Workplace violence is an issue that is beginning to get more attention, but remains underreported and misunderstood. While a handful of shocking and high-profile incidents have the power to capture the public’s attention, the vast majority of incidents stay under the public radar.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted a study that found that more than 1.7 million employees are victims of workplace assaults every year. According to a report issued by the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence, in the 21st Century, an average of 552 work-related homicides occur annually in the U.S.
Despite these eye-opening numbers, organizations only spend an average of $4.50 per employee annually on workplace violence prevention. The reality is that organizations have plenty of room for improvement when it comes to workplace violence training, preparation and prevention. But before any preventative and proactive steps can be put in place, decision-makers need to develop a comprehensive understanding of not only what workplace violence is, but how it impacts their employees and their business.
Workplace Violence 101
The FBI defines workplace violence as “actions or words that endanger or harm another employee or result in other employees having a reasonable belief that they are in danger.”
It is important to note that this definition encompass more than actual physical violence. The threat of violence, intimidation or harassment can have a dramatically adverse effect on the health and well-being of employees, and, ultimately, the cohesiveness and performance of an organization. Companies with a poor reputation for maintaining a safe, secure and positive work environment are more likely to have trouble attracting and retaining high-quality employees, and are far more likely to be plagued by inefficiency and poor productivity.
With that in mind, the ability of any business to establish and maintain a safe and secure professional environment for its employees is not only a moral obligation – it is also simply good business. The question then is how can decision-makers minimize or eliminate the threat of workplace violence, and responsibly protect their people and property?
An Ounce of Prevention
Some of the most important steps that an organization can take to minimize the impact of workplace violence take place before and during the hiring process. While personal and professional references remain the richest potential source of information about a prospective employee, there are a number of techniques that can be used to try and gather more accurate information on personal traits, behaviors and characteristics. Some companies utilize psychometric assessment tests that claim to be able to test for integrity and specific personality traits, and polygraph tests are permitted in certain industries or under specific circumstances, although they are subject to strict standards of use.
One of the notorious weak spots when it comes to identifying potential bad apples during hiring process is employment verification. Most companies are not conducting a thorough review and follow-up of submitted information. They often do not go further than a bare-bones confirmation that the individual did in fact work where they claimed to have worked. Some companies simply check the applicant’s information against a basic work-history database.
To avoid letting potentially dangerous individuals slip through the cracks, employers would be wise to utilize techniques that are consciously designed to be more thorough. Ask more questions, and make sure to speak personally with an applicant’s former employer. Do not simply talk to HR or Accounting, who are much more likely to give generalities and lack of detail. Conduct a brief supervisor interview, making sure to ask about not only performance, but also any personality traits or behaviors that the supervisor may have been concerned about.
Safety and Security Steps
As important as diligent vetting can be during the hiring process, re-vetting and re-screening programs are equally valuable – and much less common. Consider collecting a payroll list on a monthly basis to screen for criminal convictions and other red flags, and implementing a program to review employee social media profiles on an annual basis. Check and re-check your own efforts using detailed post-hiring audits to review and make sure background checks were performed appropriately.
When it comes to establishing a professional culture where employees are informed and empowered, the support of senior leadership is critically important. One of the best ways to ensure that issues are not overlooked and that initiatives like workplace violence awareness training gain traction is to appoint someone in the organization to take ownership of this issue. If feasible, appoint a subject-matter expert who can help conduct training, drive awareness, educate employees, break down taboos and ensure that potential concerns do not get lost in the corporate shuffle.
The key to creating a positive and open atmosphere is to institutionalize workplace prevention measures. Create a clear reporting structure, including hotlines and clear chains of communication. Hold exercises and interactive training sessions, including protocols for response in the event of an emergency (make workplace violence prevention training a standard part of your overall emergency training). An informed workforce that knows what to look for, is quick to report, and has someone to report to is the single best weapon against workplace violence.
General Tips and Best Practices
In addition to the concrete steps that companies can take to bolster their workplace violence prevention and preparation, there are a number of tips and general best practices that security-minded companies can put in place to enhance their efforts:
From an HR perspective, workplace violence is an issue that is front and center. It is beginning to be discussed much more often than in the past, and organizations should take steps to ensure that that discussion includes and engages employees, as well. One of the reasons that workplace violence has traditionally gone underreported is because of confusion about what falls into the category of workplace violence. But even in cases where it is clearly understood, some companies may have a desire to protect their reputation and a corresponding tendency to minimize the impact of incidents. Some employees may also be reluctant to involve employers in a situation, worried about rocking the boat or considering the issue to be a personal matter. Clear and consistent communication to employees can clarify much of this confusion or reluctance.
Strike a balance.
Essentially, anything that implies or poses a physical threat constitutes workplace violence. Because the category is so broad, companies frequently struggle with deciding exactly how to respond in a reasonable manner. These decisions involve finding nuanced answers to big questions and often demand a challenging balancing act of security versus privacy. For example, a detailed background check may provide some evidence of a propensity to act in a violent manner, but if an employee has a medical condition or takes medication, medical privacy issues and even Constitutional Rights may become an issue.
When a violent incident takes place, there were frequently signals beforehand – and sometimes those signals were overt. It is exceptionally rare that something happens with no warning whatsoever. With that in mind, it is all the more important to be proactive, to have a program in place year-round, and to implement policies and programs that will minimize your exposure and protect your employees. Being prepared is a lot better than having to react to a disturbing or tragic event.
Deploy a program that is both holistic and ongoing.
Many companies have programs in place that they think are effective – a state of affairs that can be worse than not having one at all. Any effective program has to be both holistic and ongoing: it is a process, not a discrete event or a single training session. The best programs are constantly updated, tested, reviewed and revised, with employee education and training a prominent feature.
Go to the pros.
Consider working with an experienced and trusted security partner to assist in everything from front-end elements like screening to rigorous ongoing reviews and security measures. The best security vendors will combine a traditional operational approach (consulting, audits, etc.) with tactical intelligence gathering and active security steps. In some extreme cases, a forensic profiler or psychological expert may be brought in to conduct more in depth assessment of worrisome employees and provide additional guidance about what can be done to help prevent these types of issues from arising.
While workplace violence is beginning to be better understood and awareness is growing, the data strongly suggests that workplace violence issues remain significantly underreported. While sensational and shocking events are brought to our attention in a big way through intense media coverage, the more prosaic (but no less troubling) realities of everyday harassment, aggression and violence are quietly present in professional environments. For executives and decision makers, raising awareness and taking steps to prepare for and prevent workplace violence is one of the best ways to protect both employees and their professional interests.