Taking Steps to Minimize Workplace Violence
Understand the risk factors and develop policies to minimize the opportunity for violence
By now, we’ve all heard about the horrific and very public shooting of two TV news employees in Roanoke, Virginia. The two young journalists were killed by a former employee of the same TV station where the journalists were working. In a fax received after the shooting, the attacker alleged that he was repeatedly harassed, bullied, and discriminated against for being black and gay, and on Twitter he alleged that one of the journalists had made racist comments to him and that the other “went to HR on me after working with me one time.”
While incidences like this are shocking, they are, unfortunately, not uncommon. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), homicide is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, and the main cause of death for women in the workplace. Of the 4,547 fatal workplace injuries that occurred in the United States in 2010, 506 were workplace homicides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Nearly 2 million Americans report being the victims of workplace violence every year. And OSHA says many more cases go unreported. “The truth is, workplace violence can strike anywhere, anytime, and no one is immune,” the agency notes on its website.
Companies can take steps to minimize the chances of workplace violence by understanding what the risk factors are and developing policies to minimize the opportunities for workers to be victims of such conduct. Due to the realities of workplace violence, companies should create policies and procedures for when violence does break out.
THE COST OF WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) calls the cost of workplace violence staggering. “It is impossible to overstate the costs of workplace violence, because a single incident can have sweeping repercussions,” according to the DOL. “There can be the immediate and profound loss of life or physical or psychological repercussions felt by the victim as well as the victim’s family, friends, and co-workers; the loss of productivity and morale that sweeps through an organization after a violent incident; and the public relations impact on an employer when news of violence reaches the media.”
The impact on organizations can include:
• Temporary or permanent absence of skilled employees
• Psychological damage
• Property damage, theft, and sabotage
• Obstacles to productivity
• Diverting management resources
• Increased security, workers’ compensation, and personnel costs
• Legal action and associated liability
Although workplace violence can happen anywhere and can be difficult to foresee, there are some factors that may increase risks for particular employees, companies, or sites. OSHA has identified several factors that can make employees vulnerable:
• Exchanging money with the public;
• Working with volatile, unstable people;
• Working alone or in isolated areas;
• Providing services and care; and
• Working where alcohol is served.
Time of day and location, such as working late nights or in high crime areas, can also increase the risk of workplace violence.
While workplace killings often receive the most attention, there are many different types of violence. The DOL cites several examples, including: concealing or using a weapon; physical assault upon oneself or someone else; damaging, destroying, or sabotaging property; intimidating or frightening others; harassing, stalking, or showing too much attention to another person; physically aggressive acts, such as shaking fists, kicking, pounding on desks, punching walls, or screaming at others; verbal abuse; and direct or indirect threats.
And although current and former employees are most often the ones who commit workplace violence, many other acts are committed by those outside the company. This can include domestic violence and violence perpetrated by customers and members of the public.
HOW TO MINIMIZE RISKS
In order prevent incidences of workplace violence to the greatest extent possible, companies need to take several steps.
• Develop a Policy and Strictly Enforce It
If companies have not specifically addressed workplace violence, they need to create and implement a workplace violence policy. Any existing policies should be reviewed to see if they are still up to date and relevant. The policy should clearly spell out that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, including threats, physical and emotional abuse, damaging company property, and bullying. It should also lay out disciplinary actions and what steps will be taken when employees violate any of the terms of the policy.
Guns and other weapons are another area that must be carefully considered when crafting workplace violence policies. Gun laws vary by state, so companies should carefully research what is relevant in each state where they operate. For example, in some states, employees are legally permitted to carry firearms in their vehicles. In those states, employers cannot ban all guns from company property.
It is important to work closely with legal counsel and human resources to develop a legally sound and workable policy. Once the policy has been established, all employees need to be trained on and regularly reminded of it.
• Understand Specific Risks
Risks can be increased by industry, location, interactions with customers, company culture, and other factors. Companies need to understand where they may be vulnerable, and take steps to strengthen those areas. This can involve supplementing current security measures, such as alarms, sign-in systems, and on-site cameras. If companies don’t have the internal resources to conduct these evaluations, they may want to turn to experts.
• Create a Reporting System
It is important to allow employees to raise concerns about actual and potential violence, in a way that lets them feel comfortable. Employers should establish a point person or clear chain of reporting, so employees know exactly who to contact if they see something that concerns them. It may be worth creating an anonymous reporting system.
• Consider Background Checks
Running criminal background checks on potential new hires can help to alert companies to those who may have a past history of violence. However, employers must proceed carefully with background checks. In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a new guidance for employers about the use of arrest and conviction records. The guidance emphasized that employers must be very careful to avoid any type of discriminatory hiring practices when considering criminal history. Along with federal laws, some states and even some cities have laws that limit how background checks can be used in hiring decisions.
In addition, any time employers conduct background checks on employees, they must be careful to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and any state- or local-specific laws and regulations.
• Remember Labor and Employment Laws
Employers should also remember the implications that labor and employment laws may have on any workplace violence policy. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against employees with disabilities. Employers should avoid attempting to diagnose employees’ mental health conditions themselves. Attempting to do this could easily lead to an ADA-based lawsuit. In addition, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in “protected concerted activity.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces federal labor law, has increasingly ruled that work-related speech on social media may be protected by the NLRA. This can include speech that some may view as provocative or threatening. Employers should consult with human resources and legal counsel to help sort out how labor and employment laws may impact a successful workplace violence policy.
• Prepare for the Worst
Although companies can take steps to lessen the chances of workplace violence, it is not possible to completely safeguard the workplace. This means companies need to prepare themselves and their employees ahead of time for the possibility of threats, injury, or even life-threatening situations.
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are required to provide a safe and healthful workplace for their employees. Along with legal obligations, employers need to consider that workplace violence can shatter lives and cause long-term damage to company morale. Companies need to have a plan to minimize their risks, and be prepared to respond when and if the issue arises.
Publication date: 10/19/2015