There is nothing is more basic to the safety and well being of the workplace than keeping it violence-free. This truth has been tragically spotlighted over the past many months. In these cases, the violence came from outside. Human behavior is inherently difficult to predict, but it can be even harder to foresee when a perpetrator is a relative stranger. It is within our ranks where we have the greatest opportunity to prevent such attacks on the peace, safety and well being of our workplaces.
On Dec. 14, 2010, a gunman whose wife had lost her job as a teacher walked into a Panama City FL school board meeting and fired several rounds before being wounded by a security guard and taking his own life.
On Jan. 8, 2011, at Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s Congress on the Corner event at a Tucson mall, a gunman killed 6 and wounded 14 including Rep. Gifford and members of her staff. For them, others working at the event, and the many employees of the mall, this was a workplace violence incident.
On Dec. 14, 2012, a horrific incidence of workplace violence took the lives of children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
What is known is that, according to OSHA, the risk for violence is higher for jobs with extensive public contact in the community. Other high risk workplaces include health care, social service, where money is exchanged or deliveries made, and where late night or early morning hours are worked, particularly in high crime areas. 7,000+ workplace homicides occurred between 1997-2007 (the most recent U.S. Labor Data available). Of those, 1000+ involved work associates, which is our focus here. Although most incidents don’t involve a death, they can none-the-less be scarring for the individual and collective psyches of your team and your organization. In addition to any physical injuries, the toxic fallout from violence can include cognitive distraction, fear and anxiety, increased absence, turnover, emotional exhaustion, more accidents, performance deficiencies and lower production.
According to the Workplace Violence Research Institute, workplace aggression also takes a heavy toll on the financial health of businesses. An Institute study estimated the aggregate cost of workplace violence to U.S. employers to be more than $36 billion as a result of expenses associated with lost business and productivity, litigation, medical care, psychiatric care, higher insurance rates, increased security measures, negative publicity, and loss of employees. Problems in any of these areas can create a difficult financial environment for companies, especially those that are in the small or mid-sized range. Investigations in the aftermath of violence by employees often reveal that warning signs were missed or unreported, either by employees to management, or by supervisors up the line.
For supervisors, there are some common reasons why warning signs aren’t addressed:
• Aversion to conflict
• Discomfort with emotion
• Not knowing the company’s safety policy and procedures
• Lacking confidence in the company’s safety policy and procedures
• Reluctance to spend time on “non-bottom line” issues
• Fear of retaliation
Given the legal duty of employers and their agents (everyone in a position of authority) to create and maintain a safe workplace, companies are much more likely to train supervisors on Workplace Violence than the rank and file employees. Yet employees are a powerful piece of the violence prevention puzzle when educated, enlightened and engaged in protecting their turf.
Harassment is at the beginning the violence continuum. In our training, we let employees know harassment can escalate into warning signs of potential violence, which can include:
• Threats of harm or suicide
• History of violence
• Physical or verbal intimidation (for example: harassing phone calls or stalking)
• Unwarranted paranoid behavior
• Excessive conflicts at work
• Inability to take criticism about job performance
• Carrying or fascination with weapons
• Fascination with news about violent incidents
• Approval of violence to solve problems
• Despair over personal problems
• Drug or alcohol abuse
• Disregard for employee safety
• Obsessive involvement with the job with no apparent outside interest
• A loner romantically obsessed with a co-worker who doesn’t welcome or share the interest
• Extreme changes in behavior
In our experience, employees overwhelmingly want to be good workplace citizens — do the right thing for themselves, the team, and the company
At your company:
• Are employees empowered and committed to take action if they see a risk?
• Is there a culture of compassion, respect and professionalism up and down the line?
• Are employees informed about the proper action to take re: potential violence?
• Is there an atmosphere of trust in which employees feel comfortable coming forward?
• Are employees confident they will be protected from retaliation?
• Has it been demonstrated that concerns will be taken seriously and information handled with maximum confidentiality?
• Are supervisors aware, informed, engaged with management in helping troubled employees, including support through the EAP?
• Have you thought about providing reference cards to employees with warning signs and prevention tips?
It’s a pressure-cooker world. Even if the workplace is copacetic over-all, we can’t necessarily jettison outside stressors at the door. We’re hearing about an uptick in hostility in client workplaces as staff members deal with such things as caring for older parents, kids returning to the nest, spouses losing jobs, and financial worries. This is a time to engage your entire team in being compassionate, watchful, and proactive in preventing violence from ripping at the fabric of your workplace community.
Kit Goldman, President and Founder of Workplace Training Network, Inc., An OSHA4less,com Strategic Partner. Over the past 20 years, Goldman’s courses have engaged hundreds of thousands of executives, managers, and employees in a vast array of industries. She has appeared frequently as workplace experts in the national media and contributes to the OSHA4Less blog on a monthly basis.