Steps to Help Prevent Workplace Violence
By Tim May
Workplace violence can occur at companies of all sizes in good and bad economic times. This means that no business is immune to a potential tragedy, which can destroy employee morale and productivity, and even worse, devastate lives and business operations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), reports that approximately two million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year. These incidents cost the United States $70 billion annually, with $64.4 billion attributed to loss in workplace productivity, according to a study by the University of Georgia. Current economic conditions could make matters worse, especially as the unemployment rate hovers near an all-time high and pay cuts and layoffs continue to dampen spirits. Employees are faced with a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety as they worry about job security, mortgages and bills.
What actions define workplace violence? According to OSHA, workplace violence is defined as violence or the threat of violence against workers that occurs at or outside the workplace, and ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide – one of the leading causes of job-related deaths.
Extreme anger, frustration and emotional instability can build and possibly trigger violent behavior. Recently publicized incidents remind us of the horrifying reality of workplace violence. It can happen – anywhere.
While there are no specific warning signs, there are several steps employers can take to help prevent workplace violence.
Develop and implement a safety policy. More than 70 percent of U.S. workplaces do not have a formal program or policy in place that addresses workplace violence, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recent “Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention.” All businesses should have a workplace safety policy that outlines the company’s policies on harassment and workplace violence, including how to report incidents and how to respond in a crisis. Publish this policy in the employee handbook, and consider placing reminders in break rooms or hallways where they can be seen by everyone. Employers also should review workplace violence and anti-harassment policies with employees on an annual basis.
Create a crisis management plan. Companies should develop a plan of action that defines the steps to be taken during an emergency. Employees and supervisors need to know the appropriate evacuation procedures and the designated safe place to meet. Taking the time now to make preparations can help prevent potential chaos, confusion or unnecessary harm.
Pay attention to the details. If an employee is repeatedly missing deadlines, suddenly withdrawing or acting erratically, do not dismiss it. Trust your instincts when it comes to any change in behavior, particularly an increase in aggression, and heed the warning signs before it is too late. While it is impossible to define the exact characteristics of potential violent behavior, an unexpected change in behavior can be a red flag. Other warning signs of potential violent behavior include difficulty with co-workers, threats of violence (even if said jokingly), talk of suicide, difficulty accepting constructive criticism or guidance and repeatedly blaming others for one’s problems at work (i.e. accusations or complaints of being conspired against or persecuted). Documenting any suspicious activity or conduct, along with any necessary disciplinary action, is critical and can help protect employers in potential lawsuits.
Open the lines of communication. Maintain an open-door policy and remind employees they are always welcome to talk to supervisors. All employees should be encouraged to immediately report any type of suspicious behavior to a supervisor, whether from a co-worker, manager, vendor or customer. Ensuring confidentiality is key to encouraging employees to come forward with information that could prevent a dangerous event.
Training. Supervisors need to know the early warning signs and how to appropriately handle situations that could escalate into a potentially serious or harmful circumstance. Training such as workplace anti-harassment classes and violence prevention training can help supervisors to diffuse potentially violent situations and teach all employees how to handle different scenarios. It is important to include these procedures in new-employee orientation sessions and to review the policies with employees on a regular basis. Additionally, once a potentially violent situation has been recognized, employers should secure the premises with additional security officers and/or screening procedures and warn employees to immediately notify security or a supervisor should they observe the threatening employee attempting to regain access into the workplace.
Promote employee assistance programs. If an employee is having emotional problems, gently suggest he seek out assistance through your company’s employee assistance program or a counseling service. Assistance programs are a value-added resource that often are underutilized and overlooked by employers and employees. Employees often avoid employee assistance programs because they worry about confidentiality and that information will be accessible to their employer, so ensure staff that no information will be shared.
Employee assistance programs are typically available through most insurance companies to employees at no additional cost, and many offer services 24/7 through a toll-free phone number and online service. Through an assistance program, employees can access counseling or referral services from qualified professionals to help them deal with work or home issues, such as finances, relationships or substance abuse.
It is critical for employers to acknowledge that workplace violence happens. While there is no fail-safe way to prevent workplace violence, companies can help minimize potentially dangerous situations and take the necessary steps to provide employees with a safe working environment.
Tim May is a team manager for Administaff (NYSE: ASF), the nation's leading professional employer organization (PEO), serving as a full-service human resources department that provides small and medium-sized businesses with administrative relief, big-company benefits, reduced liabilities and a systematic way to improve productivity. The company operates 50 sales offices in 23 major markets. For more information about Administaff, call 800-465-3800 or visit http://www.administaff.com.
February 18, 2010