Chicago Police are seen near Windy City Core Supply Inc., an auto-parts warehouse where 36-year-old Salvador Tapia killed six people on Aug. 27, 2003, a few months after he'd been fired. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Five Strategies for Handling Workplace Violence

June 25, 2014
Armistead Whitney, CEO of Atlanta-based Preparis Inc., offers tips for preventing and responding to acts of workplace violence.

It seems as if shootings in schools and worksites are so common that they only dominate the headlines for a news cycle or two. But even if the public is becoming desensitized to workplace violence, employers are keenly aware of the dangers and repercussions of violent incidents.

“We work with businesses in 200 countries around the world, and I’d say workplace violence has emerged as, if not the No. 1 threat, then probably close to the No. 2 threat that businesses are concerned about,” says Armistead Whitney, CEO of the Atlanta-based business-continuity firm Preparis Inc.

“Ten years ago it was terrorism and pandemics. But workplace violence has really emerged [as a top threat], and not just in businesses that have a blue-collar workforce.” Workplace violence is a growing concern for businesses ranging “from law firms to health care firms to banks to manufacturing companies.”  

In 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 475 people died in workplace homicides, 381 of which were shootings. But while most people think of workplace violence as “someone in the hallway with a gun and a vendetta,” Whitney emphasizes that it can take many forms – “from bullying to outbursts that take a physical turn to stalking to a disgruntled spouse showing up at the workplace and causing an issue.”

“When things that might seem small at first build up and aren’t addressed soon enough by an employer or an employee who might be experiencing them, that’s when things can take a turn for the worse and end up being a real incident that makes the news,” he adds.

Based on his experience, Whitney asserts that programs aimed at addressing workplace violence should include the following elements:

  • A crisis plan – “You don’t need to have a 200-page binder,” Whitney says. “You just need to have a thoughtful plan that says, ‘If these things happen, what do we do?’” Employers should treat potential acts of workplace violence as threats that are just as serious as natural disasters, cyber attacks, pandemics and power outages.
  • A crisis team – “You have to have people who are going to take charge on a local level if there’s an act of workplace violence or a threat of workplace violence,” Whitney explains. “If something happens and no one knows who to go to or who’s going to take the lead, things start breaking down.” Typically, a worksite’s senior operations personnel are best-suited to lead the crisis team (Whitney recommends having more than one team leader for larger facilities), while the rest of the team will “come from all walks of life.” Team members should be chosen based on criteria such as their leadership abilities and their availability (“are they in the office more times than not?”).
  • Training – As is the case with any safety initiative, training is a key element in an employer’s efforts to address workplace violence. “Probably the most important thing you can do to prevent workplace violence is to provide some awareness training to help employees know what workplace violence is and how to recognize the signs and symptoms,” Whitney says. “That’s where the front lines of this issue really start – it’s employees knowing how to recognize when there could be a potential for workplace violence in any form, and knowing who to go to when they see it.” 

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  • Practicing – Periodically, the crisis team should conduct tabletop exercises to simulate incidents of workplace violence. “It might start with a scenario where let’s say an employee was terminated and he or she leaves the office yelling ‘you’re all going to pay for this,’ and it escalates into certain executives receiving threatening emails and calls, and then it escalates into that person coming on site and demanding to talk to people, and then maybe it escalates into that person coming back with a gun.” Working through such a scenario helps the team identify gaps in the crisis plan and training, Whitney explains, and it helps team members build confidence in their ability to respond to a crisis. “If you don’t practice, you’re falling short of being able to handle it really, really well,” Whitney says.
  • An emergency messaging system – Good communication is essential in any crisis. But relying on a phone tree isn’t a viable communication strategy, Whitney says, nor is relying on your building (if you’re leasing) for critical information. Whitney recommends having a Web-based communication system that can send messages to employees via email, text or voice. “If there’s a massive incident, a lot of times the cell towers get flooded, and voice messages won’t go through, but text messages will,” Whitney says. He also recommends having a system with two-way messaging capability, so employees can indicate whether or not they’re OK.

One other thought from Whitney: Leverage technology to help build your program.

“Whether you’re the safety director of a multinational corporation or you’re a law firm with 200 people, use technology to help you develop and communicate your workplace violence program,” Whitney says. “Having it in a binder or an employee handbook just isn’t going to cut it. There are some great Web-based platforms out there that can help you do this really easily without it being a full-time job.”

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