Workplace violence is an act of aggression, physical assault, or threatening behavior that occurs in a work setting and causes physical or emotional harm to customers, coworkers, or managers. Broad definitions of workplace violence also often include acts of sabotage on work-site property.
Workplace violence has emerged as a subject of considerable interest to both small and large businesses in recent years. Some small business owners deny that this grim issue is a concern for them, but in reality, workplace violence can strike even tiny start-up firms.
And as many analysts and business owners have charged, even the threat of violence can have a dreadful impact on the culture and productivity of a small business. Whereas employees of larger firms generally have more avoidance options to choose from when forced to share workspace with a volatile employee, the more modest facilities and resources of smaller businesses do not provide the same level of protection.
Workplace violence is an issue of which all businesses should be aware. An average of 16 people per day died while at work during 2004. Of these fatalities, 2.2 per day were the victims of homicide. The annual workplace safety data published by the U.S. Department of Labor indicated that 809 workplace homicides took place across America in 2004. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) reports that on average they estimate that 2 million employees are victimized annually while at work. When it comes to specific statistics, the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics on violent crimes other than homicide are for the year 2003. In that year, 728,000 instances of violent crime were reportedly perpetrated on victims while they were on the job. These crimes include simple assault, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape/sexual assault. Although these crime statistics show a decline over recent years, they also highlight the need for business owners to take precautions and proactive measures to protect employees and coworkers and reduce the likelihood of an incident of violent crime.
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Addressing Workplace Violence Before It Erupts
Small business owners can take several steps to address the specter of workplace violence. Hiring and interviewing practices should reflect the company’s desire to establish and maintain a good workforce, and the owner should do his or her best to establish a company culture that does not tolerate non-violent forms of intimidation.
After all, insulting and intimidating behavior—which may lead to physically violent behavior if left unchecked—can wreak significant mental harm on its victims, and may even provoke a violent response by victims who feel that they have no other recourse.
Indeed, some studies have indicated that victims of harassment actually become less productive than employees who suffer from physical assaults.
Many human resource specialists recommend written violence-prevention policies and regular training sessions to inform employees about what to watch for.
According to Paul Viollis, president of the company Risk Control Strategies, writing in Business Insurance, “The vast majority of incidents of workplace violence are completely preventable if employees know what to look for and how to report it. While younger individuals and females have increasingly emerged as workplace violence offenders in the past several years—possibly a spillover from school violence—the demographic and behavioral characteristics of the individuals who typically perpetrate acts of violence have, for the most part, remained the same. Such individuals are predominately male, between 25 and 40 years of age, do not handle stress well and are chronic complainers, manipulative and socially withdrawn, among other characteristics.”
Other actions that a company may take to minimize the likelihood of workplace violence, albeit unpleasant to contemplate, include boosting security precautions by adding security personnel or installing metal detectors.
Some security consultants urge their clients to make it clear that employee desks and lockers are company property that can be looked through at any time, and they should be encouraged to report all violent acts to legal authorities. Finally, business consultants and security experts counsel small business owners to recognize that workplace violence frequently stems from external sources. Indeed, the majority of homicides that take place in workplace settings are actually perpetrated by nonemployees (angry customers, robbers, irate spouses or romantic partners).
Stopping Workplace Violence
Experts believe that businesses can take a number of steps to dramatically reduce their likelihood of an employee carrying out an act of workplace violence. Many of these are proactive in nature, designed to minimize the business’s exposure to violent acts by employees: Maintain and disseminate detailed policies on workplace behavior. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy that addresses signs of potential violence. Such a policy should clearly state that threats, intimidation, destruction of company property, and violence in any form will not be tolerated. It should also spell out clearly the disciplinary action that will be taken in response to any of these unacceptable actions, providing guidelines that clearly delineate violations that may result in discharge or other disciplinary action so that workers are cognizant of behavioral boundaries. In addition, these policies should explicitly state the company’s determination to protect victims and/or informants of violent acts against any form of retaliation.
Maintain and disseminate workplace violence prevention programs. This plan should cover everything from investigatory steps to take when an employee exhibits questionable behavior to the manner in which problem employees are dismissed. “These training programs should focus on teaching employees how to recognize and report suspicious activity and should provide written information on whom to contact in an emergency,” wrote Gillian Flynn in Workforce. This aspect of the program needs to be addressed with particular care, for staff participation will only occur if they can express concerns about coworkers in a safe and confidential way. Other elements of these programs typically include disciplinary training for managers, security plans, preemployment screening, and media relations if an incident of workplace violence does take place.
Screen applicants. Every company’s workplace violence prevention program should include a thorough investigation of applicants’ backgrounds (including employment history and possible criminal record) and qualifications for the job opening. Many experts believe that incidents of workplace violence are more likely to occur when an employee is struggling with his/her responsibilities, so ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the position in question is a particularly relevant consideration. In addition, interviews should include questions that can help identify potential risky hires. According to Michael A. Gips, writing for Security Management, such questions include: “What would you do if a fellow employee called you a bad name? Embarrassed you in front of others? What did your previous boss do that made you mad? Tell me about a past supervisor you admired. It is a clear warning sign that a person has problems getting along with others if he can not identify a single past supervisor he liked.” In addition to the above background and interviewing techniques, many companies have also adopted drug and alcohol testing, aptitude testing, and honesty testing as part of their overall interviewing process.
Recognize warning signs. Law enforcement and security experts agree that employees who engage in violent acts often—though not always—exhibit behaviors that serve as “red flags” indicating potential problems. These include: engaging in direct or veiled threats against coworkers, paranoid behavior, unreciprocated romantic interest in a coworker, obsession with weapons, pronounced mood swings, excessive anger over company policies or decisions, decreased productivity, and deteriorating relations with fellow staff, customers, or vendors.
Be cognizant of potential “trigger” events. Business owners should remember that workplace violence does not erupt for no reason, and that if it takes place within the walls of the company, the chances are pretty good that it was triggered by a workplace issue or event.
Demotions, critical performance appraisals, layoffs, disciplinary actions, and other professional disappointments can all trigger violent behavior.
Counseling. Employee assistance programs can be very valuable to workers who are struggling with stress at home and/or in the office. When confronted with a volatile employee, a company’s natural tendency may be to fire the troublemaker. In some cases, however, this action may exacerbates the situation and can even provoke a violent episode. The better approach is to suggest the troubled employee get professional counseling.
Paying for it out of your own pocket, if necessary, is worth it, if it will avert a disaster. In addition, some employers have instituted policies designed to give employees an outlet to relate their grievances and concerns. These avenues range from regular meetings with managers to comment boxes or surveys.
Terminate with dignity. Employers can reduce their exposure to workplace violence by instituting and carrying out policies that treat terminated employees with respect. In addition, some consultants encourage companies to offer outplacement counseling for ex-employees as part of their severance packages. Before doing so, however, business owners and managers should discuss possible legal ramifications with a qualified attorney.
Address ex-employees who pose a potential threat. Many businesses erroneously believe that once an employee has been discharged and is no longer in the workplace, the worker no longer poses a threat. But this is not necessarily the case. A study by Northwestern National Life Insurance, for example, stated that 3 percent of the total number of reported incidents of workplace violence were perpetrated by ex-employees. Restraining orders, password changes, and other special security measures may be necessary in some situations.
Providing References For Ex-employees
The mere act of helping a violent or potentially violent ex-employee gain new employment raises problems, according to legal experts, wrote Gips. He noted that according to legal consultants, “there is no legal duty to warn a prospective employer of another company’s experiences with an employee. But if the company purports to say something positive about the employee without revealing negative information, [it] might be interpreted as an endorsement of that employee, which could trigger the duty to tell the whole truth—including the violence or threatened violence.” Other potential legal pitfalls await business owners who are asked to comment on ex-employees who engaged in questionable behavior that nonetheless never became violent in nature. Business owners and managers can not simply speculate that an ex-employee might be a violence risk, if there is no confirmed behavior upon which to base that opinion.
Statutes governing defamation liability in this area vary considerably from state to state, so business owners who are asked about ex-employees who are seen as security risks should seek legal advice before responding.