How to Handle Violence in the Workplace?

Violence in the workplace laws are quickly being established in the states to prevent and address the growing problem of workplace violence. Workplace violence laws address issues such as the use and possession of guns and other weapons in the workplace, stalking, and harassment in the workplace. Employers can also practice workplace violence prevention by establishing workplace violence policies. These policies should address issues such as zero-tolerance, identifying potentially dangerous behaviors, and violence response procedures.

States such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Texas have passed laws that establish an individual’s right to possess a firearm, including keeping a gun in a car in a parking lot at work. On the other hand, states such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York have established laws that grant job protection and leave victims of violence at work or home.

Violence on the Rise:

Violence in the workplace is an important safety and health issue that is often overlooked or ignored. In many cases, a violent incident can be avoided because warning signs often precede occurrences. However, these signals frequently go unrecognized–or are recognized but disregarded. Generally, violence develops over time. With proper implementation of an anti-violence policy, employers have a chance to recognize the early signs of violence. Thus, allowing said violence to be out to a stop it before it explodes.

What Can I Do About Workplace Violence?

Employers do not have to wait until something happens before responding–the optimal time to address workplace violence is now before any incidents have occurred. Some critical components of a workplace violence plan are:

  • Zero-tolerance policy. Create a thorough, written policy that indicates that no type of violent behavior will be tolerated.
  • Response procedures. Employees need to know how to respond to a perceived or actual threat of violence.
  • Workplace walkthrough. Locate and identify potential hot spots for violent incidents–reception areas, warehouse entries, and other access points are frequently the initial sites of violence.
  • Training & education. Once policies and procedures have been written, they must be communicated to managers, supervisors, and employees.
  • Post-incident response. Employers need to develop procedures for addressing the turmoil and trauma that violence in the workplace can leave behind. Trauma counseling and other treatment plans are essential to an effective strategy.
What Behaviors are Violent?

Neither HR professionals nor most employees would doubt that waving a gun at work, punching someone, or committing homicide are all violent behaviors. But there is no widespread agreement about other, less blatant conduct. To prevent inappropriate behavior from escalating, it is wise to identify the three main stages of violence and develop plans for dealing with each level. An instance of even the lowest level of inappropriate behavior should be written up, preserved in a Critical Incident file, and discussed with the employee who engaged in it. Here are some examples of behavior typical of each level:

Stage 1–Early Potential for Violence
  • Dehumanizing other people: name-calling, racial insults, harassment, or other verbal abuse.
  • Challenging authority
  • Regularly being argumentative or alienating co-workers
  • Unusual or strange behavior: paranoid comments, social isolation, fixation on violence, angry responses to situations
Stage 2–Escalated Potential for Violence
  • Ignoring company policies and procedures
  • Stealing from the company or co-workers
  • Making threats verbally, in writing, by e-mail, or by voice mail
  • Blaming others for all problems
  • Destruction of property
Stage 3–Potential for Violence Is Realized
  • Displaying or brandishing a gun, knife, grenade
  • Punching, kicking, slapping
  • Committing assault, arson, or threatening suicide
  • Stalking

Publishing definitions of unacceptable behavior as part of a formal anti-violence policy will help make it clear to all managers and all employees what is and is not permitted.

Violence Prevention Program & Policies:

Employers should develop a comprehensive written workplace violence prevention program and detailed policies to address the potential of workplace violence. The following components, which are discussed in more detail below, are essential to an effective program:

  • Job hazard assessment— assessing violence hazards. The program should describe methods for determining the problem’s extent, documenting incidents, and evaluating the program.
  • Preventing and controlling violence hazards. The program should use the information gathered from the hazard assessment to implement different minimizing or eliminate workplace violence risks.
  • Employee training and information. All employees should participate in training on the risks of workplace violence. The employee training and information program must include information regarding how to report concerns and where to locate the company policy and program on violence.
  • Reacting to violence (post incident response). If violence occurs, employers and workers should be prepared to deal with the aftermath. This includes assessing the causes of the problem, making appropriate changes in the workplace, and providing the psychological support needed by the victims of the violence.

Employers adopt workplace violence policies to underscore their commitment against violence and to establish procedures to ensure employees’ safety and well-being while at work. Your written workplace violence policy should indicate a zero-tolerance of violence, regardless of whether the violence originates inside or outside the workplace. Employers must build threat assessment mechanisms that violent incidents and threats can easily be reported—even anonymously. Recognizing the types of violence that are most likely to occur is the first step to preventing it. By understanding this list, you can begin to think through what actions can be taken to reduce the risk of violence at your specific facility.

Practice Tips:
  • Post the policy. If your company deals with the public or has many customers, post the anti-violence policy prominently near all entrances and exits and in conference rooms. Outsiders will be forewarned, and your employees will gain an extra measure of security.
  • Consistency. Employers must be consistent in their handling of the zero-tolerance violence policy to avoid discrimination claims. Suppose an employer enforces the zero-tolerance policy more strictly against an individual of a particular sex, race, or other protected class. In that case, a violation of an anti-discrimination law may result.
  • Unions. Violence-prevention policies must be included in collective bargaining with the unionized employer. It is to the benefit of both employees and employers to have an anti-violence policy implemented.
Form a Dedicated Management Team:

While it is essential to train all supervisors, managers, and employees to recognize and respond to workplace violence, forming a team of individuals to maintain primary responsibility in this area can help centralize and standardize response procedures.

Create a committee.

Once the company policy has been drafted, distributed, and acknowledged as read and understood by all employees, the second crucial step is to create a standing committee. This group will track all violent incidents throughout the company and train supervisors in how to manage incidents. The committee can be called the crisis management team, crisis intervention team, violence-prevention team, or another appropriate name; it is typically made up of six to eight people representing HR, the employee assistance program, unions (if there are any), legal, executive management, and security.

Teams are better.

Relying on supervisors and the HR staff to carry out these functions in addition to their other responsibilities can backfire, especially in this way: A supervisor who is a good coach witnesses a Stage I incident but does not record it, and the employee moves on to another supervisor who is unaware of the behavior. A supervisor far down the line may inherit a subordinate with a long and slowly escalating history of violent behavior of which no one is fully aware. In fact, most outbreaks of frightening and dangerously violent behavior could have been predicted, and most could have been prevented, if witnesses had noted and confronted its beginnings. It is the team’s responsibility to be the central repository of all information about such incidents, at whatever level and in whatever company location they occurred.

Critical incident reports.

Critical Incident Reports are one-page forms to be filled out by a supervisor whenever a violent incident at any level occurs. Information should include the date and location; the stage of violence represented; the offender and other(s) involved, if any; names of witnesses, if any; and a brief description of the incident. If formal disciplinary steps are taken, a copy of the report will, of course, be filed in the employee’s personnel folder. But the originals of all forms belong with the crisis team.

Training is key.

Training for supervisors begins with the foundation of understanding the company’s zero-tolerance policy, knowing the membership of the crisis team, and being aware that every incident must be reported. The heart of training, however, is learning to recognize and respond to potential warning signs, and learning ways to intervene effectively whenever violent behavior is displayed. This will involve considerable role-playing and much discussion.

How to Respond to a Potentially Violent Employee?

Here are some valuable tactics:

  • State in a matter-of-fact way what the consequences of continued violent behavior will be.
  • Show understanding of the employee’s perspective without agreeing with it.
  • Find something positive to praise about the person’s work or behavior.
  • Stay calm even if the subordinate becomes angry or agitated.
  • In every possible instance, refer the individual to a resource for help.

Training should cover information that will help supervisors refer individuals to resources for help. These may include in-house employee assistance programs, area psychologists, social workers, other therapists, and local courses in anger management and stress reduction.

Conduct Background Checks:

Screening potential employees carefully, usually once you have made a conditional job offer but before the individual is on the payroll, can go a long way toward preventing violence in the workplace. Call previous employers and ask why the individual left the job; they may not all respond, but any who know that a former employee is violent are obliged to disclose that information. In addition, if state law permits, check for conviction records in all the applicant’s prior counties of residence and under all names used, and verify educational credentials. In many cases, it’s also wise to request a credit check.

Security Provisions:

There are pros and cons in implementing security practices such as metal detectors, video surveillance, physical barriers, alarm systems, and security guards. For example, employee morale may be affected either positively or negatively: Employees may feel that the employer is providing a safe environment in which to work, or employees may feel that the employer doesn’t trust its employees. Security measures can also limit the likelihood of damage to, or theft of, the employer’s property. Note, however, that privacy issues can arise with certain security practices.

Not all security measures need to be high-tech and/or controversial, however. Employers can add to the security of a workplace by ensuring that the workplace is adequately staffed at all times, by creating bright and ample lighting, and by controlling access to the building, whether by locking unused doors or implementing a keycard system.

Treat Terminations Carefully:

Terminations can be a potential source of violence, whatever the reason for discharge. Whenever you must discharge an employee for violent behavior, follow these steps:

  • Choose an office near an exit in which to conduct the termination.
  • Minimize the furniture and other objects in the room.
  • Request that a security person be present or nearby.
  • Obtain a restraining order that bars the person from company premises after the termination.
  • Establish a set of standard procedures for terminations and stick with them.
  • Don’t let the termination come as a surprise to the individual; issue documented and discussed warnings beforehand.
  • Deliver the news early in the week rather than on the traditional Friday afternoon. Delivering this news late in the week can give a bitter ex-employee the weekend to plot revenge.
  • Offer as much counseling and outplacement service as you can afford; even token efforts help defuse anger and instill a sense of respect.
Enforcement Procedures for Investigating Workplace Violence:

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) role is to ensure these conditions for employees by setting and enforcing standards, providing training, education, and assistance.

Under the General Duty Clause (GDC) of the federal OSH Act, Section 5(a)(1) requires: “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” OSHA may cite employers that experience workplace for violations under the GDC.

OSHA Controls for Preventing Violence

Among the controls listed in OSHA’s directive that employers may use to prevent workplace violence are:

  • The addition of alarm systems, “panic” buttons and hand-held alarms, and a reliable employer-sponsored alarm response system
  • When appropriate, metal detectors, closed circuit 24-hour recording devices, curved mirrors at hallway intersections, and auto-lock doors.
  • Altering management practices and procedures in order to reduce hazards
  • Establishing contacts within the local police and public prosecutor’s office
  • Requiring employees to report all assaults or threats
  • Recording all incidents in a log book

OSHA publishes a number of resources on workplace violence at its website:

State Law Comparison

A number of states have enacted laws that specifically apply to employers and violence in the workplace. Such as the carrying of concealed weapons and the duty to retreat from deadly force laws. Most of the states that have laws that specifically apply to employers allow employers to prohibit the possession of weapons on their private property if notice is posted or if consent is obtained. Some of these state laws have an exception for weapons in vehicles in parking lots. Several states have laws in place that specifically state that a person in the workplace can use reasonable force. Such force may include deadly force, to protect one’s own or another’s life and has no duty to retreat to avoid doing so.

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