Violence in the Workplace

People Engaging in Workplace ViolenceEach day, as we kiss our loved ones good-bye and wish them a good day at work, we assume they will return unharmed to us at 5:00.  It doesn’t occur to us that a co-worker or a stranger might harm them during the day.  Similarly, most of us probably don’t think that we’re working in dangerous jobs.

Last month, a job seeker in Longview, Washington was sentenced to one year in prison for threatening to shoot and kill all of the employees in the office of a staffing company, because they hadn’t provided him with work.

When I was a senior in high school, my father, an HR Manager, was severely beaten by an employee he had just fired for sleeping on the job.

Even though business environments are shaped by the concepts of professional conduct and decorum, they are not unassailable havens from violence.

Violence in the workplace is an ugly thing to have to contemplate.  But it’s better to be prepared for it than to be blindsided by it.

Some facts about workplace violence:

The reality is that, according to OSHA, workplace violence affects 2 million Americans a year!

  • In 2009, 350 Washingtonians were assaulted on the job, and another 22 Washingtonians died as a result of workplace violence
  • Workplace violence is the leading cause of death for female workers
  • Violence in the workplace is the 4th leading cause of fatal occupational injuries overall

Some professions are more at risk of encountering workplace violence than others – such as those that involve:

  • Handling cash
  • Delivering passengers or goods
  • Working alone or in small groups in high crime areas late at night or early in the morning
  • Working in community settings and homes with extensive contact with the public

No companies are immune to the risk of workplace violence.  Larger companies may be able to utilize their security systems to protect their employees, but they cannot always prevent it.  All of us need to be aware of our risks and responsibilities, and must communicate or prevention plans to our employees.

How you can prepare your company to handle violence in the workplace:

As an employer, you are responsible for providing your employees with a safe and secure workplace.  There are many ways you can do this, regardless of the size of your company.

  • Improve on lighting in the parking and entry areas
  • Install alarm systems and panic buttons
  • Provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash on hand
  • Establish employee code words that signify an employee is in danger and needs assistance, or that police need to be called

L&I requires you to have an employee trained in first aid and/or CPR.  You can require non-employees to sign in and out of the building when visiting.  When employees are working alone in the building after hours, the doors should always be locked and never opened to strangers.

Make sure to take measures to protect off-site staff as well.  If you have employees in the field:

  • Be sure that they have a cell phone and hand-held alarm or noise device
  • Require them to prepare a daily work plan and to keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day
  • Keep employer-provided vehicles in good working order.

Employees should never enter a situation or location where they feel unsafe.  Meet often with your employees so they can voice their concerns about safety issues, and put someone in charge of security issues in your office to periodically audit your workplace for security and safety.

When dealing with violence perpetrated by coworkers or acquaintances, there are a few more preventative steps you can take:

  • Start with a written policy stating that violence in the workplace will not be tolerated.
  • Clearly state what constitutes violence, including verbal and emotional abuse.
  • Consider instituting a No Weapons Policy as part of your Violence Prevention Policy.  This policy should state where you might search for weapons (such as lockers, desks, bags, etc), what you consider a weapon to be, and specify that it even applies to visitors, temporary employees, and those who possess a concealed weapons permit.

Signs that an employee might become violent:

Research shows that employees generally don’t just go off the deep end.  Usually there are signs that indicate a person is in trouble or has violent tendencies.  Those signs include a worker that is:

  • Angry, frustrated and blaming others for their troubles
  • Fascinated with weapons
  • Exhibiting a pattern of dehumanizing others through comments, rude remarks and harassment
  • Demonstrating changes in attendance, hygiene, productivity or social isolation
  • Displaying unusual or erratic behavior, unmanageable levels of stress, or talking about suicide

What to do with an employee you fear may become violent:

If you have an employee who you feel may become violent, you can take some of the following steps to deal with them:

  • Try sitting down with the employee while someone else is present and asking them how their job is going, and how you can help make it better.
  • Do not attack, insult, or yell at them.  Remain calm while you talk to them.
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings and reaffirm your intent to assist them.  Your body language should be consistent with your words.
  • Thank them for discussing their problems with you.
  • Always treat people with respect and preserve their dignity.
  • Don’t try to counsel the person, but refer them to professionals who are qualified to help.
  • If your company has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), utilize its services to assist employees who are exhibiting characteristics common to those who commit violence.

As for the meeting itself, be aware of your own safety.  Don’t sit with your back to the door, and remove sharp objects from your desktop.  Don’t hold the conversation in an isolated office; preferably use an office with two doors.

Make sure another staff member is aware of the meeting and that they can call for help if the situation escalates into violence.  If it seems appropriate, report the person to the proper authorities.  It’s better to be safe than sorry!

What to do if an outside threat is made against an employee:

If an outside threat has been made against an employee, take it seriously. Threats can come from any number of sources, including disgruntled clients, terminated coworkers, or domestic partners.

Steps you can take to protect your employee include altering their shifts, changing their direct phone numbers, and implementing a buddy system for entering and leaving the building.

Thoroughly document threats and always promptly report them to the authorities.  Domestic violence often reaches into the workplace and threatens not only the employee targeted by it, but others in their vicinity as well.  Domestic violence and how it affects the workplace is nearly an issue unto itself, but prevention of violence in any form follows similar steps.

The wrap-up:

If someone does get violent in your workplace, it’s imperative that your staff know what to do.  They must remain calm, speak calmly, attempt to diffuse the situation, and become great witnesses.

There are many resources available to provide training to managers and staff on how to conduct themselves during these situations.  Local law enforcement has public education officers that are often happy to come to businesses and provide training and materials.

While there is no one fool-proof method for preventing workplace violence, taking steps such as those outlined in this article ensures that you decrease the chances of tragedy touching the lives of you and your staff.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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