A recent survey of workplace violence highlighted some interesting facts.

The post-Christmas office shootings in Wakefield, Massachusetts and the recent shootings at a truck engine plant in Melrose Park, Illinois served as further grim reminders of the constant threat of workplace violence. Although these are both worst case scenarios, such events highlight a prevalent problem. Each year, workplace violence costs employers billions of dollars, with no signs of the problem abating. At the same time, the definition of workplace violence is broadening to include homicides, physical attacks, rapes, aggravated and other assaults, threats, intimidations, coercions, all forms of harassment and any other act that creates a hostile environment. Harassment is the leading form of on-the-job violence; 16 million workers suffer each year. In addition to the sizeable financial toll on companies, employees witnessing violent acts in the workplace report increased levels of stress and lower morale, which in turn may lead to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover.

A workplace violence survey and white paper, conducted by the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), has shown, however, that fewer organisations have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention and security policy in place than might be expected. Based on its findings, the ASSE is urging employers to review their policies and conduct a risk assessment and vulnerability audit as soon as possible.

Co-author, Ruth Unks, remarks, “Risk managers cannot ignore the human and financial costs of workplace violence. This survey and white paper can be a useful tool and provide a context for risk managers to raise the issues within their organisations.”

Not before time, considering that most respondents admitted they had not conducted a formal workplace violence risk assessment. Only half the organisations surveyed have implemented programs to address workplace violence by improved hiring techniques, security measures and no-weapons policies.

Yet this is a crucially important matter. As pointed out in the survey, employers have a general duty to “furnish to each employee, employment and a place of employment that is free from recognised hazards that are causing, or likely to cause, death or serious harm to the employee” under federal and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for any actions committed by its employees within the scope of their employment. Which means the employer can be held liable even if it did nothing wrong. The employer is liable for the employee's actions when working, even if the employee is not acting within company policy.

Employers may also be held liable for failing to provide adequate premises, safety and security measures following notification of a potential danger, and on the grounds of negligent hiring or negligent retention of an employee who has a known propensity for violence.

The US Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion stating that employers are subject to vicarious liability towards a victimised employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successfully higher) authority over the employee. This has greatly increased employers' liability in dealing with workplace violence.

So what can be done about what is patently a major concern? The RIMS/ASSE survey makes various recommendations for officers and directors, human resource managers, risk managers and security professionals to consider when evaluating their vulnerability to workplace violence and in developing policies to minimise the risk of such violence, appropriate to their particular situations and needs.

Officers and directors

  • Establish a workplace violence prevention policy. The upper management of any organisation must promote a formal anti-violence corporate policy, to be distributed and discussed with all employees. Zero tolerance is paramount, including ‘star performers' whose aggressive behaviour may have been tolerated in the past.

  • Establish and maintain security policies. Upper management also needs to maintain effective grievance, security and harassment policies. Organisations which take this approach report fewer incidents of violence, less harassment, fewer stress-related illnesses and more ‘old-fashioned' job satisfaction. Empathetic management skills should be encouraged, since an authoritarian leadership style tends to engender higher rates of on-the-job violence. Employees are better off empowered in a harmonious environment, as opposed to being embittered.

    Human resource managers

  • Examine and improve hiring practices. This area needs close examination. Employment applications should be verified for accuracy, since a startling 43% of all such applications contain misinformation.

  • Implement pre-screening techniques. Sounds obvious, but less than half the survey's respondents conduct thorough background checks of prospective employees.

  • Encourage employees to report threats or violent behaviour. There should be no fear of retaliation for providing such information. Consider a confidentiality policy and a ‘need to know' approach if an employee reveals an order of protection or restraining order that names the workplace.

  • Establish termination policies. Avoid keeping employees on the payroll if they are negligent with assigned responsibilities, but terminate carefully. The potentially violent should feel they were cared for while employed. Terminate at the end of a shift; do not allow laid-off/fired employees to return to the work area.

  • Provide post-termination counselling. An employee assistance program can be a very important tool to defuse a potentially violent situation both for current employees and ex-employees.

    Safety departments

  • Train all employees in the warning signs of aggressive or violent behaviour. The survey reveals that to date, human resource departments have carried out most of this training. The risk management and/or safety department needs to take a more active role. Among the programs that should be implemented are training for all levels of employees and management regarding the overall initiative and staff training for personal safety as well as the safety of others.

  • Train management in threat assessment and de-escalation techniques. Broader than staff training, this should address conflict resolution, handling of performance reviews, promotions and use of disciplinary actions. Supervisors should be trained to identify possible perpetrators and understand prevention techniques.

  • Conduct a formal workplace violence risk assessment. This must be carried out to determine the organisation's potential exposure to violence in the workplace. Such an assessment can involve the use of employee surveys, focus groups or existing committees as a means of gaining knowledge of what the general attitudes/perceptions are in the workplace. An analysis of the work environment is also required, with particular emphasis on employee/management relationships.

  • Increase security as needed. A risk assessment indicate the need for increased security measures such as alarms around the premises, interior and exterior surveillance cameras, and the establishment of restricted areas.

  • Contingency planning. A contingency plan should be set up detailing the organisation's response during and after a violent incident. Before a violent act occurs, a threat management team reporting directly to top management should be established to deal with any incidents. It can be part of an overall crisis management team or a special group with a focus on workplace violence. Part of the threat management team's responsibility should be to adopt a threat-of-violence notification system. Such a policy should include a way for employees to give confidential information concerning threats or other dangers.

  • Crisis management and the media. Minor workplace events can become the lead story on the evening news if it is a slow news day. With this in mind, it's advisable that crisis management plans include a media spokesperson.

  • Review insurance coverages and verify coverages and exclusions. Insurance contracts should be checked to confirm that policies will cover workplace incidents and to identify any exclusions.

  • Identify your defensive strategy. Good common sense prevails here. Strategies include taking no unnecessary risks, establishing a violence prevention plan and developing liaisons with local police agencies, legal counsel and consultants in the area of threat management.

    A lot to do, then, but this is an issue which is not going to go away. Granted, workplace violence exposure varies across corporations as this survey highlights, but it makes good business sense to formally address the problem. And the sooner the better.