Preventing Workplace Violence: Management Considerations

By Robert A. Gardner, CPP

It's ten in the morning and the sounds of a disturbance in your outer office distract you from the file you've been studying. Suddenly your office door bursts open; standing in the doorway is Charlie Smith.

Until last week, Charlie worked in accounting. He'd been a model employee for more than six years but recently he began to change. He became withdrawn and moody. His work deteriorated and he was prone to violent verbal assaults against co-workers. After he tried to attack his supervisor during a counseling session, you were forced to terminate him.

Annoyed by the disruption, you begin to rise from your desk. You start to protest the intrusion then suddenly stop. A wave of terror sweeps through you. Charlie has a gun!

For most of us, workplace violence is something that only happens on the six o'clock news. We know that it exists, but there is an air of unreality about it. We can't relate to mass murder committed by a deranged Postal worker or to the scattered wreckage of a commuter airplane blown from the sky by a disgruntled former airline employee. Incidents like these are so far from the realm of our everyday experience that we just can't comprehend them. As a result, we tend to view the idea of workplace violence as a sensational curiosity. It happens, but not in a business like ours and certainly not to people like us.

Unfortunately, workplace violence isn't limited to the occasional murder rampage in a government building. It can and does happen anywhere. Every business regardless of its size and type should have a workplace violence program in place. This program should:

The Consequences

Violence impacts organizations in a variety of ways. The tragedy of dead or seriously injured employees is obvious. Less obvious is the damage an organization can sustain from the consequences of actual or threatened violence. Moral and productivity suffer when employees are frightened or disturbed by violent incidents or threats of violence. Should the victim be a key employee or important executive, day to day operations can be seriously disrupted. Employees who lose confidence in the organization to provide them with a safe working environment may be inclined to look elsewhere for work. Fear and anxiety can induce a variety personnel problems that can sap the strength of the organization.

News of violence within an organization can also become a public relations issue. The negative attention brought on by a violent incident can have far reaching ramifications. Customers may be frightened away. Associates may sever ties to avoid the risk of their names being linked to the violence. Recruiting efforts can suffer. Prospective employees are likely to avoid an organization with a violent reputation.

Liability is also an issue. It is virtually certain that any violent incident will result in some sort of litigation. It is also certain that the litigation will attempt to show that the organization was somehow negligent in it's approach to workplace violence.

In cases where an employee is the cause of injury to others, there will inevitably be claims that the organization knew or should have known of that individual's propensity for violence and failed to act. Issues of negligent hiring, negligent retention and inadequate supervision will be raised. Individual managers and supervisors will be singled out for their alleged negligence in failing to predict and prevent the violence. In situations where outsiders injure employees or customers, the organization will be accused of negligence for failing to provide adequate security. Claims will be made that the violence, whether caused by employee or outsider, was foreseeable and but for negligent and inept management practices could have been prevented. As with other security and safety considerations, having a formal workplace violence program in place can go a long way toward mounting a credible defense should claims of negligence be made.

Crisis Management Team

Formation of a Crisis Management Team is the first essential step in the development of a successful workplace violence program. Effective management of a workplace violence program requires input from a variety of disciplines. No single individual has the training, experience and authority needed to develop, implement and administer the necessary policies and procedures.

The ideal Crisis Management Team should consist of a member of executive management along with a management member from human resources, security, and risk management. There should also be a legal advisor and a psychologist. Some organizations may also chose to include an employee representative. This group should be charged with developing workplace violence policies and should be the decision making body when workplace violence issues arise or incidents occur. The Crisis Management Team should report directly to the organization's highest executive officer.

Frequently, organizations do not have the personnel needed to adequately staff a Crisis Management Team. In those cases, it may be necessary to retain outside experts to fill some functions. It is common for organizations to operate without a security department, an in-house attorney or a staff psychologist. Private practice psychologists, private legal counsel and independent security consultants can be called in to fill these rolls.

Regardless of the source of the team membership, it is critical that they have the full and active support of executive management. The executive management member should be the team leader and must have sufficient influence and authority to overcome any organizational obstacles to the successful operation of the team.

Individual team members should have a working knowledge of the organization as a whole and should be experienced experts in their particular discipline. They must be able to fully comprehend the complex issues surrounding workplace violence and be prepared to offer viable solutions to problems affecting their particular area of responsibility.

It is important that the team meet regularly. Once the workplace violence program is developed and in place, it must undergo continuous review. Regular meetings permit the team to keep current on the daily operations of the organization and assist them in identifying and evaluating potential problems. Activation of the team only after problems occur puts them at a serious disadvantage in maintaining an effective program. A proactive approach not only aids the team in monitoring and managing the program; it also puts the organization in a much better position to defend itself should an incident occur and litigation result.

The team should also be tasked with contingency planning. Should an incident occur, there must be a response plan in place to deal with it. Trying to develop a plan under fire virtually guarantees failure. Every possible scenario should be considered and a response for each developed and tested.

Consideration should be given to making the Crisis Management Team the nucleus of the organization's overall emergency preparedness effort. Members of the team could occupy key positions in the organization's critical incident command system. Workplace violence incidents should be fully incorporated into the organization's disaster preparedness program with periodic drills conducted to ensure that the system works. In reality, workplace violence is simply a different form of disaster. Many of the response procedures are similar to procedures for dealing with other workplace emergencies.

In the formative stages of a Crisis Management program, it may be helpful to retain the services of an independent Crisis Management expert to act as an advisor and facilitator. This individual can provide insight and guidance to the team and act as a technical resource for the development of policies and procedures.

Policies and Procedures

The foundation of a Crisis Management program is it's policies and procedures. These should be carefully researched, easily understood and committed to writing. In practice there should be a number of separate but related policies in place. Each policy is geared toward its particular target audience and contains the information that audience needs to function within the program.

An example would be a Workplace Violence section in the organization's personnel manual. Although it would seem to be common sense that violent acts are prohibited in the workplace, a specific rule to that effect would remove any doubts and make imposing discipline easier when the need arises.

The manual should describe procedures to be followed by employees who are victims of actual or threatened violence. Reporting procedures should be in place for employees who witness violent acts or who are concerned that a violent situation may develop. The manual should identify any employee Assistance Programs that may be available and provide instructions for accessing these programs.

Contingency plans describing procedures to follow should be prepared and distributed to team members and other personnel who may be called on to make decisions during an actual incident. These plans should include operational checklists, emergency contact lists, notification schedules and resource lists backed up by detailed operational plans. Unlike personnel manuals which are given to everyone, contingency plans should be treated as confidential documents. They contain information and action plans that would be useful to anyone contemplating violence against specific individuals or the organization in general. Limit their dissemination only to those with a need to know.

Identifying Threats

Shock, surprise and disbelief are common reactions to workplace violence incidents. However, analysis of individual cases often shows that there were warning signs that went unrecognized or were ignored.

As part of the workplace violence program, organizations should train employees at all levels to recognize and report the danger signals which often precede incidents of violence. Each of these reports should be evaluated by the Crisis Management Team to determine if further action is warranted.

Because of the sensitive issues involved, great care must be taken to ensure that the rights and the privacy of everyone involved are closely guarded. An employee who exhibits "at risk" behaviors must be evaluated, but they must not be made to feel they are being singled out for ridicule or persecution.

Predicting human behavior is an inexact science at best but experience has shown that individuals who commit violent acts at work often fit one or more of several "at risk" profiles. There are no absolutes when classifying "at risk" employees but a red flag should be raised when an employee:

When an employee is thought to be "at risk", the organization must take immediate action. Responsibility for evaluating the risk and developing a response plan should be coordinated through the Crisis Management Team.

Along with "at risk" profiles, the organization should be sensitive to "trigger situations". These are events which could serve as a catalyst to push a violence prone employee over the edge. Normal, emotionally stable employees may show little or no reaction to "trigger situations". If they do react, it is usually in a controlled and reasonable manner. The "at risk" employee on the other hand, may view trigger situations as events which justify a violent response. It would be impossible to list every conceivable "trigger situation" but there are some events which are common to the workplace and should always be viewed as potentially dangerous. These include:

Careful management of these and other "trigger situations" is an essential element of a Workplace Violence Program. In many of the above situations, the organization has considerable control over the conditions under which interaction with the employee occurs. Through preplanning it is possible to exercise this control in a manner that ensures that the possibility of a violent reaction will be markedly reduced.

Threat Reduction

The ultimate goal of any Workplace Violence Program should be the total elimination of all work related incidents of violence . This goal may not be entirely achievable but an effective program can significantly reduce the risks. The first step in preventing violence is an awareness by management that a potential threat exists. In order to achieve that awareness, there must be a mechanism for all employees at all levels to report potentially violent people or situations.

The ideal system should bypass the normal chain of command and report directly to a designated member of the Crisis Management Team. This centralized reporting ensures that the information will reach the decision makers quickly and serves to facilitate the identification of "at risk" behavior patterns. A troubled employee my make threats or display other symptoms in several locations throughout the organization. Centralized reporting enables the Crisis Management Team to assemble data from separate sources and recognize problems far sooner than possible with conventional upward reporting. Centralized reporting also depersonalizes the reporting process somewhat. It can encourage reporting in circumstances where the employee may be reluctant to confide in a supervisor who they deal closely with on a daily basis. This is particularly true when all involved parties work in the same department or area.

Once identified, "at risk" employees must be evaluated and, where appropriate, provided with counseling or other help. In many cases this can be accomplished by referring the employee to the organization's Employee Assistance Program. If no such program exists, arrangements should be made to have the employee see a company retained psychologist. Even in situations where the employee's conduct clearly warrants termination, an evaluation should be conducted. This could preclude -- or at least provide warning of -- possible violence during or after the termination.

The availability of counseling through an Employee Assistance Program may also encourage and employee who recognizes that they are "at risk" to seek help before a crisis occurs. This opportunity to get help without fear of discipline or condemnation saves both the employee and the organization from the consequences of a tragic confrontation.

Screening Out Problems

During post incident investigations, it is common to find the offending employee had a long history of violent or disruptive behavior. Had that fact been known prior to employment, they would almost certainly have not been hired.

Pre-employment screening, sometimes referred to as a background investigation, should be an integral part of every organization's personnel policy. Unfortunately, few organizations conduct thorough investigations. This failure not only subjects the organization and it's employees to unnecessary danger, it also exposes the organization to serious liability. Lawsuits involving claims of negligent hiring are among the fastest growing areas of civil litigation. A properly designed and implemented pre-employment screening program can quickly and legally identify unsuitable applicants thereby shielding the organization from a multitude of dangers.

Because we live in an era that emphasizes the rights of the employee over the rights of the employer, many organizations feel that conducting anything more than a cursory reference check - or conversely, providing anything more than dates of employment in response to a reference check - is somehow illegal. Providing that applicable civil rights laws are observed and the applicant has signed a waiver permitting it, there is nothing improper or illegal about making an extensive background inquiry.

A background investigation based solely on the information entered on an application form by the prospective employee is a waste of time. The information on the form is important to an investigator, but applications are routinely falsified. Non-existent job histories are created; breaks in employment glossed over and education exaggerated. Because applicants rely on the fact that employers tend to accept application data at face value, far too many applications are works of fiction rather than a true picture of the applicants history.

In addition to background investigations, employers should consider the use of pre-employment testing to screen job candidates. There are a number of approved tests on the market which can assess a wide variety of character traits including honesty, substance abuse and propensity to violence. The implementation of an effective pre-employment screening program is essential to not only workplace violence prevention, but to the overall well being of the organization.

Violence From Outside

There are two primary outside sources for violence against the organization and it's employees. The first is criminal in nature. This type of violence has no close personal connection to the organization. Criminal attacks are usually carried out by strangers and are motivated by either economic factors or ideology. Typical examples would be robbery or terrorism. Prevention of these and similar crimes requires an effective physical security program. Such a program integrates facility design, security hardware and electronics, security personnel, organizational policy and local law enforcement.

The second source of outside violence has a more personal connection to the organization. These attacks typically involve former employees or non-employees with an emotional connection to the organization. An example would be a terminated employee with a grudge against the organization or against an employee of the organization. Another example would be a jealous or rejected lover who blames the organization or someone in it for their problems. An unstable husband who knows or at least suspects his wife is having an affair with a co-worker could pose a serious threat.

In some ways the criminal threat and the personal threat are similar. Both can require that the attacker circumvent security precautions and both can result in serious harm if not prevented. They are different, however, by virtue of the fact that the personal attacker may have access to the organization that the stranger is denied.

There is also the added dimension that the organization may have a responsibility to provide protection to a threatened employee away from the workplace. An organization usually has no responsibility to protect an off-duty employees from criminal attack. However, a company executive, or any other employee for that matter, who is the subject of work related death threats could be entitled to receive around the clock protection. Failure to provide adequate security for such an individual could result in liability for the organization should an incident occur.

When faced with providing protection against disgruntled former employees or other dangerous outsiders, the organization should look to the law for whatever help may be available. Under some circumstances police may be able to intervene immediately. In most cases however, the mere threat of violence does not give police the authority to act. In California, an anti-stalking law can be applied to some workplace violence situations.

Also available are Temporary Restraining Orders. These Orders are issued by a judge to prevent individuals from committing certain specified acts. In workplace violence situations these Orders can sometimes be useful to prevent harassment of employees. Violation of the provisions of a Temporary Restraining Order is a crime. This can give police the authority to act even when no other crime has been committed.

The Choice

There is no guaranteed prevention program for workplace violence. Human nature is too unpredictable for that. There are however proven techniques for minimizing the risk of workplace violence by recognizing its danger signals and acting upon them.

Organizations that accept the possibility of workplace violence and actively plan to prevent it stand an excellent chance of avoiding a violent incident. Organizations that choose to ignore the danger run the very real risk of becoming the lead story on the six o'clock news.
This article first appeared in the August 1993 edition of the California Labor Letter.

Copyright © 1993 by Robert A. Gardner, CPP
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