Workplace Violence Prevention… Where to Begin
Any definition of workplace violence must be broad enough to encompass the full range of behaviors that can cause injury, damage property, impede the normal course of work, or make workers, managers, and customers fear for their safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as, “Violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expands this definition to the following: “Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”
At the low end of the workplace violence spectrum above are disruptive, aggressive, hostile, or emotionally abusive behaviors that generate anxiety or create a climate of distrust and that adversely affect productivity and morale. These behaviors of concern could – but will not necessarily – escalate to more severe behavior further along the workplace violence spectrum; however, independent of the question of possible escalation, these behaviors are themselves harmful, and for that reason, warrant attention and effective intervention.
Further along the spectrum are words or other actions that are reasonably perceived to be intimidating, frightening, or threatening to employees and that generate a justifiable concern for personal safety. These behaviors include, among others, direct, conditional or veiled threats, stalking, and aggressive harassment.
At the higher end of the spectrum are acts of overt violence causing physical harm. These acts include non-fatal physical assaults with or without weapons – including pushing, shoving, hitting, kicking, or biting – and, in the worst cases, lethal violence inflicted by shooting, stabbing, bombing or any other deadly means.
What Can You Do?
Eliminating violence in the workplace should be a top priority for every executive, manager and team leader. Organizations must address procedures for safeguarding employees and property against workplace violence incidents such as bullying, harassment, theft, sabotage, vandalism, and acts of terror.
Preventing violence calls for more than a routine or standard approach. Work environments vary from one organization to another, as do the risks and challenges to employee safety. Some organizations will have more or better resources available than others, and management teams will have varying levels of knowledge and experience on violence issues. That being said, every organization should have general guiding principles regarding workplace violence prevention.
Success in this area requires a cultural change, not just the incorporation of the latest security technology. Policies, procedures, and people are the key building blocks to a safe workplace. Careful planning requires integrating workplace violence prevention with the organization’s existing safety and security plans, processes, and procedures, in order to mitigate the impacts of a violence event.
Responsibility for workplace violence prevention and response does not fall neatly into any one segment of an org chart. It is not exclusively a security issue, a human resources issue, an employment law issue, a behavioral issue, or a management issue, but instead touches on each of these disciplines. Consequently, determining who within an organization will be responsible for dealing with the many aspects of workplace violence prevention is not a simple matter. There must be active participation among all levels and divisions within an organization. This involvement accomplishes buy-in and active support of the overall initiative, and more importantly, facilitates coordination in the event of an incident.
Obtaining agreement on the vulnerabilities, decision criteria, action plans, coordination, as well as execution, is critical to the success of any program. The most effective programs use a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on different parts of the management structure, with different tasks, perspectives, areas of knowledge, and skills. These include:
- Executive Leadership: Ensures a culture of preparedness; provides oversight
- Human Resources: Plays a leadership role in developing violence prevention strategies and employee training
- Legal: Safeguards the organization from legal liability
- Operations: Maintains a respectful work environment
- Security: Responds if violence or threat of violence occurs
Begin Building Your Program Today
Workplace violence prevention is an ongoing initiative. It is not something that can be effectively addressed every time there is a new alert or increased sense of risk. Solutions hastily implemented under such circumstances can be costly and likely less effective than solutions implemented as the result of careful planning.
There is no single prescription for reducing violence in the workplace. Each organization is unique and operates in a different social, cultural, ethnic and economic environment. When addressing workplace safety issues, each organization will need to consider its culture, history, size, industry, and workforce.
Step 1) Foster a supportive, harmonious work environment: Creating a culture of mutual respect can help reduce harassment and hostility in the workplace. In such a culture, employers strive to communicate openly, give employees adequate control in their work and provide them with support and recognition. Conflict and stress are lower when employees feel empowered to work independently and are motivated to work cooperatively.
Step 2) Assess risks: Complete a hazard assessment and risk analysis of your workplace environment, as it relates to workplace violence and security. Periodically surveying employees on workplace violence can be a valuable tool for evaluating workplace violence prevention efforts and gathering suggestions for improving our program.
Step 3) Develop an effective workplace violence policy: While all organizations strive to build a culture devoid of violence, they can advance this goal by having policies in place to address infractions. The key is a workplace violence policy that clearly denounces all types of workplace violence and states unequivocally that it will not be tolerated. A thorough policy defines acts of workplace violence, specifies how to report it, explains how complaints will be investigated, and presents the consequences.
Step 4) Establish clear procedures for reporting acts of violence and behaviors of concern: A process for reporting behaviors of concern, as well as threating behavior must be established, preferably to include an anonymous reporting capability. Employees must be trained on those procedures and feel confident that reported concerns will be addressed promptly and confidentially.
Step 5) Implement preventive measures that protect employees: A variety of methods for ensuring workers’ safety should be implemented and may include full-time or after-hours security guards, social media threat monitoring, emergency warning systems, limited access key cards, strict visitor sign-in policies, employee background screenings, and ongoing safety awareness and training. Regularly evaluate current preventive measures in place to ensure all security needs are being met.
Step 6) Train, Train, Train: One way to reduce the potential for workplace violence is to intervene before an incident reaches a flash point. Train employees how to recognize signs and symptoms of a troubled or potentially violent employee. Conflict resolution training and de-escalation techniques are essential for supervisors/managers. And include skills in negotiating, communicating effectively, team building, and resolving disputes. In addition, supervisors can be trained on how to better address work performance and attitude problems and learn when to refer employees for help if needed.
Step 7) Establish an Employee Assistance Program, or equivalent: Family, marital, financial, and personal issues can have a profound impact on employees’ work performance as well as their social interaction at work. If a violent or threatening incident occurs at work, support services can be made available to help employees cope with their fears and concerns. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides employees with a free, easily accessible and confidential resource for addressing personal concerns.
Step 8) Conduct daily, persistent social media threat monitoring: Adopt a robust monitoring tool that focuses on Internet platforms where people are likely to communicate and listens for warning signs of violence within or targeting the organization. Ensure those tasked with assessing posts are well-trained and can respond quickly to emerging, escalating situations revealed through online posts.