so good leadership is critical to creating a safe, high achieving workplace. Our own experience shows that where there is a culture of leadership engagement — where leaders are seen as plugged in and responsive to their employees; where employees feel that their leaders are concerned with their everyday activities, personal well-being and overall security — those are the places where you see engaged employees on every level along with higher morale.

A nationwide scientific survey that AlliedBarton conducted in May 2011 revealed that workers who either experienced or are aware of violence or the conditions leading to it at their workplace rate their current place of employment lower in most respects than those in violence-free workplaces. When comparing employees who have experienced or are aware of workplace violence with those who have not shared this experience, there are substantial differences. Fifty-eight percent who are aware of violence in their workplace strongly agree they feel valued. By contrast, 70 percent of those who haven’t experienced violence in their workplace have the same attitude.

Workplace violence also affects an employee’s view of compensation. Our survey found that 55 percent of those who have not experienced or are not aware of workplace violence strongly agree they are paid fairly. However, only about one in three (36 percent) of those who are aware of some form of violence at work share this attitude. Does this imply that their pay isn’t worth the risk they perceive, or is it a reflection of their overall feeling of value? Our survey didn’t drill down to that level, but either way it doesn’t reflect good employee morale and engagement. Clearly, workplace violence can impact morale, turnover and bottom line. But what is the leadership connection? See the chart above.

Our survey also shows that employees who have not reported violence or a related event are more likely to say their employer makes safety a top priority. In essence, the reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that when employers show concern with workplace violence, the actual number of incidents is likely to decline. When workplace violence declines, greater benefits follow. The chart above shows the difference in workplace violence incidents when leadership is engaged, and when they’re not. Leadership can always be more proactive, and that increases the chances of heading off workplace violence. Recently we had an employee displaying all of the characteristics of an individual who felt that life had beaten him down and that there was no hope. Although he did not threaten personal harm to others, he was projecting all of the typical indicators we associate with a possible threat for workplace violence: he was despondent, felt alone, left out and that his world was coming to an end.

He had relationship and financial problems as well. I was advised of the situation by Ron Rabena, President of AlliedBarton’s East Division. Ron’s approach was to do everything we could to help this individual while keeping the company safe. We brought in employee assistance to assist him. Our HR folks got involved to help him as well. No one will ever know if this situation could have escalated, but employees on the job took the time and expended the effort to show leadership. They stepped up and got involved. Bear in mind that it was people at the account level — those who focus specifically on protecting our clients — who originally brought this to our attention. These frontline individuals, because of their training and because of the engaged leadership they exhibited, identified this person and took the critical initiative. I was really proud of our employees in that instance. Instead of just saying “Hey, we’ve got a problem here; we’ve got to remove this guy,” they said “we’ve got to help this person.”

The rub for most organizations and their leadership teams is that it’s easy to be complacent in the absence of a workplace violence incident. The typical attitude of “it can’t happen here” is pervasive. In these cases, protecting against workplace violence is a question of motivation, or a lack thereof, on the part of an organization’s leaders and those who report to them. Of course measuring the lack of incidents at any given workplace is an exercise in comparison. You have to consider the norm for an industry in terms of incidents, then compare that to the records of organizations with various leadership cultures and employee perceptions about leadership.

One of the interesting discussions from an external leadership circle held this year at our headquarters was that you never see numbers associated with the success of preventative measures. As an example, a disgruntled employee who was considering committing an act of workplace violence may have been dissuaded due to the preventative measures being deployed. That one prevented incident will never appear on a statistical analysis. So when people think that “It can’t happen here,” is that because of the protective culture in place, or that tactics have worked? In some instances it could be just luck of the draw, but I believe that these measures do work.

Creating and sustaining such motivation requires special leadership skills, which may differ from those required to fulfill other business focused goals. Still, there is great commonality in purpose, since workplace violence prevention is essential to ensuring the protection of shareholders’ investment and company assets. It comes down to ownership of the full spectrum of risks that are out there, and accountability to your company’s employees and shareholders.

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About the author: ​Bill Whitmore is Chairman, President & CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services, www.alliedbarton.com, a provider of highly trained security personnel to many industries including commercial real estate, higher education, healthcare, residential communities, chemical/petrochemical, government, manufacturing and distribution, financial institutions, and shopping centers. Bill Whitmore is the author of Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success,” www.potentialthebook.com, which shows how a range of stakeholders--from CEOs and division leaders to building management, HR, contract security and law enforcement--can work together to lower an organization's workplace violence risk and enhance its overall morale and performance.

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