Preventing Workplace Violence Inspired by COVID-19

By Paul Bergeron June 15, 2020
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​Unity, teamwork and collaboration typically are at the core of a successful company's culture and mission. But the added stress brought on by the monumental circumstances of COVID-19 can wreak havoc on any workplace.

As businesses reopen and HR managers focus on helping their workforces adjust, they must also keep a close eye on the safety of those employees—and not just from the virus.

"There are all kinds of new variables that are causing employees to be under stress," said Philip Dana, vice president of HR at Dendreon, a bio-tech company based in Seal Beach, Calif., with 600 employees. "It could come from them being cooped up in their homes, maybe their relationships are a bit strained, they might be feeling pressure from other family members, and friends and family could be ill or facing job layoffs or reduced hours."

According to new data from the Federal Reserve, nearly 40 percent of households earning less than $40,000 a year experienced at least one job loss in March, versus 19 percent of households earning between $40,000 and $100,000 and 13 percent of those earning more than $100,000. And while 85 percent of those with no work disruption said they could pay their current month's bills in full, just 64 percent of those who had lost a job or had their hours cut said they could cover their expenses for the month, the Fed's report adds. Such financial pressure can result in inappropriate workplace behavior, or worse.

"Highly stressed employees can potentially bring violent behaviors to the workplace, and companies need to do all they can to anticipate, identify and manage that threat," said Ignacio Zamora Jr., chief security officer for Vigilance Risks Solutions in La Jolla, Calif. Attention to current and former employees' state of mind is always crucial, but its importance is magnified during crisis moments like COVID-19.

"HR managers must recognize the new threats and challenges this pandemic has created," Zamora said. "We've never had this kind of global situation where we've had to abruptly turn off the lights and now have to figure out how to turn the lights back on in a way that is safe, sustainable, and addresses the fears and anxieties of employees coming back to the workplace." He adds that "people suffer when they experience a breakdown in systems. Domestic violence, for example, goes way up. Research following previous natural disasters has shown this."

As a result, Zamora says he's seeing two types of concerning behaviors emerge:

  • Social Distance Tensions. Some employees will not maintain proper distance from co-workers and may fail to respect capacity rules in a kitchen or meeting room. In those cases, other employees are likely to speak up and become upset if nothing happens to those who aren't observing the rules.
  • Weaponization of the Virus. Employees who can't afford to lose pay or simply don't take the virus seriously may return to work even when they don't feel well, risking the health of others. And in extreme cases, saliva is being used as a weapon and is now considered a biological agent by the federal government. A man spat at a police officer in Tampa recently and was charged with a federal crime.

There have been near-daily reports of customer incidents at retail and service businesses, most related to disputes over mask-wearing and competing demands for supplies. A customer shot an Oklahoma City McDonald's employee after being told to leave due to coronavirus restrictions, police say.

Abroad, The Guardian newspaper of London reports that front-line workers in pharmacies in the United Kingdom are receiving abuse ranging from verbal intimidation to violent attacks. "Police patrols have been deployed to some outlets as deterrents amid mounting day-to-day tensions, scuffles in queues outside premises, which are limiting the number of entrants, and incidents including the theft of pharmacy stock by masked raiders," it reported.

Adding to potential friction in the office is discussion of conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 and big pharma, 5G, Bill Gates and anti-vaccine proponents, among others. From an employer standpoint, "there's never been a better time to provide honest, accurate, science-based information," Zamora said. "This will cool the rumor mill about safety, health issues, spreading of the disease and treatments."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Look for Warning Signs If Possible

Dana says his manager-level staff is trained to look for signs, but because his entire team moved to a "max remote" schedule, and about two-thirds of his staff have been working from home—including him—they are not truly face-to-face with each other.

"It's difficult to get a read on the state of our co-workers," he said. "It's hard to notice warning signs related to health, signs of mental distress, or unusual or inconsistent behavior when you only see them on Zoom calls. So how do you know?"

Writes Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, "A lot of bad things happen behind America's closed doors. The pandemic has made those doors thicker."

Dana says Dendreon starts by creating calm in the office and building confidence in the staff with frequent and empathetic messages.

"We assure staff that we will have masks and hand sanitizer in the office," Dana said. "We meet the guidelines for cleaning the office space, and we do the cleaning during the day, in sight of employees, instead of at night, and we have more signs posted. All of this can ease employees' worries. They should not have to stress on their way into work each day wondering if it will be safe."

Dendreon employees used to have access to four or five entrances to the office, but now there's just one for production staff and one for nonproduction.

"These paths do not cross," Dana said. "We have spacing rules in common areas and work areas. We adjusted our seating chart. It used to be if you needed help from our IT team, you walked over to that area and talked to someone. Now, the IT person will meet the employee in a designated area to pick up a laptop or solve a problem."

As for all of these in-office changes, the response from employees is mixed, Dana said. "Some greatly appreciate and understand it, and others struggle with the changes. Again, this is where empathy comes into play."

Tech companies such as VergeSense were installing cameras pre-COVID-19 to help track employee movements so that businesses could optimize their space. Lately, that firm has been installing sensors in offices to help signal if too many people are congregating in given areas, such as kitchens and conference rooms. The devices cost a few hundred dollars each, and the analytics software to run them costs less than $100 per year to run. VergeSense's CEO says some of his customers are considering hiring floor safety coordinators as a next step.

'How Are You Doing?'

As his company's HR leader and a veteran, Dana has experience with handling stress. "I have to understand my role," he said. "Am I the person who wants to take control of it all, 'Come on, get in. I'll drive.'? Or am I more like the guy in the back seat who is watching and listening? Typically, I'd be the take-charge type, but not here. I want to do the things that allow the others to step up. They are in operations. They get what's going on. They can handle it and I can support them and make sure they have what they need."

To be sure, not every company is taking such precautions. The lack of concern for workers can lead to shaming and possible retaliation. One employee who worked at a fitness supply company in the Midwest who requested anonymity says he had been working effectively remotely with his team throughout the pandemic until recently, when their employer made it mandatory that all workers to return to the workplace, yet it did not require everyone to distance and wear masks.

"We've had an increasing number of cases in our city, and many of us did not feel safe about returning, especially with the lack of precautions," he said. "Despite this, I returned to work but quickly began to feel uneasy and isolated by co-workers who did not share the same opinion about the severity of the virus. My department also was asked to promote an event that I thought could be potentially harmful to those involved. I shared my concerns and ultimately was told to 'get on board or part ways,' so we parted ways."

HR, C-Suite, Security, Legal Counsel

Once employers decide to reopen physical locations, the HR department, C-suite, security team and legal counsel should be "attached at the hip" throughout the process of developing and implementing new policies, Zamora said. "Security needs to be more than just fences and alarms. For a crisis like this, the HR manager and senior leaders can't just be sending out office memos," he says.

Taking precautions is a wise approach, which likely is why workplace violence insurance policy submissions have risen by nearly 30 percent in the past two months, said Paul Marshall, managing director of the Active Shooter and Workplace Violence Department at McGowan Program Administrators, a global insurance broker based in Fairview Park, Ohio.

"HR professionals are getting better at recognizing warning signs in their employees," Marshall said. "That life's stresses are building for so many, it is leading to more acts of violence. We're especially noticing it among companies in the agriculture and banking industries."

When building or revising a workplace violence prevention plan, Zamora says companies must consider the physical design of the office. "HR and the security team need to lead this," he said. "And they must ask these questions: Is the spacing proper? Are barriers such as clear plastic walls required between work stations? Will employees be required to wear [personal protective equipment]? Will you be taking the temperature of employees each day? Will employees need to fill out a health questionnaire? Will vaccinations be required? HIPAA policies are often relaxed during a state of emergency, but what about after that? What are the criteria for shutting down the office? Are travel policies being revised?"

These questions reflect health and safety concerns that could quickly become security issues, Zamora said. "Good, clear, reasonable policies need to support any employee wellness and workplace violence prevention initiatives. Otherwise, good intentions become wasted efforts."

Zamora spoke of one retailer that invested a lot of money in temperature-sensor cameras and then asked its employees to operate them. "This was not in their job descriptions or skill set, and they were angry about having to do it," he said.

Ultimately, new plans and policies will need to be worked out with legal counsel.

"Attorneys are good at protecting their organizations by reminding us of the things we can't do. But now more than ever, you need to figure out a way to get to, 'Yes, we can do it that way.' "

Paul Bergeron is a freelance reporter who covers the HR industry. 

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