A Shared Responsibility: Preventing Violence in the Workplace
Challenges, conflicts and stress are inevitable at work, so are grievances and disappointments; violence is not.
- By Matthew Doherty
- May 04, 2021
Tangible and intangible costs are exceedingly high.
By some estimates, workplace violence has an economic impact of, on average, more than $120 billion each year. According to OSHA, two million Americans are victims of workplace violence per year. Even the quickest and most decisive response to violence can’t necessarily stop what comes next:
Absenteeism: A 10-year study found that employees exposed to workplace violence are nearly twice as likely to have health-related absences in the years following the incident.
- Employee turnover: Attrition spikes by as much as 10 percent immediately following a violent incident.
- Loss of productivity: As much as $727 million worth of productivity is lost from workplace violence.
- Money lost in litigation: Workplace violence can cost up to $3.1 million per person per incident.
- Medical expenses: Even employees who aren’t physically harmed in an incident frequently experience psychological trauma that results in more money spent on healthcare services, both for employees and employers.
- Recovery costs: Total financial impacts include the direct costs associated with any post-event civil litigation, replacing employees who leave and potential fines from OSHA and other regulatory bodies as well as indirect costs associated with damage.
- An immeasurable toll on happiness: The net emotional and mental impact that workplace violence has over the course of an individual’s life is impossible to quantify, but the aftermath described above underscores the adverse, long- and short-term effects that can have on someone’s quality of life.
Start by identifying your needs
The first step towards developing an effective workplace violence prevention and intervention program is to perform a gap analysis. Doing so answers several simple questions critical to planning:
(1) What capabilities and competencies currently exist within the organization that can help support a workplace violence prevention and intervention (WVPI) program?
(2) Which relevant capabilities and competencies are missing?
(3) What are the organization-specific issues and potential obstacles that need to be resolved to establish an effective program?
The following are additional, specific questions that your gap analysis should address:
Existing policies and protocols:
Do you have up to date policies to cover red-flag behaviors that do not always fall within a workplace violence prevention and intervention policy’s scope, such as those on anti-harassment, substance use and weapons prohibition? Does your WPVI policy include special consideration for red-flag behaviors that have historically been excluded, such as signs of intimate partner violence?
- Employee assistance program: Does your organization have one, and is it equipped to deal with potential warning signs in a non-judgmental manner?
Reporting: Are you 100 percent confident that your employees feel encouraged, comfortable and safe reporting potential red-flag behaviors?
- Management: Are senior leaders trained on how to handle information reported in a judicious, compliant and proactive manner? Do they know which other company stakeholders, such as representatives from HR, Legal or Security, to involve?
- Processes: What, if any, processes have you developed to help you assess information of concern and act based on your findings?
- Sources of conflict: What are the most common sources of conflict within your organization and how do you deal with them?
- Training needs: What aspects of workplace violence prevention and intervention training are beyond your ability to confidently address?
The goal of such an assessment or gap analysis is to figure out where a lack of knowledge, expertise, communication or training might keep you from properly identifying behavioral warning signs, assessing the potential for violence and managing incidents properly and effectively.
Develop clear prevention and reporting policies and communicate them widely
For a workplace violence prevention and intervention program to function at its best, every stakeholder in the organization must be aware of it. According to research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), only 45 percent of American workers are aware of their employer’s workplace violence prevention and intervention policies.
Many companies have zero-tolerance policies, which were a long-standing best practice for assuring employees that all incidents and concerns will be taken seriously. Though this assurance is still critical for any workplace violence prevention and intervention plan, experts advise against using “zero-tolerance” policy language today because of its punitive tone and potentially inflexible approach.
That lack of flexibility means that zero-tolerance language often excludes warning sign behaviors that threat assessment experts consider crucial. A notable example is signs of intimate partner violence. An estimated 21 percent of full-time employees are victims of intimate partner violence, and of those, 74 percent said they have been harassed by their intimate partners while they were at work. Yet, most businesses do not have a workplace violence prevention and intervention policy that covers warning signs of intimate partner violence.
Instead of blanket zero-tolerance language, organizations should develop a robust set of policies that clearly outline a wide variety of warning signs and behaviors – and the potential disciplinary action that may be taken if an employee acts in a harmful or dangerous manner. Not only do these policies foster transparency for employees and clarify otherwise murky and subjective blanket policy language, but they encourage employees to report behavior without the fear that they or one of their coworkers will be unduly punished.
Sense something, say something
At every organization, it’s important to encourage a culture of “sense something, say something” – not just in words, instituting the proper channels, anonymous or otherwise, to make employees feel comfortable actively participating in violence prevention and intervention.
A reporting and response system is a collective responsibility. It first and foremost requires input and participation from employees who are the eyes and ears of your workplace violence prevention and intervention program. This includes reporting on their own circumstances – such as notifying HR or their supervisor of any protective or restraining orders – as well as reporting concerning behaviors.
The goal is to create a non-punitive environment in which your employees feel safe and encouraged to report warning signs, and in which the proper parties can be swiftly notified so they can evaluate the matter and determine which actions to take.
It’s time to turn the lights on
Too often, people come forward after an incident to say they saw warning signs. In fact, research by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) found that every individual who carried out an attack in a public space within a five-year period had a “significant stressor” leading up to the incident.
Some of the most common stressors involved:
- Family or romantic relationships
- Personal issues such as unstable living conditions
- Work or school environments (e.g., suspensions, layoffs)
- Contact with law enforcement that did not result in arrests or charges
- Financial instability
With proper training, organizations can help workers understand what signs might indicate one of these stressors. From there, organizations can create a culture in which employees feel encouraged to report their concerns anonymously and safely.
Again, the goal is not to punish someone who is experiencing a stressor, but to flag the fact that he/she is facing a hardship and offer support to help him or her overcome it in a manner that prevents harm to anyone.
Even if employees can recognize red flags, have they been made to feel as though they can – and should – report them without reprisal?
It’s critical that leadership in an organization understands why employees don’t report warning signs.
46 percent don’t think any action will be taken
- 39 percent are worried about being labeled overly emotional, weak or petty
- 38 percent remain silent because the offender is his/her manager
- 38 percent fear retaliation
- 32 percent don’t trust HR
- 26 percent fear losing his/her job
- 20 percent have trouble describing the behaviors
Leadership should encourage employees’ cooperation in reporting and ensure they have a basic understanding of the organization’s program for managing threats and that great care will be taken to preserve privacy and act with compassion while protecting people.
What to watch out for
Violence and warning signs of potential violence in the workplace span a broad range of behaviors. On the low end of the range are early warning behaviors’ negative impact the workplace or raise concern in a non-threatening way. Escalating behaviors are aggressive, hostile, disruptive or emotionally abusive behaviors that generate anxiety or distrust and adversely impact productivity and employee morale.
More serious violations include harassment (e.g., bullying, sexual harassment), stalking, direct, veiled or conditional threats; aggressive harassment that could be perceived as intimidating, frightening or threatening and acts of overt violence that cause physical injury, such as non-fatal physical assaults including hitting, pushing, shoving, biting or throwing objects. Worst of all are acts of lethal violence.
As employers – and as employees – we need to develop awareness of the entire spectrum.
Employees have to understand the warning signs and their critical role in sharing this information with their supervisor, HR representative, an anonymous company hotline or other designated entity.
Master the art and science of threat assessments
It is now recommended that every organization have on-demand access to third-party threat management experts or an in-house threat management team (TMT). Many large enterprises have both.
A threat management team is an interdisciplinary group of in-house stakeholders including representatives from HR, Security, Legal and Operations, as well as ad-hoc members such as clinical psychologists, mental health practitioners and public safety personnel. This team is
responsible for assessing concerning behavior reported by employees. They need to understand:
How to investigate an individual who has been identified as a potential threat
- How to impartially assess the facts to decide if the threat is valid
- How to manage the individual in question
- When to engage outside experts for analysis and counsel
The specific methods used to investigate, assess and manage an individual can vary significantly depending on the type of threat reported. This is a delicate operation that requires a finely tuned approach to communication that is non-accusatory and that leaves any prior attitudes or assumptions out of the equation. During formal direct, in-person assessments, for example, our clinical psychologists use non-confrontational techniques and non-judgmental language to help the subject feel more at ease.
At the core of the assessment is listening and learning about the challenges and changes the employee is confronting and using this information to both measure the risk of violence and also determine the intervention tactics most likely to resolve the matter peacefully. In many cases, managing the risk involves helping the troubled individual separate from the employer with their dignity intact and access new sources of external support, through tactics such as exit compensation packages and paid access to mental health counseling.
Train your stakeholders
Training is an essential component of a strong institutional commitment to workplace violence prevention and preparedness. Every member of your organization must be prepared to address the underlying responsibility of safety, security and violence prevention. Confidence in knowing how to properly prevent and respond to violent behaviors and actions comes from understanding, training and practice.
Foundational Training: All members of an organization should take the same basic course with the goal of promoting a common understanding of workplace violence that is essential to a strong and supportive prevention-focused culture. The training should include a basic explanation of the workplace violence spectrum, the organization’s commitment to a safe and secure workplace, options for reporting concerning behavior and an explanation of warning signs and risk factors.
Leadership Training: Strong leaders are essential to workplace violence prevention. This training should prepare leaders across all organizational levels to model behavioral accountability and ensure consistency, compliance and collaboration in responding to disruptive or harmful actions or reported concerns. Leaders should also understand that building a culture of trust helps employees gain confidence in speaking up.
Threat Management Team Training: A well-trained and cohesive threat management team is essential to helping prevent or minimize potential violence by effectively addressing incidents or behaviors of concern reported by employees.
The goal of these workplace violence prevention and intervention training programs isn’t necessarily to anticipate every possible conflict scenario. You are not preparing for a single, isolated event. Instead, you are learning to recognize milestones along the path that an individual takes toward violence – and to see this as a human chain of events with opportunities for intervention.
The good news is that these skills can be taught.
Don’t walk alone
Developing a successful workplace violence prevention and intervention program is much easier when you have help from experts with years of experience in violence risk management and behavioral threat assessment, physical security, clinical and forensic psychology, open-source threat intelligence and analysis, protective operations and law enforcement.
Implemented thoughtfully and thoroughly, these programs can – and do – result in a safer, more respectful work environment. Benefits to your organization include:
Greater recognition by employees, clients and strategic partners where safety and security are an organizational priority
- Ability to advance a best-fit approach to prevention and enterprise security risk management
- Increased morale and productivity through visible investments in and commitment to a violence-free workplace
- Decreased liability risk via early intervention and response by the internal Threat Management Team to reported concerns or acts of violence
- Stronger cross-functional collaboration and information sharing
In other words: you don’t have to walk alone in developing an effective workplace violence prevention and intervention program.
Investments in workplace violence prevention continually show positive returns for proactive organizations. Outcomes lead to stronger financial performance and increased worker productivity and job satisfaction.