Workplace Culture

Transparency is Vital to Helping Employees Cope with Workplace Violence

By Matt Dunning

Sep. 17, 2012

After the initial recovery period from a violent incident in the workplace, it is vital for employers to maintain open lines of communication with their employees and emphasize transparency regarding the prevalence and prevention of potential future threats.

However, mid-market executives and managers often delay or defer training employees to more readily identify and report the warning signs of violent behavior for fear of exacerbating trauma-related anxieties stemming from the original incident, workplace violence experts said.

Similarly, interpersonal sensitivities often are heightened among the workforces of small and midsize firms, and many employees might hesitate to disturb the bonding that smaller worker groups use to cope with the shock of a violent event, experts said.

“It’s human nature for people to be hypersensitive,” said Kevin Wilkes, a Pittsburgh-based vice president and security practice leader at Willis North America. “But it’s very important for employers to consider carefully what training programs they put in place following an incident for managers, supervisors and general employees, and how well those programs address identifying and reporting warning signs.”

To begin with, safety and security consultants and practitioners advise employers to redouble their efforts to raise their workers’ awareness of the common sources and predictive indicators of violent behavior (see related story).

Small and midsize firms that either do not have the financial or personnel resources to commit to dedicated instruction and training exercises, or do not wish to upset their employees with such an overt approach so soon after an event, can improve awareness by utilizing a wide range of free brochures, posters and other educational resources available online. Many of these resources also are available through federal and state labor and law enforcement agencies.

“The important thing about the awareness program is to ensure that you have your people paying attention in order to recognize when something’s happening that either feels disconcerting or presents an immediate threat of danger,” said Tracy Knippenburg Gillis, the New York-based global reputational risk and crisis management practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

Enhancing employees’ awareness of potential threat indicators is only part of the solution, experts said. In many cases, post-incident investigations reveal that several employees within an organization knew — or at least suspected — that a co-worker, customer or some other individual posed a threat to the company and its workers, but never reported it because the structure for doing so either didn’t exist or was never clearly outlined to lower-level managers and employees.

“They don’t know that it’s even OK to tell anyone, and they aren’t sure what exactly the process is for handling those types of situations,” Gillis said, adding that any new or augmented reporting system that employers establish in response to a violent event should provide the option of anonymity for employees, particularly those in smaller, more familiar worker groups.

“Perhaps most importantly, they need to know that there’s not going to be any retribution or any negative consequence put upon them for reporting someone or something that’s making them feel threatened or uncomfortable,” Gillis said.

Even companies with sound training and reporting structures often fall short in their ability to identify and manage potential violent threats, typically because of personnel limitations, experts said. However, mid-market employers can, under certain circumstances, expand their predictive visibility by engaging properly trained employees as active monitors.

“If there’s a scenario where there does appear to be some level of severity or urgency regarding a certain individual, it could be beneficial for the employer to not to keep that situation a secret, necessarily,” said Eileen Ramallo, executive vice president at Duluth, Georgia-based Healthcare Solutions.

Rather, managers could obtain a better line of sight on a situation by informing the reporting employees, as a coordinated group or individually, of the prevalence of similar complaints lodged by their co-workers, and ask that they keep watch over the perceived threat.

However, Ramallo said, “employers will need to maintain a balance between individuals’ privacy and looking at what’s best for the entire workforce.”

Finally, mid-market managers and executives must account for their preventative opportunities and obligations above and beyond the enhanced vigilance of their employees, experts said. All too often, violent workplace encounters are set in motion not by a specific action or event, but instead by real or perceived neglect on the part of the employer.

“In a lot of cases, people act out because they think no one cares,” said Sean Ahrens, Aon Global Risk Consulting’s Chicago-based security consulting practice leader.

Once a potential threat has been identified and mitigated at the primary level, it is incumbent on company management to continue engaging those individuals in as much as targeted outreach as possible, Ahrens said, even and at times, especially when the primary solution to a problem is ultimately an individual’s dismissal from the company.

Periodically checking in with a potentially dangerous current or former employee, offering counseling and anger-management assistance, or otherwise indicating that the individual has not simply been discarded could be the key to diffusing an impending violent event, Ahrens said.

“There are all of these emotions going on inside them, and they brood about them and they fester inside of them to a point where you get to a climactic action,” Ahrens said. “Simple little outreach efforts like that can have a big impact.”

Matt Dunning writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email

Stay informed and connected. Get human resources news and HR features via Workforce Management’s Twitter feed or RSS feeds for mobile devices and news readers.

Matt Dunning writes for Business Insurance.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with


Join over 52,000 of your HR peers

Don't miss out on the latest tactics and insights at the forefront of HR.