Violence in the Workplace

Workplace violence is a disturbing, but real issue facing employers nationwide. News stories remind us of this reality with examples such as a recent workplace shooting in Illinois, in which a disgruntled employee shot several coworkers and police officers after learning that his employment was terminated. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that about two million workers report workplace violence every year. OSHA also states that employers must provide a place of employment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” So what should employers do about this growing concern?

As an initial preventative step, employers should carefully screen candidates. This will mean different things to different employers, depending on the position and the applicable laws, but ideas include tailoring interview questions, background and reference checks, and drug testing, as appropriate.

Employers should also ensure they have a written and widely distributed policy mandating zero-tolerance for workplace violence, and perhaps a weapon-free workplace or a written prevention program, including information about employee assistance programs designed to help employees deal with personal problems. At a minimum, employers should encourage employees to report incidents, and offer effective and comfortable reporting procedures. Additionally, it’s a good idea to provide important telephone numbers for quick reference during a crisis, ensure that employees receive training on emergency exits, alarm systems, and personal security measures, and maintain an “open door” policy to address simple miscommunications as well as to resolve more serious conflicts. Employers may even consider bringing in an outside security consultant to conduct an assessment and make safety recommendations, such as adding video surveillance, extra lighting, electronic keys, or extra security guards.  

Simply having policies is not enough. Employers should ensure employees are trained in recognizing and reporting incidents, and that key employees, such as managers, are able to identify warning signs, handle complaints, and take action to promote safety, such as de-escalating or contacting law enforcement as necessary.

Warning signs of violence are varied, and recognition is important in taking preventative action. It’s impossible to predict all behavior, but indicators may include:

·         Direct or veiled threats of harm

·         Sudden and persistent complaints of unfair treatment

·         Sudden or erratic changes in behavior

·         Bullying, harassment, or other aggressive behavior

It’s important that employers be aware of risks and take steps to proactively address them. As with many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to safety in the workplace. In emergencies, employers should seek professional assistance from law enforcement and encourage employees to do the same.

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Consult with myHRcounsel regarding questions concerning specific facts and circumstances.

Written by Brittany Nicholls