Minimize the risk of workplace violence

Early this year, two workplace shootings grabbed national headlines. On Jan. 7, an employee at a St. Louis transformer manufacturing plant killed three of his co-workers and injured five others during a shift change. Less than a week later, on Jan. 12, a disgruntled former employee barged into a truck rental company near Atlanta and opened fire; two people died and three were wounded. Sadly, these two incidents almost certainly will not be the nation’s only workplace homicides in 2010.

No business is immune from the risk of violence on its premises: FBI statistics estimate that each year 1 million people are exposed to some form of workplace violence. A recent study found that the number two cause of on-the-job death among women was workplace violence. Potentially violent situations can quickly arise from many sources. An irate former boyfriend might be harassing an employee at work with constant phone calls. A terminated employee may make threats on his way out of the building. An employee under stress may develop a hair-trigger temper and become difficult to handle. The possible circumstances are as numerous as they are volatile.

Whether workplace violence stems from a current or former employee, an unknown assailant, or an employee’s spouse, many incidents are foreseeable and/or preventable. Management often is ill-equipped, however, to recognize a developing situation and take appropriate action. With this in mind, the following steps summarize some of the ways employers can minimize the risk of workplace violence:

Accept reality

The recent shootings reinforce the fact that the risk of workplace violence is omnipresent. Employers must be proactive to prevent or at least minimize exposure to such incidents.

Use effective documents and conduct background checks

An effective employment application coupled with valid legal releases and disclaimers provide key information about an applicant. Employers should conduct background investigations to discover prior convictions, litigation history, motor vehicle records, employment references, credit history, education records and other relevant background information.

Establish policies on workplace violence

Employers should establish a written zero-tolerance position on violence, threats or abusive language, and make clear that any violation of these rules can be grounds for termination. A workplace violence policy should also include a procedure to confidentially report threats.

Conduct substance-abuse testing

Private employers should test all applicants and employees for substance abuse to the extent allowed by law. Negative test results should be a condition of employment.

Develop procedures for investigating threats

These procedures should include specific guidelines for conducting an investigation, and interviewing witnesses and the individual who allegedly made the threat. To the extent necessary, employers should retain security consultants, psychologists, attorneys or other professionals for advice on how to handle threats quickly, effectively and legally.

Train supervisors and employees

Supervisors should be instructed to identify violence risks and report all threats to management immediately. Supervisors should be trained in conflict resolution, stress management, managing change in the workplace, and recognizing the early warning signs of violent employees. They also should be trained to be sensitive to the fact that seemingly small issues can suddenly escalate into workplace problems. Employees should be trained regarding their responsibility to report threats or violence.

Implement an EAP

Employee Assistance Programs can help employees who are struggling to manage stress.

Audit and improve security measures

Employers should establish a relationship with local law enforcement officials and a security consultant. Employers also should conduct an audit to determine areas of vulnerability and/or procedural weaknesses. Basic systems for protecting property, such as lighting, pass keys or cards, intercoms, employee identification, surveillance or alarm equipment, and other systems or devices, should be considered.

Rarely does anyone head to the office expecting violence. There is risk, however, at every place of employment. By implementing comprehensive policies to protect workplace safety, employers will significantly reduce the risk that their office will be the site of the next tragedy.