HR Must Prepare for ‘Active Shooters’ and Other Violence

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Mar 1, 2011
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Human resource departments play a key role in understanding, anticipating, preventing and responding to workplace violence. Training, drills and a wealth of free government resources can help organizations prepare for the worst.

Killing sprees, such as the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre in November 2009, are the rarest form of workplace violence. However, it is the type that receives the most media attention, Bryan Warren, director of corporate security for the Carolinas Healthcare System said during a webinar on “Workplace Violence in the Healthcare Industry.” It was held Feb. 24, 2011.

“There are probably tens of thousands of verbal harassments that will take place today in the U.S. workplace that won’t appear on CNN, but if there is an active shooter you will hear about it,” he added.

Warren, who is president-elect of the International Association for Healthcare Security & Safety (IAHSS), said there are a number of forms that workplace violence can take, including:

Intimidation.
Verbal abuse.
Threats and harassment.
Stalking.
Assault and battery.
Sexual assault.
Hate crimes.
Suicide.
Homicide.

Although the number of workplace homicides dropped dramatically between 1992 and 2006, according to 2008 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), they are still the fourth-leading cause of death in the workplace, according to Warren. In addition, approximately 18,000 workers each week are victims of nonfatal workplace assaults, most of which occur in service industries.

Employees at Risk

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, classifies workplace violence into four types:

Type 1 - Violent acts by criminals who have no other connection with the workplace but enter to commit robbery or another crime.

Type 2 - Violence directed at employees by customers, clients, patients, students, inmates or any others for whom an organization provides services.

Type 3 - Violence against colleagues, supervisors or managers by a present or former employee.

Type 4 - Violence committed in the workplace by someone who doesn’t work there but has a personal relationship with an employee—such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner.

Health care employees face the risk of all four types of violence, Warren explained, not so much from other employees, but from patients, family members and visitors. 

Hospitals tend to see about four times the number of violent episodes as other types of workplaces, Warren said. Such incidents have escalated as a result of the economic downturn, he said, because job losses and related financial issues have resulted in a growing number of family disputes and a higher number of homeless and psychiatric patients, among other spillover effects.

Hospitals are atypical, he added, because they tend to have:

A staff that is mostly female.
Round-the-clock access by the public.
Numerous points of entry and exit.
A high-tension, unpredictable environment.

“No one comes to a hospital because they want to,” Warren said. “Health care workers typically see people at their worst.”

Warren said health care organizations should evaluate how often they conduct workplace violence drills, compared to fire drills. “We don’t do them that often,” he said. “We probably need to consider doing them more often because there are more incidents.”

Violence Triggers

Warren said that violent episodes across industries are triggered by a number of common occurrences such as:

Loss of job.
Unexpected bad news or emotional turmoil.
Bullying by co-workers.
Being passed over for promotion or given more duties as a result of reduced staff.
Rejection; divorce or end of a relationship.
“Fatal Attraction” kinds of romances.
Perceived injustice or unfair treatment.
Criminal activity.

Employees might be threatened face to face or by phone, mail, e-mail, through social media like Facebook, notes or stalking. “These are things we need to get in front of and have training for employees and especially for managers and supervisors so they know what to do,” he said.

For example, Warren said training employees and managers—particularly those in front-line positions—to look for signs of “fight or flight” behavior, is important. Warning signs of fight or flight include rapid breathing, clenched teeth or fists, rapid pacing, a defensive or offensive stance and evidence that the person is searching for an exit or a “weapon of opportunity”—anything they can pick up and use against someone.

In order to de-escalate someone who is displaying such signs, Warren suggests following a few principles:

Project a calm and confident demeanor. “People tend to reflect what comes at them,” he said. “Unless you as an employee can remain calm you won’t have any success in calming someone else.”

Always treat the other person with respect. “Sometimes people forget that when they are under threat,” he said.

Control the encounter. Have witnesses and don’t let yourself get backed into a wall. “This is especially important for human resources,” he said. 

Be aware of a person’s personal space and be very cautious about stepping into that space, he added.

One good pneumonic is LEAPS:

Listen to what they are saying.
Empathize with their point of view.
Ask reflective questions.
Paraphrase what you heard.
Summarize the action plan.

“Active shooter situations are very different,” Warren cautioned. In that case, the most important thing is to notify security and police through whatever means are available, give them as much information as possible and evacuate the premises. “If you can’t evacuate, find a safe place, stay away from doors and windows, hide and make as little noise as possible,” he said. “Do not intervene.”

Actions for HR

Warren recommended that HR and security develop procedures to use when employees are disciplined or terminated, and to refresh them on at least an annual basis. For example, such procedures might assign HR responsibility to take action in the case of a violation of a zero-tolerance policy, such as threatening comments.

Warren encouraged organizations to:

Test procedures to make sure they work. If you see opportunities for improvement, document them.
Encourage employees to report issues immediately.
Educate supervisors that any reports or warning signs should be treated seriously.
Make sure that counseling services are available for employees who have been affected by violence through an employee assistance program or other local resource.

The best strategy for preventing workplace violence is to develop and maintain a workplace culture that supports respect, open communication, effective supervision and employee involvement in recognizing and responding to workplace violence incidents, Warren added. “Security is everyone’s role,” he said. “Everyone is the eyes, ears and hands of security.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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