It’s not always difficult to uncover the reason behind workplace violence. Think “Office Space” – would the fax machine have been destroyed if not for those TPS reports? Would the building have been burned down if the red Swingline stapler had remained where it belonged? It sounds ridiculous on film, but it rings true in multicultural, potentially high-stress work environments.

Kelly Services, a global staffing provider with 560,000 employees worldwide, has a senior manager in their Global Security and Investigations group who is focused on preventing workplace violence. Paul N. Whelan is working to empower Kelly Services managers, and those responsible for security concerns around the globe, to address the workforce protection needs of their employees in their domestic and foreign branch offices.

Violence in the workplace is more prevalent of an issue in the United States, but abroad, there are other issues to focus on, Whelan says. In Europe, the concern is more with demonstrations and protests in major cities, and in Asia and the South Pacific, natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes are the risks of the day.

Regarding security at the company’s Troy, Mich., headquarters, however, “The key is to understand what can lead to violence and mitigating the risk from there,” Whelan says. “Is an employee not being paid correctly? Is there inappropriate banter about emotionally charged issues (religion or politics)? If it’s a payroll issue, there are several things we can do, like get an emergency check or paycard to an employee. Inappropriate conversations can be quickly curtailed through counseling.

“Our definition of workplace violence includes confrontations and verbal arguments, and we focus on trying to be proactive,” he continues. “If an employee has a problem with absenteeism, we want our managers to look beyond policy, and more at the underlying reason for the policy violation – is it just an issue of not allotting enough time for traffic, or is it a situation of domestic violence, elder abuse?”

Domestic abuse can impact the entire workforce in an enterprise, says Barry Nixon, founder of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence.

“This is a cultural barrier that people bring with them to the workplace,” says Nixon, “that private issues need to stay at home. But they don’t. We must overcome that instinct.”

According to Whelan, “managers must understand that an argument over the phone, email or in person could impact the entire corporate campus.” He suggests that managers have plans and suggestions available to troubled employees on issues ranging from personal protective orders and how to secure residences, to knowing how to change cell phone numbers or deactivate social media accounts. Most companies have employee assistance programs available to help employees in crisis, he says.

“By sitting down with employees, as well as partnering with business unit managers and Human Resources managers about related issues, such as stalking or domestic abuse, those in positions of leadership can mitigate the risks of workplace violence,” Whelan says.

Nixon suggests implementing a post-hire questionnaire, including a domestic violence section to gain up-front information about an employee’s situation so enterprise security executives can work with them based on their circumstances.

With employees from 188 member-nations congregating in the International Monetary Fund’s headquarters in Washington, DC, far from family and placed in high-pressure jobs, it’s necessary for the Fund to form a new support structure for them – much of that involves being able to tell when something’s amiss and fixing the problem quickly.

Vincent O’Neill, the chief of headquarters security operations for the IMF, formed a committee with other company representatives from ethics, HR, legal and security to prevent escalating threats, including those from domestic abuse that spills over into the workplace.

Two years into his tenure at the Fund, O’Neill was in his office when an anxious Brazilian employee gave a “harrowing account of a stalking issue.” He sourced counseling for her, and soon had a line of women and men asking for assistance.

Eventually, the Fund took steps to train office managers to recognize issues and give avenues to get resolution, including hiring a domestic violence prevention coordinator, Elizabeth LeGrain, who offers access to counseling and legal advice at both the IMF and the World Bank across the street while O’Neill helps provide safety and security advice and solutions for stressed employees.

“You’re bound to encounter some resistance to offer assistance,” says O’Neill. “When you make those offers, you open yourself up to liability issues, but we have very little choice with an international staff.” With so many employees away from their traditional support systems, it becomes the duty of the enterprise to protect vulnerable staff, inside and outside of the workplace.

For example, six months ago, a security officer found a staff member being violently ill at work. The lieutenant recognized major problem signs with the employee’s illness and called 911 for immediate transport to a hospital, which, in the end, saved the employee’s life.

Nixon says that this sort of shift – changing the enterprise’s level of involvement – can change public opinion and save lives. The California Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, went through a huge metamorphosis Starting in 2005, he says. Previously, it was a disaster waiting to happen, with unhappy employees and confusing lines and protocols, he says. Now, through queuing technology, representatives who help direct foot traffic to the right line, and training (“arrogance versus customer service,” says Nixon), the DMV restructured its workflow and produced a much less painful and much more efficient experience.

Similarly, taxi cab companies were plagued by workplace violence, but major changes in operations, including adding security cameras, GPS, instant communication and credit card offerings (instead of being an all-cash business) have contributed to a significant decrease in the homicide rate of taxi drivers, Nixon reports.

“The enterprise must take this seriously and do what it can to change those risks and protect its employees,” he says.

In terms of active shooters, however, O’Neill says that the Fund doesn’t relying on just security officers but a strong overall enterprise security program, including:

Strong access control measures prevent anyone without access from entering the Fund, and armed security officers posted outside each entrance serve as a strong deterrent.

Police and firefighters in the DC area get a full briefing and walkthrough of the campus. The Fire Control Center has access to the blueprints of the buildings, and first responders are given copies of the response plans and radios for easy communication throughout the response team. The Fund’s security team is also cross-trained on first responder policies.

Tom Davis, the director of facilities management and security for the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo., has a strong firsthand experience with the aftermath of active shooting incidents, and can certainly attest to the importance of having a strong post-incident plan.

As the hospital that received the most patients from the Aurora mass shooting in 2012, the University of Colorado Hospital was overrun with crowds of people showing up, either searching for relatives or searching for information. Luckily for Davis, the incident occurred at a shift-change for his security officer team, so he kept both shifts, and many of the officers were kept busy securing the perimeter and helping victims out of police cars and into the Emergency Department so medical staff could keep working on gunshot victims.

“We had just completed active shooter training four months prior to the event, including during- and after-event response. This included first responders and university staff, so we were prepared,” says Davis.

The next day, Davis requested additional security personnel from his contract officer provider, and they arrived within two hours, enabling him to keep the building secure, even when President Obama visited the hospital two days after the event.

His media plan helped to maintain hospital efficiency as well – a small park on campus was equipped with electricity and arranged for journalists to set up camp, keeping them out of the facility but close enough where they could see the front doors without blocking them.

“Our goal is to keep the comfort level for patients,” says Davis. Continual training and having a solid, all-around plan helps make that a reality. For staff and patients, the hospital can relocate parking, offer escorts to vehicles, involve local law enforcement or even initiate a Patient Watch, so a security officer stays in a patient’s room in order to protect them from potential danger and put them at ease. Davis invested in Crisis Prevention Intervention training for his staff, teaching security officers how to stand, talk and control a situation verbally. Also, in an effort to reduce costs and build uniformity, he sent instructors to off-campus official training, who then came back to train the rest of the security team in-house. That off-site training (for non-instructors) costs upward of $1,500 per student, not including the costs of time away from the hospital, all of which is saved by in-house education.

To account for the variety of risks that managers face worldwide, Kelly Services offers a teleconference class tailored to each unique audience on “Promoting a Safe Workplace.” For U.S. managers, the course is designed to level the playing field for regional vice presidents and staffing supervisors, instructing them in the basics of mitigating workplace violence risks, how to partner with local law enforcement and how to discuss potential issues with employees. Overseas, it focuses on getting employees to work safely during a protest or ensuring staff (and their family’s) safety after a natural disaster.

Whelan recommends building a workforce protection policy with a top-down approach: “Leadership must understand then empower and support your security initiatives,” he says. “When you have a senior sponsor, people stand up and take notice.” Also, he recommends that enterprises, regardless of size, partner with local law enforcement and trained personnel or security officers; benchmark what customers and vendors are doing; gain certifications and training through security organizations; and read security industry publications to gain points of reference for solutions and information.  


The Unlucky 13 – The Early Warning Signs of Potential Violence at Work

By W. Barry Nixon, Founder,
National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence, Inc.


1.  Threats:Person makes direct, veiled or conditional threats of harm.

2.  Unreasonable:Person is never happy with what is going on. He or she is consistently unreasonable and overreacts to feedback or criticism. He or she has a tendency to take comments personally and turns it into a grudge.

3.  Intimidation and Control-Oriented:Person feels a need to constantly force their opinion on others and/or has a compulsive need to control others.

4.  Paranoid:Person thinks other people are out to get them. He or she thinks there is a conspiracy to all functions of society.

5.  Irresponsible:Person doesn’t take responsibility for any of their behaviors or faults or mistakes; it's always someone else's fault.

6.  Angry, Argumentative & Confrontational:Person has many hate and anger issues with co-workers, family, friends or the government. He or she is frequently involved in confrontations and argumentsand has low impulse control.

7.  Violence Fascination and Acceptance:Person applauds certain violent acts portrayed in the media such as racial incidences, domestic violence, shooting sprees, executions etc. and is fascinated with the killing power of weapons.

8.  Vindictive:She or he often verbalizes hope for something to happen to the person against whom the employee has a grudge.

9.  Bizarre Behavior:Person is quirky, strange; considered weird and behaves in unusual manner; their presence makes others feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

10.       Desperation:Person expresses extreme desperation over recent family, financial or personal problems.

11.       Obsessions:Person has obsessive involvement with the job, particularly when no apparent outside interests exist.

12.       Substance Abuse: Person has signs of alcohol and/or drug abuse.

       13.       Chronic Depression:Person displays chronic signs of depression, loss of interest and confident in life or work, is lethargic, lacks energy, particularly when this is a significant change in behavior.