Over the last couple weeks we have had too many examples of workplace violence and the devastation and the long-term impact it has on the business and the community. As security consultants, we partner with clients to protect their assets, and two of the most critical assets that any company has are its people and its reputation/brand. With that said, there is no crystal ball or magic pill that will allow us to predict these events with any certainty, but there are steps that every company can take to protect itself and its employees from becoming front page news for all the wrong reasons.
As employers, we all know the realities of the economic recession that has gripped the US and global markets since 2008 with a resulting decline in GDP growth, record high unemployment, and the bursting of the housing market bubble. Since 2008 many businesses have prospered, but times have been tough. At the same time, the technological revolution has created opportunities and changes in the workplace at an exponential pace, just as the industrial revolution changed the world. Lastly we have been at war for ten years on multiple fronts. That has required the deployment of men and women in the military and a heavy reliance on our employees who serve in the National Guard.
How does this affect our current and future employees and the decisions they make in and out of the workplace? What are the risks to your workplace that an employee will reach a “tipping point” that will lead to violence? I believe that in every organization there will be some employees who are more impacted by these and other stressors in their daily lives. Since “suffering is almost always a consequence of trauma” (Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth: A Clinician’s Guide) and a person may have experienced major problems before the current crisis, we must be prepared for reactions ranging from raw to numb.
Part of the challenge of dealing with people in crisis is recognizing that they may have overwhelming physical and emotional reactions to their challenging circumstances. We are accustomed to people getting mad or crying when life throws them a curve ball. What we aren’t used to are some of the more severe reactions which can wreak havoc in a workplace.
In After the Shock: A Survivor’s Guide to Tough Times, Becky Sansbury lists many ways that crisis can manifest itself in people’s lives. Here are a few:
• Lack of focus or concentration
• Extremes of blaming others completely or “collapsing” under total guilt
• Headaches – mild to severe
• Ego sensitivity – feeling attacked, misunderstood; need to defend self
• Distrust of self and/or others
• Overarching need for sense of control, stability or normality
The point is that we are all influenced by our environment and that can be reflected in the workplace positively and negatively. Education and communication is critical component of life and business. For example if asked, most people consider workplace violence to be a disgruntled person with a gun. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as “violent acts (including physical assaults and threats of assaults) directed toward persons at work or on duty” (DHHS (NIOSH) Publication Number 2002-101) Workplace violence acts are violent acts or threats of acts directed at employees by other employees, family members of employees, customers of the business or organization, and random outsiders. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 mandates that all employers have a general duty to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm (OSHA 3148-01R 2004). Whether violence comes from someone known or unknown, education and communication can make all the difference in your business and for your employees.
Security is the protection of one’s assets from intentional actions of people with the intent of inflicting harm or damage. Protection of critical assets requires an integrated program that includes the people, processes, and technology. In the case of workplace violence, the first step is a written zero-tolerance policy that is effectively communicated using the organization’s website, signage, orientation, and on-going training. Communication is the key to an effective workplace violence program. Supervisors have the most direct contact with employees, so they should receive additional awareness training that focuses on communication and recognizing the signs that an employee is at risk due to internal or external stresses. Employees need to have a confidential method for reporting concerns and should be encouraged to do so if they feel that an employee is dealing with stressors that could negatively affect their decision making or are talking about doing harm to people, property, and/or themselves. Supervisors and managers need to have the necessary tools to evaluate and address valid concerns.
The second line of defense from an incidence of workplace violence is a pre-employment background screening program. In other words, don’t hire employees who have a history of violent behavior. This requires a background screening process that goes beyond criminal records checks and looks at the candidate’s character and reputation. Many companies are reluctant to share much information but will often verify employment dates and sometimes will state whether the employee is eligible to be rehired. Employers should try to talk with former supervisors where possible and definitely with references provided by the candidate and those developed during the background inquiry. Remember, people will omit negative information before they lie. Applications should be required for all positions and should only be accepted when complexly filled out. Applications should require a signature from the applicant stating that the statements are complete and truthful. All information on the application should be independently verified.
It is important to remember that even if a company does everything right with respect to per-employment screening, there are times when good people make bad decisions. Life is complicated, both inside and outside the workplace. Statistics suggest that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. Drugs, alcohol, and stress change the way that humans respond to their surroundings. Personal failures, professional failures, health concerns, money issues, and perceived expectations are all stressors – and the list goes on and on. If one in four women will be the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, the opportunity for domestic violence to impact the workplace is a real threat. People who commit violent acts do so for a wide range of reasons. For some it may seen as the only way out or as an opportunity to become famous (or infamous). Some people seek a way to draw attention to a personal problem, to correct a perceived wrong, or to end personal pain. The challenge is to recognize the signs and respond with solutions that mitigate the risk and potential harm and disruption in the productive workplace.
As a security professional, when we look at a facility or a campus, we want to know how people get in, how they get out, and how they know who belongs and who doesn’t belong. This is important to the protection of all assets whether they are talent, physical or intellectual property, visitors/guests, processes/equipment, or brand. The more valuable the asset is to the business, the more layers of security it should have around it in the form of people, processes, and technology. In preventing workplace violence incidents, the critical areas that every business should evaluate are access control, communication, and the responses management expects employees to take prior to and during an event. Does the company have an emergency management and response plan? Have the plans been tested? Real life events are not the time to learn that the plan does not work well enough to protect life and property in the workplace. Have you built relationships with the local law enforcement and emergency responders that you will be depending on for in a workplace event?
Companies should organize a threat assessment team that includes supervisors and other company professionals (HR, General Counsel, Security, etc.). This provides the means and expertise to evaluate concerns and respond to them in a deliberate way instead of with a reactive “knee jerk” response that may be ineffective or ill advised. This team would be responsible for identifying people who may be at risk and determining what steps – if any – the company should take with respect to the threat. The response could include but not be limited to counseling, training, job change, schedule change, or referral to an employee assistance program (EAP).
Life’s challenges affect everyone differently, and none of us are immune. With adequate support and enough time, most employees who are going experiencing trauma and crisis will weather the storm. It is important to remember that as the world changes, people change. Their circumstances and pressure change but their ability to cope and respond may also change.
Statistically, we know that some businesses have a higher probability of workplace violence events. According to most sources, taxicabs drivers, law enforcement officers, gas station workers, and security guards are at the greatest risk of workplace homicide. The vast majority of workplace violence events will be violent non-fatal assaults. Nearly half of them will be directed at health care, social services, and related occupations. With an enforced zero-tolerance policy, effective communications and training, and appropriate support and controls in place, most businesses will never have to deal with a workplace violence event. The criticality or effect that a workplace violence event has on a company, employees, families, brand, and community is difficult to overstate. Most of us can name several incidents in recent history at a variety of workplaces. Protect your employees, business, and brand by putting in place a workplace violence program that is the right mix of people, processes and technology.