Two co-workers continually ridicule a third co-worker, unbeknownst to management. Fed up, she slashes tires on their cars in the employee parking lot and is caught on surveillance tapes. A belligerent customer showed up today, yelling and pushing over chairs. The ex-spouse of an employee has shown up for the past three days, trying to embarrass your employee and make trouble for her.
Workplace violence is “violence or the threat of violence against workers,” whether while at work or away from work, says OSHA’s fact sheet on workplace violence. A growing concern for employers, it can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide.
Two million American workers are victims of workplace violence annually, says OSHA. It can strike in a global corporation and a mom-and-pop shop; no workplace is immune. However, several studies have identified these factors as increasing an employee’s risk for workplace violence:
- Contact with the public
- Exchange of money
- Delivery of passengers, goods, or services
- Having a mobile workplace such as a taxicab or police cruiser
- Working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings
- Working in isolation
- Working late at night or during early morning hours
- Working in high-crime areas
- Guarding valuable property or possessions
- Working in community-based settings
How managers can better secure their workplaces
There are two primary ways managers can protect their employees: First, establish a zero tolerance policy towards workplace violence against or by your employees. Examples include verbal abuse of coworkers, excessive outbursts or displays of temper, harassing phone calls or emails.
Maintain a zero tolerance policy towards workplace violence against or by your employees
Second, establish a workplace violence prevention program. Be sure to incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures. Ensure that all employees know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly.
Third, screen potential employees, conducting background checks. Adopt a “drug-free” workplace and initiate a drug testing program.
In addition, employers can offer additional protections such as the following:
- Provide safety education so employees know what conduct is not acceptable and what to do if they witness or are subjected to workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
- Secure the workplace. Where appropriate to the business, install video surveillance, extra lighting and alarm systems. Minimize access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards.
- Provide drop safes to limit the amount of cash on hand. Keep a minimal amount of cash in registers during evenings and late night hours.
- Equip field staff with cell phones and hand-held alarms or noise devices, and require them to prepare a daily work plan and keep a contact person informed of their location throughout the day. Keep employer-provided vehicles properly maintained.
- Instruct employees not to enter any location where they feel unsafe. Introduce a “buddy system” or provide an escort service or police assistance in potentially dangerous situations or at night.
How managers can train employees to protect themselves
While it’s impossible to thwart or prevent every act of workplace violence, these steps can help reduce the odds:
- Take all threats seriously
- Mentally prepare for “what if” situations
- Learn how to recognize, avoid, or diffuse potentially violent situations by attending personal safety training programs.
- Alert supervisors to any concerns about safety or security and report all incidents immediately in writing.
- Avoid traveling alone into unfamiliar locations or situations whenever possible.
- Carry only minimal money and required identification into community settings.
Warning signs of employee violence
Learning to recognize the warning signs is a critical step for both managers and their employees, to ensure their own safety. Here are the red flags to watch for:
- Unusual behavior changes
- Uncooperative with direct supervisor on a regular basis
- Profuse cursing
- Argues with coworkers constantly
- Spreads gossip and rumors deliberately to harm others
- Unwanted sexual remarks
- Hostile toward customers or coworkers
- Irritability and anxiety escalates
- Sleep disturbances are mentioned on the job
- Plays the role of a victim
- Writes violent or sexual notes to other employees or management
- Verbalizes desires to harm coworkers or employer
- Sabotages equipment or steals property
- Disregards company policies and procedures
- Levels of arguments or altercations increase with all personnel
- Accidents increase; either physical or traffic-related
- Noted decrease in interest and confidence in work
Intense anger is the frequent emotion displayed, resulting in:
- Depression or withdrawal
- Property destruction
- Physical fighting
- Suicidal threats
- Use of weapons to harm others
Steps to take after an incident
Whether the incident was caused by a customer or an employee, these steps are crucial to minimize dangers and damage, both now and in the future:
- Remind employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence.
- Provide prompt medical evaluation and treatment after the incident.
- Report violent incidents to police promptly.
- Inform victims of their legal right to prosecute perpetrators.
- Offer stress debriefing sessions and posttraumatic counseling services to help workers recover from a violent incident.
- Investigate all violent incidents and threats, monitor trends in violent incidents by type or circumstance, and institute corrective actions.
- Discuss the circumstances of the incident with staff members. Encourage employees to share information about ways to avoid similar situations in the future.
- Discuss changes in the program during regular employee meetings.