This presidential election year has seen its share of violence, including rioting, looting and violence over perceived racial injustice. Add in the passions stirred up by political divisions over the direction of the country, and the economic and psychological anxiety created by COVID-19, and it is hardly surprising that some people expect more violence following the election that could spill over into the workplace.
“Even after the dust settles, employers should consider taking proactive steps to help minimize the risks of workplace disruptions and violence,” said attorneys Russell Jones and Michelle M. Holmes on the Littler Mendelson law firm website on Oct. 27.
Even though we’ve managed to get beyond the vote tallying without widespread violence, the advice they offer about how employers should deal with the looming possibility of violence in the workplace is appropriate at any time.
They note that the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act explicitly requires covered employers to provide a safe workplace, free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening or disruptive behavior that occurs at a work site. This includes verbal threats as well as physical acts, and can involve employees, customers, vendors and visitors.
Because many states have adopted statutes designed to address workplace safety, it is important for employers to be familiar with those laws as well, Jones and Holmes point out. They say that the key for employers to provide a safe workplace is to promote a violence-free workplace culture, where employees can feel safe to perform their best work without worrying about being intimidated, harassed, threatened, or injured.
That includes employees’ freedom not to be drawn into discussions of hot-button issues that could spiral into physical threats and violence when they go too far. “Employers should make employees aware that they have the right to avoid engaging in workplace conversations and communications concerning controversial topics that are unrelated to the terms and conditions of their employment,” they say.
Employers with workers who interact with the public should take steps to ensure that they are not subjected to offensive comments or violent behavior from customers or other third parties in the workplace, such as confrontations over mask-wearing requirements, the attorneys add.
Make It Your Policy
Jones and Holmes say a key strategy for promoting a violence-free culture and minimizing the risk of violence is for employers to adopt and communicate written policies and procedures that expressly prohibit workplace threats, harassment, intimidation and violence.
They say these policies should include encouraging employees to report behaviors and communications that could lead to violence, and assurances those reports will be acted upon by management.
Styled as “zero tolerance,” such policies also may describe the employer’s commitment to maintaining a safe environment, definitions of workplace violence, examples of what constitutes workplace violence and a description of prohibited weapons. It also is advisable for the policies to inform employees that violations may result in disciplinary action—up to and including their firing.
These policies should be communicated to employees regularly and enforced consistently, the attorneys stress. Employers should update existing policies to cover non-employee violence as well, making employees aware of the company’s procedures for reporting and responding to threats and aggressions by customers, clients and vendors.
The attorneys emphasize that it is important to encourage employees to report suspicious or threatening behavior that could be a precursor to workplace violence. This can cover threats by co-workers, customers or vendors (whether made in-person, electronically or over social media), significant changes in a co-worker’s personality, awareness that a co-worker is contemplating suicide, or knowledge that a co-worker is a victim of domestic violence (which has been known to spill into the workplace).
Reassure employees that their concerns will be investigated promptly, without retaliation and in as confidential a manner as possible, and that appropriate action will be taken. Take such concerns seriously and conduct prompt and thorough investigations, Jones and Holmes advise.
Employers also can offer employees access to an employee assistance program (EAP) that may provide services including mental health and suicide prevention counseling.
Review safety and security features of each workplace location and shore up any vulnerabilities, the attorneys say. Measures may include updating facility access controls, installing security cameras, reviewing job descriptions to make sure that duties and responsibilities for workplace safety and security are defined clearly, and establishing response protocols in the event of a violent incident.
Jones and Holmes also recommend that employers consider forming a safety and security management team that will be charged with implementing, reviewing and managing issues concerning workplace safety and security.
“Such a team can assist the employer with assessing and implementing the employer’s preventive policies and procedures and can establish a comprehensive plan for doing so. One key aspect of such a plan should include establishing a liaison with local law enforcement to establish lines of communications and agree upon ways to report and to respond to any acts of violence swiftly and effectively.”
Another suggestion is considering training for employees and supervisors that focuses on safety and security policies and protocols, the warning signs of potential violence, and the appropriate ways to respond if they experience or observe such signs. “By conducting these trainings periodically, employers can reinforce the culture of a violence-free workplace, which may result in early detection and a reduction of the risk of violence,” they explain.
Jones and Holmes assert that when employers promote a violence-free workplace culture, they can help reduce employees’ anxieties, increase engagement and minimize risks. “While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, the adoption and communication of clear policies and procedures prohibiting workplace threats, harassment, intimidation and violence can go a long way.”