Employers must address workplace threats

Editor’s note: The following is the first part of a two-part column exploring problems associated with workplace bullies and violence.

One of your best supervisors, Mary, steps into your office, closes the door and struggles to tell you something.  Obviously upset and fearful, she explains she’s just come from a meeting with one of her direct reports. It didn’t go well. The employee, Carl, burst into an angry and cursing tirade against Mary, his co-workers and the company. As he slammed the door and drove away on squealing tires, he said he knows where the company’s leaders live and warned “they shouldn’t sleep well tonight.”

This isn’t the first incident. A couple of Carl’s co-workers reluctantly complained to Mary about his bullying behavior. Mary was meeting with Carl to discuss these complaints when he took off. The co-workers also divulged that Carl discussed owning a semi-automatic assault rifle and they didn’t want to say something sooner to Mary, afraid of what he might do to retaliate.

The ball is in your court. As an owner, manager or company representative, how do you respond?

Ideally, you’d reach for your workplace violence policy and procedures and initiate a response that you had previously walked through in anticipation of just this kind of event. Right? No really. As if you don’t have enough responsibilities already meeting the demands of your job, boss, customers and vendors, is it realistic to assume you also should be prepared to deal with such a highly unlikely scenario? 

Unfortunately, it is. The violent tragedies in Newtown, Aurora and Columbine all occurred at workplaces. The Grand Valley isn’t immune. Many will remember the incident in 1999 in which a domestic squabble ended with the shootings at a grocery store of an employee, two bystanders and the shooter — the employee’s spouse.

While highly publicized mass shootings in the workplace are actually rare occurrences, a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey of 267 companies found that 27 percent had experienced an incident of workplace violence in the past five years and 69 percent responded that incidents have increased in frequency.

Often a precursor to a violent act is bullying, which can be defined as persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior or unfair actions directed at another individual, causing the recipient to feel threatened, abused, humiliated or vulnerable. Bullying is common — 51 percent of organizations reported incidents of workplace bullying. And of those reported incidents,

50 percent reported threats or intimidation. The actual numbers are surely higher as many incidents likely go unreported for fear or retaliation and other reasons — as in the hypothetical situation with Mary and Carl. 

Consider the impact of Carl’s threats and intimidation on the organization. His co-workers have likely been living in fear, morale has suffered, stress has increased and teamwork and trust have been shaken. Some employees might even quit — resulting in the cost of hiring and training someone who might start working alongside Carl, but then seek employment elsewhere.

Thankfully, Carl’s co-workers had the courage to voice their concerns to Mary and thus the organization. If the organization fails to respond appropriately and effectively to Carl’s threatening and bullying behavior, additional costs include possible legal action for a hostile work environment, further drops in productivity and likely more turnover.

Carl could even escalate his verbal intimidation to physical violence and affect the organization in much more profound ways. In addition to the tragic human cost and lifelong physical and emotional scars for the victims of violence, the organization’s reputation could suffer irreparable harm; business and revenues could drop; and workers compensation, health care and legal costs likely would skyrocket.

Are you convinced a workplace violence prevention road map or policy makes sense? Next month’s article will discuss some of the key components of developing a simple, but practical, plan that can guide an organization in responding to workplace bullies and help prevent violence.