Workplace violence is a growing problem, and every business, no matter how big or small, is especially vulnerable due to the current economic conditions. Simply defined, workplace violence is the violence or the threat of violence against the company and its workers. It can occur at or outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide—one of the leading causes of job-related deaths.
However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide. Some two million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year, and, according to a study by the American Management Association, 50 percent of companies surveyed reported a violent incident in the past four years. Workplace violence also affects other employees negatively causing fear, stress, decreased trust and productivity, decreased morale, and increased absenteeism and turnover.
Studies have indicated that poor supervisory practices are the leading cause of workplace violence. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), every workday, perpetrators harass 43,000 others, threaten in excess of 16,400 people and actually attack 723 workers. There are two million workplace assaults and 1,000 workplace murders annually. The cost to American businesses is between $6 and $36 billion each year, with negligent hiring and retention settlements averaging $500,000 and jury verdicts averaging $3 million. A workplace homicide can cost a company in excess of $800,000 in legal fees and settlements. What’s more, since recent case law has defined the employer’s responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, no business is immune to the effects of workplace violence.
While workplace violence can never be prevented entirely, there are steps a business can take to prevent tragedy and avoid future litigation. First, it’s important to understand the various types of violence, in addition to the motivations and the escalation levels involved. The obvious types of workplace violence include shootings, bombings, hitting, fighting, screaming and threats. Less obvious types of workplace violence include harassment, stalking, equipment and building sabotage, and other irrational incidents, such as throwing, defecating, etc. Most of these incidents begin as low-level altercations and escalate if not resolved. It’s the duty of the employer, no matter the size of the business, to protect the employees and visitors, and to provide a safe place of employment.
The first step in preventing workplace violence is to understand the motivation of the perpetrator. This may include stress at home, drug and alcohol abuse, firing, work-related stress, emotional problems, personality conflicts, bullying, and more. In most cases an employee might not feel comfortable talking with a boss about an abusive situation at home, so employers should make it a point to offer sexual harassment and violence prevention programs. Some employers have sexual harassment policies in place, but do little to address other motivators and warning signs like yelling, shouting or bullying. It’s incumbent upon employers to implement workplace policies that encourage physical, mental and emotional well-being among employees before problems arise.
The profile of a typical workplace violence perpetrator is a male, 30-45 years old, who has a history of drug or alcohol abuse on or off the job, an unstable work history, is uncooperative with supervisors, or has disciplinary issues. They often spread gossip and rumors to harm others; are belligerent toward customers, clients and employees; constantly swear at others; make unwanted sexual comments; see themselves as victimized by management or coworkers; refuse to obey policies an procedures; sabotage equipment and steal property for revenge; and may verbalize a desire to hurt employees, clients and/or management. If these behaviors are allowed, they can escalate to more serious forms of behavior, including recurrent suicidal threats, physical fights, property destruction, use of weapons to harm others, and even murder, rape and arson.
It’s important that the employer respond properly to the employee and take the necessary steps in order to prevent a workplace violence incident. Responses include probation, termination, an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) referral, suspension, counseling and, of course, no response at all. A proper response includes contacting others (EAP, union and/ or employee relations), documenting the situation in detail, and notifying a supervisor or crisis management team, law enforcement and security personnel.
In some cases, termination may be necessary, and how a person perceives this event may greatly influence whether he or she ultimately responds violently. An employer should always treat the individual with dignity and bring in a manager higher than the employee’s normal supervisor. Management should be properly trained to know how to respond to threats during a termination meeting. Always prepare for the worst, but don’t permit the employee to detect this. Make the termination decision complete and binding, and focus only on general performance deficiencies. Finally, always keep the discussion future-based.
Unfortunately, many times, employers lack a clear understanding of what and when to report and a specified policy and process; are afraid of not being taken seriously; are fearful of negative consequences, shame or embarrassment; and have no trust in the system. Every business, no matter the size, needs a five-year security and crisis plan that covers the risks of workplace violence, offers solutions and outlines the costs. This document should contain a clear and concise emergency action plan and should also include an objective assessment of all security aspects and risks of the company and its physical premises (which may include the use of a professional security firm), and suggestions on how to improve. As part of the assessment, a review of access controls, surveillance systems and parking areas must be included, and, if necessary, ways to improve them. The security and crisis plan should also include emergency lockdown and evacuation drills, how often to hold them and how to conduct them. The plan should be regularly updated and easily accessible to all staff.
Luckily, most businesses will never experience workplace violence, but it’s impossible to determine when or how a violent incident will take place. Being properly prepared is the only way to help prevent an incident or keep it from becoming a disastrous situation.