Prepare to Prevent Workplace Violence

By Karyn Rhodes

Business woman feel helpless and sadnessWith approximately two million victims in America each year, workplace violence has become an increasing concern among businesses, especially after several recent high-profile situations – ranging from aggrieved shootings to terrorist acts. As companies struggle to proactively prepare their offices and employees for worst-case scenarios, the key is to understand today’s new reality and recognize possible threats that may have previously been overlooked.

Workplace Violence Defined

Workplace violence doesn’t just encompass behavior that results in injuries. It includes a wide range of negative conduct by employees, customers, and unsolicited visitors at the workplace, including:

  • Verbal threats
  • Aggressive acts
  • Intimidation
  • Harassment
  • Menacing gestures
  • Stalking
  • Physical abuse
  • Coercion
  • Brandishing of weapons
  • Disorderly conduct

Threats Inside and Out

Acts of violence committed by employees in the workplace can happen at any time, but often, precipitating events in the office occur that cause upset workers to act out, such as:

  • Layoffs or downsizings
  • Discipline or termination
  • Failure to get a raise or promotion
  • Job insecurity
  • Poor relationships with supervisors or other employees

In addition, situations outside of work like domestic violence, psychological problems or substance abuse can spill over into negative behavior at the business.

But perpetrators of workplace violence aren’t limited to those within the organization. Often, employees encounter threats from those outside of the company, such as customers, patients, vendors, employees’ family members or criminals without any connection to the workplace. As a result, certain positions are at a greater risk of threats from these outsiders, including those who:

  • exchange money with the public
  • deliver passengers, goods, or services
  • work alone or in small groups during late night or early morning hours in high-crime areas, or in community settings and homes where they have extensive contact with the public
  • retail workers

Zero Tolerance

The best protection employers can offer workers is a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence against or by employees that is incorporated in an accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures. That means an organization should minimize the risk of injury to employees by tolerating no threat of violence, talk of violence or act of violence.

But it’s not always easy for managers and employees to identify behavior that may turn violent – and prevent it. However, some common behaviors exhibited before workplace violence incidents include:

  • Outward hostility or angry outbursts
  • Withdrawal or moodiness
  • A decline in hygiene or appearance
  • Ominous threats
  • increased absenteeism or deterioration in performance  
  • Sudden irrational or inappropriate behavior
  • Discussion of access to weapons or brandishing a weapon

Preparation is Key

Often, employees sense something is wrong but don’t notify a supervisor. Employers should offer workers safety education training so they can understand indicators of potential violence, what conduct is not acceptable, what to do if they witness workplace violence and how to protect themselves if they are victims. For example, employees should be taught how to diffuse potentially violent situations by taking a number of steps, such as:

  • Keep a safe distance
  • Speak calmly
  • Listen and understand
  • Identify an exit
  • Be agreeable
  • Discuss the consequences

Once an incident is over, employees should be instructed to report it so the company can promptly document, investigate and react to the situation, including notifying the police. It’s important to let employees know that their reports will be treated with confidentiality and discretion.

But worker preparation is not all that’s required. An organization must take a number of other steps to prevent workplace violence. Careful employee selection during the hiring process is critical. In addition, managers should maintain a fair workplace and attend trainings on progressive discipline, conflict resolution and terminations. Lastly, the organization should ensure the workplace is secure by, depending on the setting, installing video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems and minimizing access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards.
Karyn Rhodes, Director of Human Resource Consulting at the Hilb Group in Warwick

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Avatar About the Author: The Rhode Island Small Business Journal is a printed monthly magazine and an online resource for the aspiring and start-up entrepreneur and small business owner.

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