Can Workplace Violence Be Prevented?

Aug. 1, 1998
Safety footwear experts explain how hazard assessment and proper footwear selection can reduce the incidence of expensive foot-related injuries.

Most companies go to great lengths to protect employees from danger. Fire drills, safety equipment and extensive courses of safety instruction comprise standard American corporate fare. When it comes to violence, the second leading cause of on-the-job deaths, however, most companies leave themselves and their employees unprepared and vulnerable. Indeed, in an era in which newspaper headlines of office shootings rattle us with uncomfortable frequency, studies show that very few companies, including those who have experienced multiple acts of workplace violence, have adequate programs or training in place to help prevent and manage on-site threats and violence.

A national study by the University of Southern California School of Business revealed that, while 43 percent of survey respondents had experienced some act of violence in the workplace within the past three years, two-thirds of their companies had no training to help managers and employees deal with violence or threats.

A 1994 American Management Association survey reached a similar result: although 52 percent of respondents had experienced at least one incident or threatened incident of violence since 1990, 22 percent provided training to some employees concerning workplace violence; only 8 percent provided training to all employees.

Passivity prevails, even though homicide and non-fatal violence present a staggering threat to the American workforce. Homicide is the leading cause of workplace deaths for women and the second leading cause for workers over all. Indeed, in recent years, homicide has outstripped more traditional hazards, such as machine-related deaths, as the workplace hazard for the 1990s. Millions of incidents of non-fatal violence also affect American employees. In 1994, more than two million workers experienced non-fatal violent crime both simple and aggravated assault, robbery and rape or sexual assault either at work or during job-related travel.

Government studies report thousands of workplace assaults weekly. One study reports that one in four full-time workers falls victim to harassment, threats, and non-fatal assaults on the job each year. Many more incidents go unreported. A lack of considered preparedness leads to devastating costs.

Beyond its clear human toll, workplace violence costs American businesses billions of dollars yearly, with estimates ranging from $6.4 billion to $36 billion, in terms of lost productivity, diminished public image, insurance expenses, increased security, and other related factors.

Apathy Prevails

What accounts for this puzzling inaction in the face of such a debilitating and costly threat? Simple denial might contribute to some organizational inaction. As a society surrounded by violence and violent images, we have an astounding ability to convince ourselves, despite the facts, that what happens to others will never touch our organizations or ourselves; however, among organizations who fully acknowledge their vulnerability to threats and violence, inaction may be rooted in a feeling of powerlessness or a fatalistic belief that violence is not preventable, no matter what the organization may try to do.

Headlines fuel this sense of helplessness: "Three Shot at California Agricultural Office" (Associated Press, April 1997); "Two Dead, Firm"s Owner Hurt in Fired Worker"s Rampage" (The Los Angeles Times, June 1997); "Ex-Employee Kills Himself, Former Girlfriend at Work" (The San Francisco Chronicle, August 1997); "Connecticut Lottery Worker Kills Four Bosses, Then Himself" (The New York Times, March 1998). Stories such as these might lead organizations to question not unreasonably how they could foresee and protect their employees from that violence.

Part of the solution to workplace violence requires addressing violence on a grand scale, examining why our society turns so quickly to violence, and why that violence is steadily migrating to the workplace. Yet, for those of us not positioned to tackle violence on a societal level, a critical part of the answer lies firmly within our grasp. As professionals, safety officers, risk managers, security personnel and others who stand on the unguarded boundary between societal ills and the corporate sanctum, there is much we all can do to help ensure that violence does not intrude or replicate itself into the workplace.

Two factors help organizations in their quest to control workplace violence. First, most acts of workplace violence are not the unstoppable rampages that grab headlines. Instead, while homicide figures prominently in workplace violence, the crux of the problem consists of a broad range of more subtle violence and threats that present a far greater opportunity for intervention. Such conduct includes non-fatal assaults, verbal threats, harassment and intimidation, sexual harassment that blurs into physical bullying, erratic behavior suggesting emotional instability and a potential for violence and domestic violence that poses on-the-job security risks.

Second, whether leading to homicide or not, most acts of workplace violence do not come out of the blue. In all but rare instances, they are preceded by conduct and events that point to possible violence.

In addition to inappropriate behaviors, organizational and situational factors also can warn of potential violence. For instance, regular interactions with the public, exchanges of money, or scheduling that requires employees to work late at night or in the early morning hours all generate a vulnerability to violence from third parties intent on crime.

In the end, the sheer predictability of some violence and the opportunity that most violence permits for intervention render it largely preventable. The key for any organization intent on protecting its employees is to effectively prevent and manage violence to the fullest practical extent possible.

Taking On Violence

The clear human price of workplace violence, reflected in injuries, fear and stress borne by employees who have limited control over their work environment, demands a proactive approach. Further, companies are under a legal obligation to act.

Evolving OSHA regulations and judicial decisions have made unavoidably clear that, though companies need not guarantee safety from violence, they nevertheless must take immediate preventive steps in the face of warning signs of violence, and must promptly and responsibly address threats and incidents that come to light. Companies that fail to do so can suffer tremendous verdicts. The average jury award in cases of lethal workplace violence is $2.2 million. Cases of nonfatal workplace violence also can lead to large verdicts. In California, a jury last year awarded an employee $870,000 when a supervisor hit him (once) during an office argument.

Business reasons also demand prompt, effective action. Fear alone severely cuts into attendance, productivity, and morale and leads to high employee turnover and associated costs. Incidents of actual violence can devastate an organization. A survey of companies that are effectively addressing workplace violence shows that preparedness can be achieved through a comprehensive workplace violence program that contains the following elements:

A written policy statement that communicates a clear commitment to promoting a workplace safe from violence, that prohibits threats and violence of every sort, and that requires employees to immediately report to management all circumstances that create a concern for safety from violence. This policy statement is a critical first step for any organization intent on responsibly addressing workplace violence.

A Management Response Team that represents diverse segments of the organization, trained and charged with the responsibility of investigating and managing all reports of circumstances that raise a concern for employee. The team can include employees from senior management, the safety or risk management department, human resources, the legal department, security, the employee assistance program and other managers who have relevant experience.

A meaningful reporting and response mechanism that establishes clear lines of communication and responsibility for issues involving violence and ensures that the organization is both promptly notified of potential security risks and can take immediate steps to resolve underlying concerns.

Clear standards of behavior that prohibit threats and violence of every sort, and require prompt, appropriate discipline of employees who breach safety rules. Such standards of behavior must apply not only to full-time employees, but to temporary employees, independent contractors, and anyone who has an established relationship with the company.

In certain instances, the company may refer the employee to the employee assistance program and make any accommodations for mental disabilities demanded by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A wide array of other security, employment, legal, and administrative practices can help an organization prevent and manage on-site threats and violence. Such practices include a security inventory to assess the particular risks faced by the organization from violence; the development of security protocols to manage threats and violence; pre-employment background checks; and the pursuit of legal remedies such as restraining orders (when needed) to guard against third-party threats.

A system of periodic employee training designed to ensure that employees can execute their respective responsibilities under the company"s workplace violence program must be established.

Training can be tailored to different categories of employees, such as Management Response Team members, supervisors and managers and employees at large, and can address such issues as relevant workplace policies; warning signs of violence; the requirement that employees report threats to management; methods for properly investigating complaints made under the workplace violence policy; defusing hostile situations; and strategies for addressing domestic violence.

A means of responsibly and compassionately addressing domestic violence, a frequent precursor of workplace violence at both ends of an abusive relationship. A survey of corporate security and safety directors shows that 94 percent of them ranked domestic cviolence as a high-security problem.

Far from being powerless, an organization and those charged with protecting it can take many basic, cost-effective steps toward ensuring that violence and threats do not easily walk through the corporate doors. The heavy price of workplace violence and the compelling legal and moral obligations that surround the problem make it critical that companies do not wait passively in the face of this pressing threat.

Rebecca A. Speer is a San Francisco employment lawyer and recognized expert who speaks nationally concerning the steps organizations can take to prevent and manage violence. A strong advocate of workplace violence prevention, Ms. Speer provides comprehensive services and training to help organizations effectively address this critical problem. She is Chair of the Model Work Plan Subcommittee of the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Workplace Violence Committee and Chair of the Workplace Violence Committee of the National Association of Women Lawyers. She can be contacted at (415) 283-4888.

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