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Workplace Violence: It’s Security’s Business

August 1, 2010
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“Companies that take workplace violence seriously, focus on prevention and understand the importance of implementing a comprehensive approach will in the long run come out ahead,” says Felix Nater of Nater Associates, who advises organizations on workplace violence prevention and policies.


“No Safety program worth its salt would dare focus on passively waiting for injuries to occur and putting a focus on how to react after the fact,” says Barry Nixon, director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc.

Remember the term “going postal”? It originated in August 1986, when post office employee Patrick Henry Sherrill in Edmund, Okla. shot two of his supervisors and then killed 14 other co-workers and injured several others. He then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. After this incident, there seemed to be a rash of work-related violence incidents, many in post offices, hence the term, “going postal.” Why did Sherrill “go postal”? According to news reports, he believed he was about to lose his job.

Workplace violence has occurred in every level of workplace environments from factories to white-collar companies, and it’s a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form – homicide – is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 564 workplace homicides in 2005 in the U.S., out of a total of 5,702 fatal work injuries.

 Even more statistics:
• Some two million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.
• In an average week in United States workplaces, one employee is killed and at least 25 are seriously injured in violent assaults by current or former coworkers.
• Homicides are the second leading cause of all job-related deaths, surpassed only by motor vehicle related deaths.
• Homicide is the leading cause of job-related deaths for women.
• Workplace violence costs United States businesses approximately $4.2 billion per year in missed days of work and legal costs.
• Approximately 68 percent of employers have written policies addressing workplace violence.
• Approximately 79 percent of employers regulate and/or prevent weapons on company premises.
As security directors are responsible for ensuring a safe workplace no matter what technology is used, they need to be aware of and try to prevent workplace violence issues. Simply said, workplace violence is security's business.

Beyond the statistics, what does workplace violence entail? Rebecca A. Speer, an employment lawyer, namely, short of actual violence, “employers at times find themselves needing to respond to a direct or indirect threat of violence, or circumstances that feel threatening. Imagine, for instance, the long-disgruntled employee with a history of erratic behavior and a well-publicized gun collection who storms out, angrily telling his supervisor that he will ‘give him what he deserves’ after being reprimanded for his frequent absences and flare-ups with co-workers. Or, consider the dutiful employee who reluctantly informs her manager that her ex-boyfriend – against whom she has obtained a restraining order – keeps calling her at work, making angry threats. Or, imagine a garden-variety sexual harassment claim that escalates into allegations of aggravated romantic pursuit and stalking.”

Each of these scenarios, she says, carries the potential of fueling fear among employees; each raises safety concerns; and each demands some sort of intervention by an employer. Hence, she says, “workplace violence” is best considered an umbrella term covering a broad range of conduct. “The term encompasses incidents of overt violence, both fatal or non-fatal; direct, indirect, and conditional threats of violence; and “behaviors of concern” – that is, any conduct that generates a reasonable concern for on-the-job safety from violence.”

It also includes behaviors affecting both on-site safety and safety off-site during work-related activities, says Speers. In addition, the term encompasses behavior by employees, former employees, vendors, contractors, customers, the family members or intimate partner of an employee, strangers to the workplace and so forth.


Going “Zero Incident”

According to W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc, and a member of Security’s advisory board, there are only three choices security directors have to deal with the risk of workplace violence in an organization:

1. Ignore the risk (throw the dice and believe that it won’t happen in your organization). This approach, he says, is the most frequent approach that is taken. This belief, better known as the ostrich approach, is the number one obstacle to managers taking a proactive preventative approach to dealing with workplace violence.
2. Transfer a portion of the risk via insurance. Nixon says this approach is one in which the organization does what is legally required to do to address issues to minimize any legal liability.
3. Reduce a substantial amount of the risk by reducing “at risk” behaviors (individual and organizational behaviors that tend to increase risk). This approach is the one taken by progressive organizations that actually operationalize their mission statement that people are their most important resource and that genuinely focus on providing a safe workplace free of known hazards, says Nixon. It is also one that he advocates implementing.

In the past, many employers and security directors have focused on zero tolerance to workplace violence. Simply put: it's like saying, “We do not tolerate any type of workplace violence incidents in our organization. No second chances, no three strikes and you're out.” Although that policy has good intentions, is not one that Nixon believes goes far enough.

The policy has inherent problems, he believes, in that it is a “one size fits all” approach that does not work with every organization and it is reactive in nature. “It in essence states ‘if you violate our workplace violence policy or act in an inappropriate manner’ it will not be tolerated and you will be punished,” Nixon says. “While that is fine, it ignores the fundamental principle of providing a safe work environment that is to prevent people from being injured in the first place. No Safety program worth its salt would dare focus on passively waiting for injuries to occur and putting a focus on how to react after the fact.”
 
Instead, he says, contrast the emerging approach is “zero incident,” which focuses on reducing “at risk” behaviors and destructive organizational practices to attack the root causes of injuries so that an organization can intervene before incidents happen. An example of an actual workplace violence policy written using the “zero incident” approach is the following:

“It is our intent to create a work environment where all employees are safe and secure from hazards. To ensure this happens we are placing a high priority on implementing practices and procedures that prevent work violence, and strongly encourage the support of all employees in helping us to create an accident and hazard free environment.”

“The difference in the two approaches is that one focuses on prevention while the other focuses on reaction,” Nixon says. The zero incident policy includes prevention efforts such as implementing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention policy and a threat management team, training supervisors and employees to identify early warning signs, learning how to defuse aggressive situations and implementing appropriate ways to intervene to address potential violence. Best practices include reporting threats and incidents and focusing on creating a security conscious work environment.”

It also involves protecting your employees, Nixon says, which means activating a crisis response plan and an active shooter protocol with law enforcement. “Protect includes not just [physically] protecting employees, but also the organization’s resources by having well thought out and crafted plans to minimize disruptions to the organization’s operations,” Nixon says.


The Legal Issues

But what happens when an incident takes place? What is the cost to a company’s reputation due to a workplace violence incident? Well, it depends. Brands need protection, no matter which industry it is, partly because the business environment changes daily with consumer awareness on the rise, including consumer blogging, tweeting and other social media. Anything negative said about your brand impacts it at every level. 

Workplace violence, however, goes beyond your brand and can impact your company’s pocket book in terms of litigation fees, fines and more.

Under OSHA’s General Duty Clause, every employee is guaranteed a safe place to work. Not doing so could mean a workplace violence citation that carries with it civil penalties of up to $7,000 per violation for serious violations, or up to $70,000 for every willful or repeat violation.

For example, in Secretary of Labor v. Megawest Financial, Inc., 17 O.S.H. Cas. (BNA 1337) (1995), OSHA issued a serious violation citation to Megawest Financial, Inc., who owned and managed several apartment communities, for violations of the General Duty Clause by failing for furnish a workplace free from the “serious recognized hazard of violence in that security measures were not taken to minimize the risk or eliminate employee exposure to assault and battery by tenants of the apartment complex.”

The citation was issued after Megawest refused to provide additional security for the apartment office staff following several incidents where a property manager was sprayed in the face with mace, struck with a telephone and threatened by tenants. One of the property managers was even assaulted by a tenant while the OSHA compliance officer was on site conducting an interview.

While Megawest was ultimately successful, the case demonstrated OSHA’s willingness to apply the General Duty Clause to incidents of workplace violence.

In another case, OSHA provided criminal penalties as a result a shooting in 2003 that killed six employees in a Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, Miss. The suit was filed by the daughter of one of the six victims. The shooter worked at the Lockheed facility for 20 years before the shooting, in which he also took his own life.

The suit alleged that some of the employees who worked alongside the shooter had been complaining for months that their coworker had threatened them and used racial slurs. And, a year before the shootings, Lockheed told him that his continued employment would be contingent on completing a counseling program.

Ultimately, the employee was cleared to work after just three counseling sessions. Later that year, the shooter was attending a mandatory diversity training program when he walked out of the class and returned with a shotgun and a rifle.

The suit claimed that NEAS, Inc. (the counselor and settling party), failed to provide its affiliate with a full background for the referral. Instead, NEAS allegedly stated only that the employee had “boundary/communication issues.”

According to Felix Nater, CSC of Nater Associates, Ltd., “The laws are not sensitive to the ‘budget is not there’ excuse. Under some court decisions, if you failed to address security measures in your organization, that is no longer a viable excuse you can make.”


Training and Internal Controls

Nater, who has spent the last eight years advising security directors and others on workplace violence, says that unfortunately, “Corporate America only spends money on warning signs. And I don’t think that the C-suite has accurate information and doesn't know what to do with workplace violence. That's a problem for CSOs. The HR department doesn’t integrate their capabilities with other departments. Instead, it’s left to security, which gets called when there’s a need to react. That’s wrong. From an influential perspective, the CSO needs to wrap their arms around this issue and mitigate the risk. They know how to justify their costs for a new security video camera; they also need to show the justification of proper training on this issue as well. Make it a management tool that has cross functional applications.”

Proper training for every employee is key, says Nater, and he often sees it done the wrong way. “Don’t put people in a lecture setting, where everybody receives the same training,” he says. “It’s inappropriate to do that because everyone has different responsibilities at different levels. Training is important, but if it’s not properly conducted or managed, it’s worthless. I think that workplace violence training needs to be tiered; employees first need to be told the policy, the acceptable behavior, the reporting procedures and how they can help maintain a secure workplace. Then you take that to the management. Start small and go higher up.”

Technology also might help, Nater says, however; technology alone is not the solution. “What good is the deployment of technology without training that explains the value? The administered policy will not contain the emotions of a vengeful person, but the involved supervisor can have an interdictive value,” he says.

Nater recommends establishing clear reporting procedures. “Proactive involvement helps to create a supportive environment in a workplace setting where the need to take appropriate action is supported because management is willing to commit resources. Terminating employees because that is the necessary act must be a guided process to ensure a prudent approach to minimize the need to get even. Most terminations are a business decision that is handled by an insensitive manager.”

Nater suggests the following training to help mitigate the risk of workplace violence, including:

1. Conduct security awareness training down to the lowest level.
2. Select the optimum termination environment.
3. Include informational mailings with paychecks.
4. Designate a time of year as Workplace Violence Prevention Awareness. The key will be the workplace culture that discourages such feelings.
5. Incorporate Employee Assistance Programs as part of a workplace Wellness Program.
6. Establish clear reporting instructions that places accountability and responsibility to report and document observations.
7. Have an anonymous reporting system to protect the source.
8. Conduct background checks that offer more insight into the process to protect against the “vacationing” criminal or predator or falsification of applications.
9. Employees undergoing difficult marriage relationships should be encouraged to seek help.
10. Provide training for leadership in workplace violence prevention for all levels of management.
Knowing what to do and how to react can help to mitigate the threat of workplace violence and protect as many as possible from the violent act. “Stop practicing theory and deal with situational awareness,” he says.

And finally, but not last, Nater says, formulate a threat assessment team approach composed of key players to review and evaluate reports or observations of potential situations to prevent escalation. “Consider situations that might escalate as justification for convening the threat assessment team,” he says. “This is particularly important in workplace environments where confidentiality issues protect privacy of individuals from external disclosure of information.”

“Workplace violence prevention is no simple proposition, but it can be done,” Nater adds. “In an era when tough talk and catchy rhetoric too often eclipse any real action, some organizations are beginning to understand that an effective workplace violence prevention program is smart business. It is about protecting their most important asset – their employees and to maintain a positive reputation with their customers, shareholders and the media, while minimizing disruptions to normal operations. Companies that take workplace violence seriously, who focus on prevention and understand the importance of implementing a comprehensive approach will in the long run come out ahead.”


Creating a Workplace Violence Standard

ASIS International and the Society for Human Resource Management are developing a Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Standard. The standard will provide an overview of general security policies, processes and protocols that organizations can adopt to help prevent threatening behavior and violence affecting the workplace, and better respond to and resolve security incidents involving threats and episodes of actual violence. 

The standard will outline security prevention and intervention strategies as well as the procedures for detecting, investigating, managing and addressing threatening behavior or violent episodes that occur in a workplace or in association with it or its employees. Rebecca A. Speer, an employment lawyer and member of ASIS and SHRM, chairs the committee responsible for developing the WVPI Standard.

Speer says that the standard will serve as a unique resource for employers as they consider ways to better prevent and respond to workplace violence. The Standard recites “best practices” for workplace violence prevention and can be used to guide corporate efforts in this arena. The Standard is fairly comprehensive and represents countless hours of work by professionals working on all sides of this issue – from security and HR professionals, to psychologists, employment attorneys, academicians, members of law enforcement, and others. “It is the hope and expectation of the entire Committee that the Standard will help educate, enlighten and motivate employers on the often simple steps they can take to address this very real, very substantial, and very consequential workplace problem,” she says.


What Causes Workplace Violence?

According to Felix Nater of Nater and Associates, there are many causes of workplace violence that have nothing or very little to do with the workplace. Yet, knowing what to look for could help the employee before things got worse. Such causes that might lead to violence could include the following:

• known history or violent past behavior
• extreme financial hardships
• health problems
• individuals who become mentally deranged
• bitter matrimonial disputes
• societal and environmental
influences


Types of Workplace Violence

By understanding the cause of the violence, perhaps we will be better able to eliminate, reduce or mitigate the risk of it occurring. There are four main types of work related violence:

Criminal violence
Violence perpetrated by individuals who have no relationship with the organization or victim. Normally their aim is to access cash, stock, drugs, or perform some other criminal or unlawful act.

Service user violence
Violence perpetrated by individuals who are recipients of a service provided in the workplace or by the victim. This often arises through frustration with service delivery or some other by-product of the organization’s core business activities.

Worker–on-worker violence
Violence perpetrated by individuals working within the organization; colleagues, supervisors, managers etc. This is often linked to protests against enforced redundancies, grudges against specific members of staff, or in response to disciplinary action that the individual perceives as being unjust.

Domestic violence
Violence perpetrated by individuals, outside of the organization, but who have a relationship with an employee e.g. partner, spouses or acquaintances. This is often perpetrated within the work setting, simply because the offender knows where a given individual is during the course of a working day.

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