When you think of workplace violence, do you think it’s something that only happens at other people’s companies? Or that it’s only U.S. Post Office employees who “go postal”?

That’s a common reaction, but smart contractors know there are many levels of violence that can occur in the workplace, and they take precautions to ensure their employees are safe, whether in the office or in the field.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that the cost for a workplace homicide is $800,000-$850,000.

“The reality is where you have any group of employees, it can happen,” said W. Barry Nixon, executive director and founder of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence Inc. “Wherever there are people, there can potentially be workplace violence.”

And that includes people at companies of all sizes. According to Nixon, “Smaller guys roll the dice and tend to think, ‘It won’t happen here.’ But the impact on a smaller employer is greater.”

Contractors of all sizes should be aware of the risks their employees are exposed to and take steps to prevent conflict among internal staff, as well as with outside customers.

Preventive Policies

Nixon explained that while workplace homicides are most widely reported by the media, there is a broader definition of workplace violence that employers need to be familiar with. This includes assaults and homicides, but also disruptive, aggressive, hostile, or emotionally abusive behaviors that generate anxiety and a perceived risk of physical, emotional, and/or psychological harm to individuals.

Putting an effective policy in place that clearly states that these types of behavior are unacceptable is a good starting point.

According to Narissa Rampey, owner and human resource manager of Air Assurance Co., Broken Arrow, Okla., “We have a section in our company handbook about workplace violence that addresses it, mentioning that we expressly prohibit any acts or threats of violence by a team member against any other team member in or about the facilities or elsewhere at any time, and that the company will not condone such actions against coworkers, customers, vendors, or visitors.”

She continued, “The policy states that law officials may be called and anyone engaging in such behavior will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including discharge. There is also a ‘duty to warn’ their supervisors or HR coordinator of any suspicious situations or incidents they observe or are aware of that appear problematic.”

Eric Knaak, vice president of operations, Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Rochester, N.Y., said, “Our HR department has had formal and informal presentations on harassment and sexual harassment in the office, so that things do not escalate to the aggressive status. Our employee manual has a section on violence in the workplace, and it clearly outlines the definition and the actions to be taken if there is a concern or an incident.”

At Mechanical Services Inc. of Central Florida, Orlando, Fla., service manager Dennis M. Purvis said, “We have a zero tolerance policy on violence. Acts of violence are not tolerated and are cause for instant dismissal.”

Matthew Kuntz, vice president, Jupiter Tequesta Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Jupiter, Fla., also noted that his company’s handbook outlines a zero-tolerance policy for aggressive behavior.

According to Aaron York Sr. of Aaron York’s Quality Air, Indianapolis, it is the responsibility of company leaders to create an environment of respect in the workplace that prevents the kinds of employee conflict that could escalate to violence. “Our opinion is that appropriate policies and management leadership can work wonders in avoiding such,” he said. “We try to be alert to any frictions that might be around and cap them before they pop up.”

York added that fostering respect for differing opinions is important. “When we respect one another and readily give ear to what others think, it is much easier to disagree agreeably. The fires must be snuffed out as sparks before the flames present themselves. The Bible says it very well in Matthew 7:12; ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’ Surely seems like a good and effective policy to me.”

Employee Training

Some contractors also follow up their policies with training. Rampey said the staff at Air Assurance Co. has watched videos about preventing workplace violence and attended a presentation from an outside consultant. “It’s always a good investment,” she said.

In addition, Rampey said that her company has begun to establish a ‘no-triangle’ approach to solve staff issues. “This is where someone gets upset and goes to another outside person in the office to ‘air’ their complaints and then others are upset and the issue grows — instead of going directly to the person involved and solving the incident immediately and peaceably,” she explained. “We are outsourcing some training on this in the upcoming months.”

Knaak noted that employees at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning have also received training preventing workplace violence, particularly noting that it included a discussion of the signs of potential violent behavior. “This was a good investment in that it made our team aware of the signs, and it helps to show people that there is someone to talk to if you are ever concerned for your safety,” he said. (For more details on warning signs of potential violence, see the sidebar above.)

Aggressive Customers

While it’s certainly possible for employers and managers to supervise employees closely at the office and watch for potential conflicts, when technicians go out into the field, they face a whole different range of security concerns. “We work in unknown clients’ homes daily, so there is always a concern of who we are sending our employees to, but it is part of the job,” said Kuntz. “Making sure you are in constant contact with your field staff ensures that if something was to happen, we can get help or support to that employee quickly and successfully.”

Rampey noted that her employees have experienced situations where customers become aggressive. “We always train how to deflect and remove themselves from the situation and let someone neutral intercede,” she said.

Since Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning is open 24/7, Knaak noted that his company’s main concern is for the security of field personnel during the evening or night. “We always allow them to request a second technician as backup if they feel any concern for their safety,” he said. “We will allow any of our staff to leave a job site at any time if they feel they are in a potentially unsafe situation, and they may also choose to not stop at a home or business for the same reason. Fortunately, we have not really had any major issues.”

It’s not only residential contractors who have to worry about sending techs to environments where customers can become angry and aggressive — commercial contractors must beware of these types of conflicts, too. “Due to the nature of our service business, we mostly see upset customers when we are unable to return their systems to full service due to lead time on parts,” Purvis said. “In computer rooms, server rooms, or commercial office space with no redundancy, clients can be a little short with the techs.”

He explained that senior management gets involved to resolve any issues, adding, “We publish a ‘What to Do If’ pamphlet covering most eventualities, and it also contains contact info for all managers.”

Nixon added a few more procedures that should be followed to ensure the safety of employees who work in the field. He noted that they should be on a constant communication cycle and tracked with GPS devices.

He added, “One challenge is when most field employees are male. The big problem is males tend to be macho. If they come off as macho in the wrong neighborhood, it can be asking for a fight.”

Nixon recommended that employees should be prepared and trained on how to deal with being approached by a belligerent person.

Overall, he said, “There are a number of things companies can do to improve the likelihood that nothing will happen.”

And smart contractors know that effective policies and training are the best way to ensure that nothing does happen that could endanger the lives and well-being of their employees.

SIDEBAR: Early Warning Signs of Potential Violence

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

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

3. Intimidating 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 him. He thinks there is a conspiracy to all functions of society.

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

6. Angry, argumentative, and confrontational: Person has many hate and anger issues with coworkers, family, friends, or the government. He is frequently involved in confrontations and belligerent arguments, and 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: The employee often verbalizes hope for something to happen to the person against whom he has a grudge.

9. Bizarre behavior: Person is quirky, strange, and considered weird. He behaves in an unusual manner, and his presence makes others feel uneasy and uncomfortable.

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

11. Obsession: 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 confidence in life or work, is lethargic, and lacks energy — particularly when this is a significant change in behavior.

Source: The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence. For more information on the warning signs of workplace violence and appropriate intervention techniques, visit www.Workplaceviolence911.com.

Publication date: 2/11/2013