Workplace violence prevention policy pays off in added safety

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

John Gribben

Consider this hypothetical, but all too common, scenario. Carl, a disgruntled employee, has an angry outburst at Mary, his supervisor. He storms out of the building yelling veiled threats to company leaders. Co-workers have been putting up with Carl’s bullying behavior for months. They divulge he frequently boasts of his “arsenal” of weapons. They previously remained quiet out of fear he might retaliate. What should the company do to respond to a volatile and potentially dangerous situation?

First, here’s what an organization shouldn’t do. Chad Williams, crime prevention deputy for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, says he’s seen many companies whose entire violence prevention “policy” consists of a statement that harassment and workplace violence won’t be tolerated, but leaves key issues unaddressed. What kinds of behaviors are unacceptable? Who does an employee complain to? How is the policy enforced? What types of incidents can be dealt with internally and what should be reported to the police? Such a vague “policy” is next to meaningless and would hold no water in court. 

A comprehensive violence prevention policy takes time and energy to develop and implement, but is well worth the effort.

Here are three key steps to start the process:

Assemble your team. A team of people who help develop the plan is best, but it’s critical senior leadership actively supports the process, according to Sandy Perry, human resource director for Mesa County. Perry believes a workplace violence prevention policy and plan should reflect the philosophy of the organization — expectations about how people should treat one another and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. 

Ideally, make use of experts who can help guide the process, such as a law enforcement authority, human resources professional or safety consultant. As you assemble your team, look for people with different areas of expertise and perspectives, such as a safety officer, human resources professional, security manager or possibly an attorney. Most small organizations don’t have some of these formal positions. So ask yourself: If an incident were to occur, who comes to mind that could help? Are any of your staff members former nurses, emergency responders, volunteer firefighters, counselors or clergy? Even small organizations shouldn’t rely on one person to develop the policy in isolation. If that person leaves, the policy could leave with them. You also could look outside the organization for planning team members — law enforcement, an employee assistance program or mental health agencies. 

Williams says the planning team is also likely to be an incident response team. If there’s a credible threat of violence or actual act of workplace violence, it’s absolutely essential it be dealt with by a team of people who can offer various perspectives and skills.

Conduct a worksite risk factor audit. One of the planning team’s primary tasks is to identify potential vulnerabilities. What people, situations or environments pose threats? 

Some types of industries are more prone to violence. Health care is one of the top industries at risk of workplace violence and the primary threat comes from the people it serves — patients who could have mental health problems, are intoxicated or victims themselves of violence. A school’s “clients” — students — can pose threats. Threats often come from fellow employees or a personal relation to an employee. But threats also can come from someone entirely unknown to the organization.

In addition to people who pose threats, the planning team should consider potential high-risk interactions that can occur. When an employee is fired, what can the organization do to minimize the risk of retaliation during that meeting or afterwards? What can an organization do to offer protection from the spouse of an employee who’s been the victim of domestic violence? What measures can be taken to protect a home health worker from a mentally ill or intoxicated client or family member? Another high-risk situation occurs when money or other valuables are exchanged. What measures can be taken to protect a cashier or pizza delivery person who works the night shift? Bank tellers and jewelry store sales people are targets for theft and violence. Utility workers who shut off service for non-payment could be at risk from an angry and desperate customer.

As threats are identified, the planning team should consider measures to reduce risks. Could the physical environment be made more secure with bullet-proof windows, better lighting, locks, security guards or restrictions on service times? Can employees be trained in communication skills to diffuse situations involving angry customers? Can a business specify that security is to be advised of any restraining orders placed on an employee’s abusive spouse? A key benefit of developing a policy is gaining a deeper appreciation about potential threats and making changes that reduce or eliminate risks. 

Train employees. Is it possible to prevent circumstances similar to the hypothetical situation involving Carl? In many cases, the answer is yes. It’s rare for an employee to suddenly exhibit uncharacteristically threatening behavior. Unfortunately, co-workers can be intimidated and reluctant to report bullying behaviors. Sometimes, they simply don’t know how to report their concerns. 

Perry says her department’s primary role is to train employees about what constitutes inappropriate behaviors and how to report them if they occur. Encouraging reporting and making it an accepted, expected process can help minimize the fear of being considered a tattletale.

Even the best-laid plans sometimes won’t prevent a tragedy.  But what can be done is develop plans to minimize risks and address intermediate issues before they escalate to a credible threat of violence. The key is a well-communicated reporting process and training so employees are educated on unacceptable behaviors and how to report them. And if a tragedy does occur, planning also should help an organization respond effectively and quickly. Who will serve as a point person with the media? What resources are available to support employees and help management with the aftermath?

All of this and much more can be prepared for in developing a thoughtful violence prevention plan. Isn’t the safety of your employees and customers worth the effort?