Employers can take steps to prevent workplace violence

First of two parts

According to the FBI, gun violence in the workplace between 2007-2013 nearly tripled from of the years 2000-2006. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2016 alone there were 83 more cases of workplace homicides than there were in 2015. Recent news reports on these incidents have many employees concerned for their safety at work and employers feeling the added responsibility of making sure they keep their employees safe.

Tailor your safety practices to your workplace

There are many steps an employer can proactively take to prevent violence in the workplace.

The best prevention is to incorporate supportive management practices that can help to prevent many of the reasons violence erupts. You can tailor these practices to your work environment, facility and management style.

Foster a culture of respect in your company.  Employees will follow the example of their leaders. If you treat people with respect and set that expectation, you will minimize issues that have typically generated some of the workplace violence events. Promptly addressing bullying and harassment, as well as any other concern employees raise, will keep issues from escalating out of hand. Those actions support that environment of respect and assure employees that the employer is doing what’s necessary to create a safe workplace.

Review hiring practices to be sure you are doing due diligence to not hire an employee with a violent criminal record or violent tendencies. An obvious way is to complete criminal background checks on prospective employees once extending an employment offer. Another is to ask interview questions that give candidates opportunities to disclose when they’ve been violent in the past. This could be carefully inquiring why a candidate left a job, why they may have gaps in the employment history, or why they may have asked you not to verify an employment reference. Employers may even directly ask if candidates have been released from a job due to violence in the workplace. Asking open-ended questions about these topics will lead to learning important, relevant information about their background. Checking references is important, especially if a previous manager is willing to share some pertinent information. Some employers choose to use personality profiles that could identify violent tendencies. Personality profiles come with some risks, as they can identify things you aren’t allowed to ask or inadvertently screen out protected groups of potential employees if they aren’t well done, so use caution.

Set clear expectations and give feedback

Once employees are hired, provide clear work expectations and timely feedback. If employees know what’s expected, that calms nerves and allows the employee to focus on being productive. It will also help them maintain confidence as to their place in your organization. Address performance issues promptly so there are no surprises when disciplinary action or termination for performance arises.

If an employee isn’t meeting expectations, take the first step in progressive discipline, moving from verbal warnings to written warnings, as needed, help an employee appreciate the seriousness of an issue and giving them time to improve their performance. A written warning will help the employee understand that additional consequences could be forthcoming. If you’ve done progressive discipline, a suspension or termination should be less volatile because they’ve been informed along the way.

If you must terminate an employee, be brief and clear about the reason(s) and do not encourage discussion to avoid the employee escalating their emotions. Protect the employee’s dignity by keeping the discussion private and timing it to minimize the visibility after the fact. Often doing it at the end of the day is good because others have left, and the employee can have privacy when clearing out their workspace. If you ask the employee to return at a different time to clear out personal items, offer options for that. Accompany the employee through the office by management or security personnel at all times once a termination takes place. Obtain keys and company property immediately and have IT change any passwords or remove any access they have as soon as possible. This eliminates the terminated employee’s access and prevents them from having the opportunity to create an undetected, volatile situation.

Encourage employees to observe and report problems

Dabbling in the employees’ personal lives can border on invading someone’s privacy, but there are some observations or voluntary reporting employees can do to make management aware of potential threats of violence.

Employees and managers can voluntarily report any domestic violence or restraining orders happening in their lives as a courtesy to the employer, which would need to be handled with great discretion to protect the privacy of those involved. Employees could also report any signs of significant emotional distress or mental health issues in a colleague, such as someone suddenly being aggressive or isolating themselves. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or mental health options through a medical plan could help individual employees and, ultimately, the company.

Set an appropriate weapons policy

Weapons in the workplace is a hot topic of discussion. In some states, employers can prohibit all weapons on company property. In other states, employers can prohibit weapons inside a facility, but if an employee has a “conceal and carry” permit, they are allowed, by law, to keep a weapon concealed in their private vehicle in the company’s parking lot. Alternatively, some employers allow, or encourage, licensed employees to have weapons at work to help defend in case of an eruption of violence. Employers have many factors to consider when implementing gun policies: Weighing state and local laws, culture, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of having guns in the workplace. Allowing or inviting them can bring additional implied responsibility and obligations. Either option should be considered with much care and professional counsel.

Workplace search policies can be implemented, as well, regardless of whether you allow properly permitted guns in the workplace. Those policies can be crafted to allow the employer to search all company and personal property in the employee’s control or ownership, including vehicles. Again, compliance with state and local law is important when generating these policies.

Consider customer behaviors and whether they can escalate

Customer satisfaction and providing excellent customer service is a key component to a company’s success. In the event of a complaint from an unsatisfied customer, we have an opportunity to mitigate their concern and curtail a potential threat of violence. If a dissatisfied customer doesn’t complain, or their complaint isn’t satisfactorily addressed, the extreme but rare result could be a violent one.

This is one more reason that it’s important for all employees who interact with customers to know the company’s procedures for addressing customer complaints and to be trained in the importance of following those procedures in a timely manner when complaints arise.

Look for vulnerable areas of your company

Employers are making workplace security a priority. Companies can no longer rely on cameras and a secured front entrance to protect employees and their physical assets. Employers should assess their facility and current security measures and look for vulnerabilities. Ask employees for input, either in a staff meeting or through a survey. Employees often have some great suggestions. Some actions taken include adding capabilities for existing security guards and increased lighting in parking lots. In the end you want to be a difficult target for someone with the wrong motives.

Practicing these preventative measures can help your employees feel safe at work. And most of them have many additional benefits for your workplace, as well.

Next: What happens when violence occurs in the workplace and how employees should respond. We will address steps an employer should take, what employees should do and best practices for creating a policy and procedure.

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Trisha Crigger, Human Resources Generalist

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