Violence in the Workplace: Act Don’t React

“We are like a family at the office.”

“We conduct background checks, so we don’t have to worry.”

“That’s so sad, but it will never happen here.”

How often do you hear those phrases at work?

Something that is probably not mentioned: Homicide is currently the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.

Contrary to what that last statement might have you believe, I am not a “Debbie Downer” type of person. Admittedly, before I started this project, violence in the workplace is not something I thought about. I enjoy going to work every day! I don’t want to imagine something bad taking place here!

Learning that statistic made me realize, however, that it is an issue we all need to be taking seriously. For the “numbers” people who want a little more detail… Out of 4,679 individuals who unfortunately passed away in 2014 due to a work-related injury, 403 of those deaths were homicides. I don’t know about you, but that freaked me out. That number should be zero, not 403!

This is not the Wild Wild West, folks.

So now that we’re on the same page and know the gravity of violence in the workplace, let’s talk about what can actually be done about it.

That number can certainly go down if employers put some definitive processes in place. Like FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Being afraid of talking about violence or its causes will not make it go away, but rather, if you acknowledge the possibility and preemptively do what you can to prevent violence, you can make a difference in your workplace.

After reading many opinions on the topic, I’ve boiled it down to 5 main action items that can help you find some Zen in this kooky world we find ourselves in:

1. Zero Tolerance Policy
wpv-70-percent-no-programWhen is the last time you took a look at your handbook? Maybe when you started your business or when a new HR Director came in? Do you know where the document is saved on your computer? Let’s wipe the dust off and take another look. All handbooks should have a policy that clearly states zero tolerance for violence. Be sure to provide a definition of what your company constitutes as violence. According to the Department of Labor, workplace violence is defined as any sort of act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. While providing more detail is preferred, especially when it comes to topics of harassment, that would be a great starting point for your handbook.

I would also suggest laying out the reporting process in your handbook, so that employees are familiar with what they should do if they suspect that violence is occurring or may occur. I know that it might seem like common sense that violence or harassment should be reported to a supervisor or human resources manager, but employees might fear retaliation or even provoking the offender. Hammer out your processes, so that if a hammer flies through your door, the wrongdoer will not be surprised that they’re being let go for destruction of company property.

2. Discipline Training and Documentation
What are your standard processes for coaching employees? In any industry, it is a smart idea to have management document performance discussions, especially in regards to coaching conversations. Additionally, train management to communicate misconduct immediately to HR and take the necessary disciplinary action, up to and/or including separation. The final piece to this, which I cannot stress enough, is consistency. I mean this in two ways. First, do not change the standard based on the employee. For example, if you have a 5-minute grace period for timeliness, you cannot write up only one employee for being 2 minutes late. It looks like you are singling them out (and deep down, you might be). Second, make sure to document every incident. If you have an employee who displays performance issues (in concurrence with warning signs, which we will discuss below) and you have documented the incidents, you will be able to separate before a more dramatic incident occurs. If you do not have documentation in place, you might not notice a pattern of behavior, especially if there is supervisor turnover.

3. Open Door Policy
Think of the Three’s Company theme song. How comfortable do your employees feel coming to you about issues? Will they come right up and knock on your door? And if they do, are you ready and available to speak with them? I am not advocating for a lax office structure, as that doesn’t work for every industry and being too lax can lead to other issues. However, employees need to feel comfortable coming forward with issues and know who to contact regarding their concerns. Show that you are never too important to listen to the people who work hard for you day in and day out.

And listening is just the first step; part of acknowledging concerns is investigating them thoroughly. Some of you are probably thinking, “Oh no, if I do that, I am going to turn into a counselor and every little disagreement is going to end up in my office.” If employees know that you are going to investigate issues brought to your attention, most likely they will learn what is important enough to be reported. Maybe the solution is having office hours once a week. Of course, there will always be that one person who takes advantage, but don’t alienate the rest of your employees because of it.

feature_900x55054. Know the Warning Signs
So, I know a lot of HR professionals who received their first degree in Psychology, and the longer I am in the field, the more I understand the correlation. Reading people is a basic piece of our job, and it’s something that I suggest you train your management teams on as well. It is important in terms of gauging morale, sorting out interview truths or lies, and, in this case, recognizing when a threat exists. Here are some of the basic warning signs that someone is violent or might be considering perpetrating violence:

  • Easy to anger
  • Does not interact well with coworkers
  • Resistant to change or direction from leadership
  • Talks about weapons, access to weapons, or even discusses bringing them to work
  • Paranoia, thinks people are out to get him/her
  • Erratic behavior, dramatic mood swings
  • Has a history of violence or making threats
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse

Now, please do not go on a witch hunt and terminate all employees who have displayed one of these characteristics to one person on one occasion. We do not want to discriminate against an employee because they demonstrate a quality on this list. We should always complete a thorough investigation and follow the discipline guidelines. If an employee seeks assistance or shares information regarding an issue, provide them with any assistance possible in regards to how it affects the working environment and resources for them to utilize outside of the workplace. That being said, keep your employees safe. For example, if an employee has such a severe mental health disorder that they cannot work with others without a visceral reaction, you might be justified in separating that employee. Employers cannot be forced to accommodate a disability if it creates an unsafe workplace for other employees.

5. Safety Action Plan
While all of the above mentioned points could be considered a part of a preventative safety plan, let’s think about what is actually going to occur in your office if a crisis happens. Do you have a point person in charge of safety training and drills? Are your leaders trained in how to recognize escalating situations? Do your employees know where the emergency exits are located? In an office setting, you might want to consider increased security of admittance. In the service industry, as basic as it sounds, you need to be aware of your surroundings and any strange behavior perpetrated by patrons or other non-employees. Put a formal plan in place because you know what happens when you assume…

This is where it might also be helpful to think about internal versus external situations and how you handle the two differently. Internal would mean that the incident is contained to the workplace including the cause or driving factors behind it, such as two employees getting into a fist fight. External would be an incident involving one or more employees that began outside of the workplace, but ends up affecting the workplace. For example, an employee is in an abusive relationship, and after one particularly bad argument, the partner or spouse comes into the workplace to harass the employee. The warning signs and the ways in which you would treat these situations would be different, but you can establish an overarching process that will guide you through both.

I hope that reading this made you feel empowered to breach this topic with your leadership teams and employees. The point is that the danger comes in when we are afraid to have open and honest dialogue about tough workplace issues like violence. Create an environment where employees are happy and can thrive. We all spend too much time at work to not feel safe and fulfilled.