There has been much written and discussed recently about the increasing threats we face from violence in public spaces. Festivals, malls, and schools have been targeted by active shooters, which has raised anxiety and concern for everyone regardless of their political position. On the right, many are concerned about the possibility of restrictions to accessing firearms, and on the left many are concerned about the threat of violence presented by the proliferation of guns. Guns and gun violence are complex matters that require serious and well thought out responses.
In the workplace, emotions can often run high. Most people spend more time with co-workers than even their own families. People need their jobs to pay their bills. The workplace is where we meet, make friends, socialize, and sometimes even find dating partners. These close, sometimes intensely emotional relationships can result in violence for the same reasons that violence occurs outside the workplace. Violent acts are often preceded by intense emotions; this NOT to say that intense emotions are often followed by violent acts.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? If we could predict violent acts simply by, say, looking for intense emotions on the part of our employees, we could have a better chance at preventing it. Workplace violence was declining for many years, but is recently back on the rise. Assault in the workplace now is the fourth leading cause of workplace deaths.
Here’s some recent workplace violence statistics to put the problem into perspective:
- In 2017, workplace assaults resulted in 18,400 injuries and 458 fatalities.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, 500 U.S. workers were victims of workplace homicide
- Of those victims who died from workplace violence:
- 82% were male
- 52% were people of color
- 69% were aged 25 to 54
- 31% were working in a retail establishment
- 23% were performing protective service activities
- Healthcare workers are at the highest risk of violence from the clients they serve
Beyond the personal costs, workplace violence hurts organizations as a whole. A half-million employees miss an estimated 1.8 million work days each year due to workplace violence — resulting in more than $55 million in lost wages. For injured workers, 21% required 31 or more days away from work to recover, and 19% of the incidents caused employees to miss 3 to 5 days away from work.
What are the signs?
In the early 2000’s, I conducted research at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. My research attempted to predict violent behavior in prisoner populations. My team and I looked at several personality characteristics, analyzing which were most likely to precede violent acts.
We found that prisoners who scored high for antisocial personality traits (a person who only cares about themselves) and scored low on intelligence tests were most likely to act on violent tendencies. A couple of caveats here: Your employees are not prisoners, and IQ tests are only loosely correlated to general intelligence. That being said, if you have a person who doesn’t care about others and struggles to solve problems, you’re more likely to find violent outcomes from that person.
Even one workplace death is too many, so being aware of the predictors of workplace violence can help us act before it’s too late. Rare events that are high consequence are the most difficult to manage. We must manage them, though, because if we don’t our safety, health, and prosperity are threatened. They happen infrequently enough that it’s difficult to stay alert to the signs. What should you, as an employer, look for?
- History of violence
- To protect employees and avoid a claim of negligent hiring, it is important to conduct background checks on all employees.
- Writing about violence or threats
- Third party threats
- Be aware that a threat may come through hearsay, which needs to be investigated.
- Agitation, verbal abuse, threatening gestures, or anger that is out of scope to the circumstance
- Extreme emotional responses to criticism, mood swings, depression, or paranoid behavior
- Be cautious about confronting an employee about these issues. Many are diagnoses you and your staff are likely not legally qualified to make. Employees are covered by the ADA once they are perceived by others as having a disability, whether or not they actually have that diagnosis. Take notice of these issues and consult an HR professional for further help. AccompliCenter can help you with this.
- Resistance to changes at work or persistent complaining about unfair treatment
- While these signs could show a personal decline with potential for violence, they may also indicate a conflict with a manager. Be open to the idea that a manager may need some coaching.
- Persistent and intentional violation of company policies
- Think about how extreme the violation is. Also consider if the violations are strange. These are signs of antisocial behavior.
- Frequent comments about firearms or other weapons
- Comments about the future that are extreme and negative
- Comments may indicate the employee has nothing to live for.
- Sudden atypical withdrawal or suicidal comments
- If someone threatens to harm themselves or others, take them seriously. Don’t ever dismiss a threat. If needed, ask for help from local police. Involve your HR team so that you are not doing this alone. Post Suicide Prevention notices in your employee breakroom. Bring up suicide awareness at your next safety meeting.
- Preoccupation with violent themes
- Morbid interest or pleasure in recently publicized violent events
What should employers do after an incident of workplace violence?
- Provide prompt medical evaluation and treatment after the incident
- Investigate all violent incidents and threats
- Monitor trends in violent incidents by type or circumstance
- Institute corrective actions in all cases of workplace violence, particularly when the perpetrator is an employee
- Encourage employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence
- Report violent incidents to the local police promptly
- Discuss the importance of reporting workplace threats and violence during regular employee meetings
What can employers do to help protect employees?
All employers should have a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy written into their employee manuals prohibiting workplace violence against or by their employees. Consider establishing a workplace violence prevention program or incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program or employee manual. Train all employees in the policy and inform them that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly. You can also offer additional protections such as:
- Conduct regular (annual) workplace violence training so employees know what conduct is not acceptable, what to do if they witness, or are subjected to, workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
- Secure the workplace. Where appropriate, install video surveillance, extra lighting, and alarm systems and minimize access by outsiders through identification badges, electronic keys, and guards. In California, AccompliCenter does not recommend that you install audio surveillance.
- 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 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.
- Develop policies and procedures covering in-home visits by sales professionals, installers, or health-care providers. Address appropriate conduct during home visits, the appropriate presence of others in the home during visits, and the worker’s right to refuse to provide services in a clearly hazardous situation.
How can employees protect themselves?
Employees can reduce their chances of being a victim of workplace violence if they:
- 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
In short, recognize that those who threaten violence need to be taken seriously. In most cases, those committing workplace violence gave warning signs. It is up to us to heed those warnings. Document, investigate, and remediate!
NOTE: AccompliCenter, our staff, our owners, and our customers are all deeply saddened by the recent tragic events in Dayton, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California. Our hearts go out to the families and communities stricken by the senseless, unnecessary violence that has torn apart so many peoples’ lives. If you are struggling with grief and loss, seek help here.