Preventing Workplace Violence

With management's attention, concern, and involvement, it is possible to recognize abnormal or deviant behavior before it becomes destructive.

HISTORY and good common sense have taught us many things, Most of all, they have taught us the best defense is a good offense. If you are going to prevent violence in the workplace, you must prepare for and be able to identify the symptoms of violence. How perceptive is your program? Can it detect the early signs of potential trouble?

Almost 300,000 occurrences of workplace violence are reported each year. Even more are never documented. Workplace homicide is the fastest-growing type of homicide in the country. Men are four times more likely to be affected than women; however, almost 50 percent of all women who die in the workplace are victims of violence. These statistics increase daily. The potential for workplace violence demands management attention.

Safety practitioners believe most accidents are caused and, therefore, are preventable. So it is with violence in the workplace: It is preventable. At least, its effects can be mitigated. When was the last time an act of violence was evaluated and it was not determined it could have been prevented or controlled? Too often, we allow experience to guide our planning and we function in retrospect. Does it always take the incident to establish the cure? We must become proactive and learn to anticipate, rather than react to events.

Risk Identification
The signs and symptoms of workplace violence can be traced to many sociological, psychological, and economic causes. Rejection, criticism, frustration, stress, and anxiety are but a few. The manifestations of these signs and symptoms can be documented by noticing or observing changes in work punctuality and attendance, personal appearance, work attitude and performance, extended lunch breaks, and many other occurrences.

While it may not be possible to identify all aggressors or intended victims using these criteria, it is possible to recognize abnormal or deviant behavior before it becomes destructive. It just takes management attention, concern, and involvement.

How well do you know and understand your employees? Each employee is an individual entity with traits and habits that are both unique and consistent. Deviant behavior is occurring when an employee's "normal self "or "usual response patterns" change substantially. The deviant behavior is the employee's "cry for help." Management's function is to recognize the change and take corrective action regarding the work-related behavior. Failure to respond or to provide positive direction is the first step toward inviting violence into the workplace.

The immediate "red flags" that indicate an employee is in serious trouble or may be prone to violence are obvious and can be observed in pronounced behavior changes such as hostility toward authority, being chronically disgruntled, finding fault, blaming others for misfortunes, making destructive criticism, and threats. The root causes for these personality changes are complex and must always be addressed.

What to Do, What Not to Do
Management must never try to diagnose deviant behavior; the manager must only identify the fact that the behavior is occurring and take appropriate action related to the behavior. Management should not take on the role of a therapist or social worker.

Assuming an employee is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, facing financial problems, preparing for a divorce, or coping with severe family problems can only lead to gross misjudgments and poor guidance. The primary concern must always be to refer the employee to a place where help can be obtained before more severe consequences result (i.e., job termination or on-the-job injury). This assumes the employer has an Employee Assistance Program or other type of confidential counseling service that employees can utilize.

Direct management actions and/or business decisions can also affect employee morale. Some simple rules to avoid conflict include:

1. Make certain all performance appraisals are fact-based and objective. Discuss poor performance, involve the employee in developing an improvement plan, give everyone an equal chance to improve, and make certain that expectations are written and clearly understood by the employee.

2. Always provide as much warning of an impending layoff as possible. Do not surprise employees.

3. Be consistent when dealing with employee issues such as discipline, promotion, transfer, etc.

4. Conduct brief termination meetings. There is no good way to tell an employee he/she is being terminated; allow the employee to maintain his/her self-esteem.

Obviously, many other management actions could cause employee stress. The primary concern always must be the manner in which instructions or messages are conveyed to employees. Communications skills are paramount. Effective conflict-resolution abilities and an awareness of employee differences (ethnic, cultural, etc.) also are essential. Sensitivity training and/or T-Group training can be very beneficial.

The Work Environment's Role
The work environment--the tools, equipment, ergonomic conditions, and numerous other conditions--also reflects management's commitment. Are adequate tools provided? Is equipment properly maintained? Are teamwork and employee empowerment part of management's philosophy?

What is management's attitude regarding training? Are employee feedback or suggestion programs provided? Does management express a genuine concern for the welfare of employees?

Creating a work environment that demonstrates commitment and encourages teamwork is healthy. It reduces stress.

Legal Concerns
There are legal issues associated with violence in the workplace. While most states have not enacted specific legislation, the courts have heard numerous cases and made significant awards, including $5.2 million to a supervisor permanently disabled by an employee who was terminated and $5.5 million against an employment agency that failed to properly evaluate and screen a referral to a client company.

The issues often involve the following:

1. Ineffective management--failure to provide the direction needed to ensure that employees perform work properly.

2. Poor hiring practices--failure to screen employees for previous history of violent and criminal acts.

3. Condoning poor performance: failure to terminate an employee after he/she was determined to be an unsatisfactory performer.

4. Inadequate security: failure to properly safeguard employees from the threat of violence or from violence in the workplace.

Effective Prevention Programs
All things being considered, the final question remains: "Are there objective programs that can be developed to ensure that workplace violence is prevented?" A prevention plan must include the following elements:

1. Inter-departmental participation in the development of a formal program that addresses drug/alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, threats, language, conduct, dress code, and other elements of inappropriate behavior.

2. Establishment of an employee "hotline."

3. Development of an effective employee education program. All employees should know and understand the rules.

4. Effective procedures for screening/evaluating prospective new hires.

5. Layoff and termination practices that can ensure minimum stress levels.

6. Confidential Medical Assistance Program for use by troubled employees.

7. Preparation of a contingency and crisis response plan if threats or violence should occur.

8. Periodic drills/evaluations to determine the effectiveness of the total prevention plan.

Management commitment to violence prevention must be well documented. This usually requires the establishment of a "zero tolerance level" for threats, intimidation, sexual harassment, or other types of aggressive behavior. Policies must be developed, a confidential "hotline" for reporting employees' concerns must be developed, a complaint investigation must be established, and enforcement procedures for policy violations are needed. This process usually requires involvement on an inter-departmental basis.

An aggressive communication program that reaches all employees is necessary to ensure effective communication of management's commitment to non-violence. Orientation programs for executives (to ensure communication of financial and legal consequences), for line managers (to provide training in conflict resolution, stress reduction, and effective employee communications) and for employees (to establish an awareness and understanding of the company's position) should be conducted. All employees should feel secure in knowing their rights as employees are being addressed and that a confidential complaint and feedback process has been established.

The employment process can also be used as a means to prevent potential violence in the workplace. All employment application data should be verified; employment interviews should be conducted by skilled interviewers; background investigations for criminal convictions should be completed; and physical limitations should be documented. It may be necessary to consult with your legal counsel before employment is denied for any of the above reasons. In this case, "An ounce of prevention might be well worth a pound of cure." Do not take shortcuts!

The Final Exit
The termination and/or layoff process is a major stress producer. The manner in which it is accomplished can cause or mitigate workplace violence. Losing a job must not be viewed as the end of the world by the employee. Employee understanding, out-placement assistance, and involvement in the separation process produce a positive opportunity for employee participation and reduces stress.

Make certain the reason(s) for the separation are clearly understood. Do not make promises.

When termination/layoff actions are concluded, it may be necessary to escort the employee(s) from the facility. Collection of identification badges, company property, and personal tools should be accomplished without permitting the employee(s) to return to their work area. This requires the establishment of exit procedures and, in some cases, the installation of security monitoring equipment. When security personnel provide the exit escort, their responsibilities and procedures should be clearly defined and understood.

Preparing for Unplanned Crises
No violence prevention program can guarantee violence will not occur. Isolated incidents such as a bomb threat, industrial sabotage, hostage taking, random shootings, robbery, and other acts of violence can occur at any time.

A crisis response plan that details responsibilities and procedures to be followed should be established for each scenario. This will require the identification of sensitive or vulnerable work areas (computer operations, energy sources, production operations, asset protection, general plant security, etc.).

Participation from all management units within the company is needed. Once the plan is developed, periodic "table top" drills need to be conducted. Critique the results and require modifications to ensure the plan is always functional. Readiness must become the objective.

Downsizing, layoffs, consolidations, mergers, equipment upgrades, production cutbacks, labor unrest, and many other stress-producing events are a part of today's business climate. To some, significant changes such as these can produce insecurity, resentment, and retaliation. The silent employee can become aggressive if adequate controls to prevent violence are not established and communicated. Are you prepared?

This article originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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