Five Reasons Why Your People Are in Danger

Employees must have a clear understanding of whom to go to with a complaint and how this is to be reported. There should be no confusion.

I find that more often than not, people do not have a good understanding of workplace violence. In its broadest terms, it can be anything from basic threats, bullying and harassment, all the way to arson, poisoning, and even homicide. Some people think of workplace violence only in the extreme, such as a guy with an UZI submachine gun running amok within an office block.

Most workplace violence, however, is a slow-burning daily occurrence.

1. Lack of Understanding
In some workplaces, managers and their supervisors do not understand the role they have to play and the responsibilities they hold with regard to workplace violence. One study found that 31 percent of the victims of workplace violence had reported a violent incident or a potentially violent individual to a supervisor and/or security within their company, and "nothing" was done about it.

Middle management and top-level management within an organization need to understand their liability, how to reduce risk, and how to keep their employees safe. When middle and upper management have an understanding of their own individual roles regarding workplace violence, they, in turn, can create clear lines of communications with employees and provide direction and support to those employees.

2. Lack of Policy/Misunderstood Policy
We have worked with a number of companies that did not have anything resembling a workplace violence policy. Others have paid lip service to the idea but have only one or two basic lines of information, which is usually interconnected with harassment and ethics policies.

Other companies may have a thorough workplace violence policy in place, but it is difficult to read and full of legalese that the average person cannot understand. We worked with one company whose policy was so complicated that I read it three times, was still unclear, and felt as though I needed to contact their corporate counsel to have them explain it to me.

Every company, no matter the size or the number of employees, should have a workplace violence policy that is clear, easy to read, and easily understood. We recommend that it be written in simple Grade 8 language.

3. No Reporting System
When we are called in to consult with clients on a workplace violence issue or a dangerous termination, we often interview employees in order to gain a clear picture and assess the risk. Routinely, we find three to 10 employees who admit that they have seen something, heard something, or were suspicious of the suspect's behavior and/or attitude. When asked why they didn't report any of these suspicious acts, the most common responses are:

  • "Who was I supposed to report it to?"
  • "How was I supposed to report it?"
  • "I wasn't sure if the act is considered workplace violence and warranted a complaint."

There has to be a clear procedure in place to deal with workplace violence. Employees should first and foremost understand what constitutes violence in the workplace. They need to have a clear understanding of whom to go to with a complaint and whether this is to be reported in person or by phone or e-mail. There should be no confusion.

In almost all serious cases of workplace violence, fellow employees had knowledge that collectively would have raised red flags. The problem is always the same: No one was able to connect the dots and see the full threat.

4. Lack of Training
Workplace violence training is important. All employees should receive a minimum of an hour of training per year. New hires should receive training as a part of their initial employee orientation with your company. All supervisors and managers should have a minimum of a half day of training in order to appreciate and understand their roles within the system. Any employee who will be part of a threat assessment team or an emergency response team requires up to two days of training on an annual basis.

In a perfect world, all training would be live and in person and money would never be an issue! Unfortunately, that is not the current reality. Consider virtual training, webinars, cost-effective training by teaming up with other companies, sponsorship through a vendor, and local law enforcement agencies. You should consider annual retraining a must, but be creative so that attendees are not bored by always hearing the same information in the same way.

Consider programs on:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Managing angry people
  • Personal safety
  • Domestic violence
  • Workplace bullying

The idea is to ensure that workplace violence prevention is a value held by all within a company and not just a priority.

5. Gaps in Prevention
What prevention looks like can vary from company to company based on unique issues and job descriptions, but the prevention element should fall into at least these three categories.

a) Procedures

  • Do you have procedures in place to effectively handle a serious workplace violence incident?
  • Do you have a threat assessment team?
  • Do you have clear lines of communication regarding complaints procedures?
  • What gaps do you and your company have in this area?

b) Physical security

  • When was the last time your company had a physical security assessment?
  • Do you have sufficient lighting in your parking lots?
  • Do you have secure access to your company building and parking lot?
  • Is access limited to staff only?
  • What are your gaps or vulnerabilities in physical security?

c) Training

  • Is your training for workplace violence mandatory?
  • Do you provide annual retraining?
  • What unique issues do your employees deal with? Are you providing them with the necessary training to handle these unique issues? Be aware that when you implement new procedures or update physical security, the weakest link is always the untrained or unaware employee.

Ensuring Safety During Terminations
Many violent and even deadly terminations could have been avoided if managers had said and done the right things and had brought in the right authorities at the appropriate times. Now more than ever, as economic news worsens and unemployment remains high, the pressure, fear, and anxiety facing newly terminated workers could turn your next termination into something far, far worse.

Here are 11 steps to reduce the risk of violence and increase safety for you and your employees during a termination:

1. Pause before rushing into a termination.
2. Address the immediate safety concerns by evaluating and eliminating the risks as much as possible. In high-risk terminations, we recommend taking the time to stabilize the situation by fulfilling due diligence and effectively using threat assessment procedures. If you are in doubt about the risk, hire an experienced outside consultant.
3. Planning occurs at every step of the process. The more dangerous the termination, the more fluid the situation.
4. Choose a neutral environment for the termination, such as a conference room. The room should have lots of windows, be closest to the entrance, and have minimal furniture.
5. Create a safe environment. Clear the table or desks of any objects that can be used as weapons (pens and pencils are on this list).
6. Have a male and a female in the room to handle the termination. Only one person actively communicates the termination; the second person does not participate but is there as a witness and to provide assistance if necessary.
7. De-personalize the situation. When/if possible, emphasize that the termination is about the position, not the person.
8. Control your emotions. Remain as neutral as possible and focus on the situation, not the person.
9. Ensure that all company property has been retrieved and that the employee's property is being packed and inventoried. The employee should sign for the property and be given his or her personal belongings at the completion of the termination. Employees should not be allowed to return to their offices or workstations after termination.
10. Separate completely. Any termination process with a high-risk individual should strive for a complete separation in which there is no opportunity to re-establish a relationship with the company.
11. Avoid the walk of shame! Respect the person’s dignity.

Terminations are never fun or comfortable. Following these 11 steps will reduce the risks associated with terminations and move forward in a productive, safe manner.

Gaps and the vulnerabilities are what put you, your employees, and your company at risk for workplace violence. Attendees at a recent workshop that I gave on this topic overwhelmingly stated that the exercise on identifying gaps and vulnerabilities in all of the aforementioned areas was the most valuable part of the workshop. I urge you to take a fresh new look at whatever gaps exist in your company from the viewpoint of workplace violence.

In order to minimize risk, reduce liability, and keep your people safe, everyone in your company needs to have a role in eliminating workplace violence.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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