Workplace Culture

Employers and the Prevention of Workplace Violence

By Dan Chammas

Mar. 9, 2010

It’s no coincidence that reports of workplace violence went up as the country’s economy sank. Indeed, as job seekers have multiplied and jobs have become scarce, the struggle for dwindling resources has become fierce and frustration is high.

During the first half of 2009, two workplace shooting rampages, at around the same time but on opposite sides of the country, resulted in the deaths of more than a dozen people and injuries and trauma to many more.

In late March 2009, a bus mechanic in San Diego shot one co-worker to death and injured another before police killed him. Less than two weeks later, in Binghamton, New York, a recently unemployed man took the lives of 12 people before shooting himself at the American Civic Association, an immigration services center.

In January 2010, an employee and one-time supervisor at the ABB Power factory in St. Louis killed three co-workers, injured five more and terrorized countless others before dying of an apparently self-inflicted wound. During this terrifying episode, some workers retreated to the factory roof, risking injury or death by exposure to freezing temperatures. Prior to this unexplained killing spree, the man’s only known source of dissatisfaction with the company was an alleged over-inflation of pension fees. And he had already taken this dispute to a legitimate venue as one of four named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit.

And in February, police arrested a University of Alabama professor after she allegedly shot colleagues in a faculty meeting, killing three people and injuring three more. According to some media reports, she was upset about not receiving tenure.

Employers are entrusted with a duty to provide a safe work environment for their employees. This duty raises unique issues in places the public are invited to frequent, such as inns, restaurants or public transportation. An employer must watch not only the relationships among employees, but also their interaction with customers and patrons.

For every headline-grabbing workplace attack, hundreds more—less dramatic in scale—go unreported each year. Although employers are not responsible for unknowable risk, victims or their families can hold employers accountable for those that they should have anticipated. But what preventive actions can companies really take to address the unpredictable results of human emotion and interaction?

Threats derive from a complex number of sources that may trigger violence. These may include policies that some employees find objectionable, such as a bad performance review or constructively intended criticism; rivalry or disagreement between employees; failed or drama-filled romance with a co-worker; and stressful or discourteous interactions with customers (who may themselves be sources of violence). Most commonly, the violent act is undertaken by a terminated employee who becomes disgruntled and feels there is nothing to lose.

Prior to making any new hires, an employer would be wise to assess the risks and set up relevant policies that at least address the most common threats. This evaluation might begin with an assessment of the premises. Sometimes the most serious threat is external. Depending on the type of business they conduct, employees may routinely expect to handle contentious or emotionally distraught customers. Other workers, perhaps those who handle large cash transactions or valuable merchandise, may be targets of robbery.

Short of creating a high-security compound, employers can take some precautionary measures in these cases. Mitigating features can include alarm systems, security cameras or guards, an employee-controlled buzzer on the entrance door and even bulletproof glass.

Another approach that may be less obvious, yet is effective, is for employers to train employees on how to avert bad situations. For instance, employees have benefited from stress-reduction classes or lessons in tactics to diplomatically handle difficult people.

Sometimes the danger is an internal one. Every business runs the risk of problems with employees who simply don’t get along well with others. For the most part, employers conduct background checks that may spot prior bad behavior in the workplace. However, the past is only one indicator of potential problems in the future. It is at least as important to set clear ground rules and to institute ongoing monitoring for all employees and workplaces.

Employers must also be sensitive to clashing cultures and be prepared to educate employees on the values of cultural competence. Whether from varying ethnicities, belief systems, disability, age or other factors, employees must be taught that professionalism demands that they adjust to working together toward mutual goals of productivity. And, of course, discrimination in any form must not be tolerated. Similarly, employers may need to make some adjustments in their own style of communication to maintain mutual respect within an increasingly diverse workforce.

While “zero tolerance” is a phrase that’s often bandied about, everyone in the workplace should be clear from the start on exactly what behavior falls under such a policy. And, for any disciplinary action, maximum effectiveness requires consistency. For lesser offenses that are not clearly within the zero-tolerance policy, a step system of discipline could include a write-up in the employee’s file, suspension and possible termination.

In between, it may be necessary to mediate tension between employees who have ongoing clashes, such as by drawing up agreements for future behavior and scheduling progress updates. Employers would also be wise to document all reports and actions taken in response to a report or incident in order to create a paper trail to support further disciplinary actions or termination. It’s just as important to take allegations seriously as it is to fully investigate the matter and examine the accused’s version of events.

Despite best-laid plans, employers cannot consistently rely on employees to always do the right thing in reporting incidents and concerns. Employers must find space within busy workdays to check in with employees in order to detect problems early on. Sometimes just listening to employees and addressing their problems can alleviate stress that otherwise could result in uncontrollable harm.

Employers should never hesitate to call on the resources at their disposal. Lawyers, human resource professionals or management consultants can help in drawing up guidelines such as employee handbooks and policies to maintain a harmonious workforce. Ongoing monitoring and sensitive communication with employees is key.

And although it’s not a pleasant thought, it may be necessary to seek a restraining order against an ex-employee who continues to pose a problem or against a customer who has threatened employees. Don’t hesitate to summon the police at the onset of a volatile situation: better too early than too late.

Nobody knows how long a bad economy will contribute to workplace frustration and violence. By the same token, no one knows when a disgruntled employee will snap and visit violence upon a workplace. But with common sense and proactive measures, employers can know that they are helping to provide the safest workplaces possible for their employees and customers.

Workforce Management Online, March 2010Register Now!

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