Six ways employers unwittingly fuel workplace violence

The statistics are alarming. According to an FBI report, workplace violence impacts almost two million Americans a year, causing an average of 700 homicides. About 18% of violent crimes are committed in the workplace. In addition to the invaluable loss of human life, NIOSH estimates the annual economic cost is $121 billion, not including the immeasurable physical and emotional trauma and morale issues among employees and disruption for the business.

Yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fewer than 30% of private employers have workplace violence prevention programs and only 20% provide workplace violence prevention training. Employers can be reactive rather than proactive, believing an incident cannot occur at their office and don’t seek help until something has happened.

While some associate workplace violence with the high-profile cases covered by the news media, its definition is much broader. The FBI defines workplace violence as “actions or words that endanger or harm another employee or result in other employees having a reasonable belief that they are in danger.” It encompasses bullying, harassment, stalking, robbery, rape, sexual assault, physical assault, as well as shootings, and happens daily.

Generally, it can be grouped into four types:

  1. Violent acts by people who have no other connection with the workplace other than to commit the crime (such as robbery). Convenience stores, gas stations, and liquor stores are at particularly high risk.
  2. Directed at workers by customers, clients, patients, students, inmates or any others for whom an organization provides services. Health care and social assistance sectors are particularly vulnerable.
  3. Violence against coworkers, supervisors or managers by a present or former employee. While some can be random, more often it is a disgruntled employee.
  4. Domestic violence that spills over to the workplace – violence committed in workplace and the perpetrator has a personal relationship with an employee.

Here are six ways employers unwittingly fuel the problem:

  1. Fail to adequately assess all aspects of physical securityConducting a thorough walkthrough at least once during the day and once after dark with a focus on identifying vulnerabilities lays the foundation for a security plan. Where can people enter the building? Are the entrances secured in any way? If electronic access cards are used, are they immediately disabled when an employee leaves the company or loses the card? Where can perpetrators hide to sneak in behind an employee? How do visitors gain access to the building? What about the lighting? If it’s shared space, how is security coordinated? How can employees escape in the event of an incident? What about employees with disabilities? How is after-hour access controlled? Are there security cameras and are they positioned where they are needed? If you have security guards how rigorously do they enforce the rules?Once a security plan is developed, be sure employees have a way to communicate any issues and conduct periodic reviews of the security measures. If an employee reports a former boyfriend is stalking her, is there a way to communicate that information to those in the frontline? If a door is left open, employees may like the convenience of not using their keycards and not report it.
  2. Fail to train managers and supervisors in managing peopleManagers and supervisors often rise through the ranks because of their superior technical skills and strong work ethic. Managing people requires a different skill set and it can be particularly difficult with a troublesome employee. Far more frequent than killing rampages at the office are cases of workplace bullying and workplace assault. Stopping these dangerous situations early can prevent problems from spiraling out of control or turning deadly, yet poorly trained managers can make matters worse by intensifying the sense of persecution felt by the disgruntled employee or ignoring the situation altogether.Managers and supervisors may feel challenged to understand issues employees are experiencing outside the workplace – a divorce, a terminally ill child, financial problems, and so on, while also respecting privacy issues. They should know what to do and who to turn to for assistance.
  3. Fail to foster a culture that encourages reporting of physical and verbal threats and harassmentAll too often after an incident of workplace violence, co-workers describe the perpetrator as belligerent, angry, a bully, misfit, loner and so on, but did not report their concerns.The highly publicized sexual assault allegations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and others – including the use of the #MeToo social media hashtag – indicates that sexual misconduct is a regular, but underreported workplace occurrence. They may worry about their job, fear retaliation, believe it’s not their responsibility, don’t want to be viewed as a “tattler,” don’t believe it will escalate, or think the employer will ignore the complaint. Ironically, aggressors count on this behavior.Educating workers on all aspects of workplace violence and training how to spot potential trouble is a good start. Open communications and a clear reporting structure that enables them to report in a non-judgmental way that includes timely feedback and action is essential.
  4. Fail to recognize workplace factors that can trigger violenceStress, downsizing, mergers, feelings of being undervalued or unheard, and rigid management styles are often cited as precursors of workplace violence. Stress is a key trigger, and increased production demands, new technologies, reorganization, and the pressure to be available 24/7 can be overwhelming to some employees. Special programs to help employees manage stress can be helpful and demonstrate support for employees.Yet, the same ‘objective’ stressor at work can trigger an aggressive reaction in one person and not in another. This sometimes leads managers to conclude that a problem is the individual’s – rather than accepting the need to acknowledge and respond to differences in their staff. Yet, often there are early warning indicators, such as a change in attitude or appearance, friction with co-workers, deteriorating performance, excessive complaints, and increased absences. When managers get involved with an open dialogue and provide a plan for support, the likelihood of this escalating to overt threats and aggression decline.
  5. Fail to manage the threat with hiring and firing practicesThere’s no doubt it is difficult to obtain substantial information from past employers, but it’s critical to try. According to reports in the Baltimore Sun, the gunman at the Advanced Granite Solutions company in Maryland had been violent previously at work. An employee at a prior employer filed a peace order against him, alleging that he had punched an employee in the face and had returned later to threaten employees at the place of business.Experts suggest that behavioral-based interviewing can help identify potential problems. This technique involved probing questions that relate to how an individual behaves in the workplace. “Tell me about a situation where you did not agree with a co-worker. How did you handle it? What was the outcome? Were you satisfied with the outcome?” Observing body language also can be revealing. Employers who do not take proper precautions in hiring run the risk of being accused of negligent hiring practices.

    Equally important is managing the termination process. Whether it’s a layoff, non-performance, or just a poor fit, treat the person with dignity and respect and stick to the facts. Be consistent. Keep it short and private. Do it at a time when business impact is minimized. Many experts suggest earlier in the week and definitely not a Friday. Provide information on resources that will be helpful to the employee.

  6. Fail to involve workers in the development of the planWhen employees have a role in developing a plan, they are more likely to take ownership and feel empowered to take action. The group should include individuals from line staff to the highest-ranking management official or an appropriate designee to ensure feedback and representation from the entire workplace. All-employee training sessions designed to educate staff on what workplace violence is, how to look for it, and what actions to take should be conducted regularly.

Employers in every industry need to do a better job at preventing workplace violence. While it is not always possible to prevent violence in the workplace, by preparing and planning ahead, it is possible to minimize the risk and protect employees.

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