The recent, tragic death of a Yale graduate student working in her laboratory serves as a stark reminder that violence can strike at any time, anywhere. Workplace violence is hardly a new concern, but it is a concern that tends to be pushed to the background out of fear, resource limitations or the sense that it “wouldn’t happen here.” Like any other problem of consequence, paying attention to it before it strikes is far more effective and far less painful than attempting to deal with the aftermath of it’s consequences.
Every organization should be attending to the core components of a workplace violence strategy:
1. Reference checks. Be sure to ask the question “Is this employee eligible for rehire.” Listen to the tone of the individual responding to your call and probe. While some employers will provide no more than verification of a candidate’s employment, good inquiry can often get you more information. Background checks are also appropriate.
2. Screening and Selection. While the use of psychological testing in pre employment screening is on the rise, such screening is reliably used to measure such things as personality, motivation and aptitude. There is no “test” or “profile” to administer, but there are things that employers can do in the assessment and interview process to determine the candidate’s response to stress and conflict by asking questions about prior conflicts in their life and how they were resolved, or a time they got angry in the workplace and how it affected them.
3. A policy that defines workplace violence, provides information about warning signs, requires employees to report suspicions or knowledge and forbids any threats, intimidation or violence is essential. The US Department of Labor, OSHA offers sample policies and extensive materials to help employers as does the US Chamber of Commerce . It is critical that all forms of workplace violence be clearly defined, including verbal threats, intimidation, brandishing of objects (that need not be traditional “weapons” and engaging others to harass or intimidate.
4. Mandatory training for employees to institute the policy and practices. This training should review myths and facts about workplace violence (for instance, the Hollywood version of the perfectly healthy person “suddenly snapping” is largely fiction, and most individuals acting violently at work have shown warning signs) how to recognize signs of stress or destabilization in others, how to report and what to do if an incident occurs. The training should include hypotheticals focusing on incidents involving employees, customers and vendors.
5. Mandatory training for supervisors focusing on their duty to monitor employees, and to understand possible triggers (layoffs, management changes, declining performance, destabilized personal life) that may warrant seeking guidance or assistance, a discussion of preventative management techniques, such as clear and evenhanded communication, listening sessions and respectful workplace behavior. Supervisors should also be trained in methods for delivering critical messages and should be required to consult with the Critical Response Team prior to terminating an employee to ensure best practices are applied.
6. A Critical Response Team involving organizational security, Human Resources, Facilities, Legal, Health Services, Public Information and other key representatives that should be well prepared for a threat or incident, including conducting regular threat assessments and drilling for critical incidents. This group should also be responsible for implementing an easily accessible and highly protective reporting mechanism that will take complaints from third parties as well as those directly involved in risk situations. Amongst their tasks should include instituting a “code” for notification of hostage situations, a lockdown procedure, establishing relationships with the appropriate police agencies and making recommendations for additional training or support for supervisors and employees.
7. Attention to the physical environment is important; if there is a risk of violence from an agitated customer or client, do public-contact workers have a mode of egress, or would they be trapped in a room? Are customer areas visible from other areas? Are meeting areas with plexiglass windows available to those who must meet privately with members of the public?
8. Work Climate and Culture assessment; there is firm evidence that workers who are satisfied and engaged are highly unlikely to engage in counterproductive conflict, no less violence and threats. Healthy workplaces are a primary source of violence prevention. In particular,taking steps to encourage candor, effective conflict management and instituting effective Alternative Dispute Resolution systems and strategies may be the best investment in preventing workplace violence.
9. All complaints must be taken seriously and acted upon. There are no such things as “false complaints,” as the goal of a workplace violence strategy is to keep people safe. Employers must emphasize that any employee who does not feel safe should never worry about getting someone in trouble or being laughed at for his or her worries.
10. The two greatest stressors in the workplace are declining competence and instability. Workers struggling with new technology, those waiting to hear if they are in the next wave of layoffs, employees changing jobs and being on a steep learning curve can and should be encouraged to use the employers EAP, wellness programs and outside resources to assist them.
It is essential that employers recognize the tremendous cost of NOT being proactive regarding workplace violence. It can happen here.