Workplace Violence: Preparedness is the Key

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Workplace violence can happen anytime, anywhere.  In September 2014 alone we saw a rash of extreme incidents including the beheading at Vaughan Foods in Oklahoma, the fire set to an air traffic control center in Chicago that led to massive delays and cancellations, and the recently-fired Alabama man who went on a shooting rampage at the UPS facility where he formerly worked.  These are three very high profile cases, all in a single month, which made me wonder if incidents such as these are on the rise, or are we just more aware of them in general due to the ubiquity of media coverage?

How Common is Workplace Violence?

With this question in mind, I did some research and learned that workplace violence is actually a pretty common problem.  The term workplace violence includes many behaviors that vary in terms of severity, from threats to harassment to intimidation to “cyber sabotage” to physical beatings to homicide.  Overall, according to OSHA, every year nearly 2 million American workers are victims of some form of workplace violence.  At the extreme end of this spectrum, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the 20 years from 1992 to 2012 there were 14,770 reported workplace homicides – an average of over 700 per year!

How Much Does Workplace Violence Cost Companies?

Aside from the human tragedy of extreme forms of workplace violence, there’s also a financial impact to the company.  The average jury award for workplace violence is $2.1 million; by comparison sexual harassment awards average only $78,000.  Additionally, an Oxford University study found that after a violent incident, publicly traded companies average a 15% decrease in stock values that can remain depressed for up to a year.  A single incident can completely tank a small to mid-size business.  Even if you stay in business, your brand value can dwindle away with the ticking of the clock.

What are the Warning Signs?

Opinions differ in terms of whether the average frequency and severity of violent workplace episodes is increasing or decreasing, but one thing’s for sure – being prepared for the worst is the best approach, because you just never know when a fellow employee is about to reach his or her breaking point.  And the most important piece of being prepared is simply being aware of the following warning signs:

  • Changes in behavior – the person is increasingly disorganized, confrontational, withdrawn, late to work, or overly sensitive
  • Personal grudges – the person feels personally betrayed by a colleague or boss
  • Job disputes – the person is upset with being fired, disciplined or antagonized
  • Personal issues – the person is going through a divorce, personal loss, health issue or financial crisis
  • Inappropriate dialogue – the person increasingly expresses a fascination with weapons or violence

If you observe anyone exhibiting any of these warning signs, keep a close eye on him or her and talk to your manager or HR if the behavior worsens over time.

What Can Companies Do About It?

In general it’s a good idea to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy toward workplace violence that covers employees as well as clients, contractors, visitors and anyone else who comes in contact with company personnel.  Recognize workplace violence as a “hazard,” and put plans in place to deal with it.

At minimum, you will need:

  • A corporate written policy (to include domestic violence)
  • Training and education of all employees about your policy, how to identify potential problems, how to report it, etc.
  • Best practices with regard to physical security and access control

The good news: Employee Assistance Program (EAP) support can help to stop the escalation up through Level 3.  The bad news: after that it’s probably too late.  Better to nip it in the bud.  So as always, preparedness is THE key.

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