Integrated Security Services, Inc., New York

Addressing Workplace Violence: When The Correct Response Counts The Most

17 Nov

The good and bad news about being a business owner is working with people. Specifically, the employees who collect your paycheck and who are the cornerstone of your success as a business owner and the backbone of your operations. But every business owner will tell you that managing people, specifically a “bad” employee, is a complex art form where, more often than not, textbook responses are replaced by real-time problem solving, patience and smart choices.

I’ve highlighted smart choices because some choices are, quite simply, smarter than others. Take, for example, an employee who exercises bad judgment time and time again. While not necessarily dangerous to others, he/she remains a liability to the company and may no longer be the right fit. To take this scenario one step further, we can couple that same employee with some overtly bad behavior (throws an object in a fit of anger, smashes his/her fist into a wall, or stalks a colleague throughout the day with phone calls) which could be read as dangerous or even threatening by others but is still absent direct contact or injury. Then there is our last scenario, which takes all of the above with one additional factor: an overt act that causes significant fear, property damage or injury. Assuming your company has a zero tolerance policy for these types of behaviors, they all qualify to be terminated for cause. What’s next?

In this post I want to address an employer’s responsibility to 1. Prevent, 2. Manage and 3. Mitigate the consequences of workplace violence. No federal law explicitly establishes an employer’s duty to prevent or remedy workplace violence against employees; however, employers must comply with the general duty clause set forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which states that each employer must furnish a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” How you get there is often part of a larger vision and openness you maintain with your workforce.

To prevent workplace violence you must first establish and define unacceptable behavior. Short list or long, it’s your company, so no matter what, establish your company’s bad behavior manifesto and empower your workforce to embrace the culture you’ve created. First, have a process to identify and report bad behavior that provides room to maintain one’s confidentiality while doing so. Next, diffuse, diffuse, diffuse. This is where you as an employer have an opportunity to make “smart choices.”

You’ve determined that this employee’s actions rise to the level of terminating his/her employment. This is where your ownership skills count the most. Your actions must be firm as well as empathetic and commensurate with the reason for termination. An exit interview protocol should be in place to engage these employees in a conversation, allowing you to measure their body language and general demeanor. Keep your termination process dignified and private. There is nothing worse for your company than the whispers and suspicious glances of your workforce when the cat is out of the bag. Employers should attempt to highlight the employee’s positive contributions to the company and future work opportunities outside the company. This will help diffuse the situation and quell the fear and humiliation associated with termination. However, in extreme cases where the employee sends signals of his or her violent tendencies, you must act decisively by engaging law enforcement or licensed security professionals to mitigate the possibility of a violent encounter. Language such as, “I’m going to kill people and then myself” leaves no room for interpretation: call 911!

Employers need to recognize that while certain actions by employees may trigger a termination policy, they often fall below the mark for police intervention. Police officers and police departments deal with crimes—not bad judgment—and unless coupled with some overt action such as threats to damage property or cause serious physical injury or death, you should not engage the services of the local police. Use the resources of your police department with discretion and understand that involving the police is not always the “smart choice” and often results in a very humiliating event for the individual as well as trauma to the work force. A discreet alternative method for managing the concerns of your workforce during a hostile termination would be to hire a professional security agency that utilizes the skills of retired, seasoned law enforcement professionals.

Due to the highly charged and emotional nature of workplace violence, effective prevention and intervention strategies require a multidisciplinary approach involving not only the participation of stakeholders but also representatives of your entire workforce.

Workplace violence is a three-dimensional problem and a growing issue of concern for organizations, law enforcement personnel, and mental health professionals. While most companies are seeking the tactical advice of security professionals on how to react during a violent encounter with a hostile employee, organizations must first begin to devote more time understanding the causes of workplace aggression and developing strategies for effective intervention. Workplace violence is not exclusively a security, human resources, employment law, management, employee health or behavioral problem; it links each of these disciplines together.

Effective prevention and intervention begins with a conversation. There are many ways to create a dialogue with your workforce: luncheons, surveys, and one-on-one meetings are just some of the effective methods to gather facts and engage your employees. If workers are going to be held accountable for their behavior then stakeholders are obligated to manage those expectations by inclusion and empowerment.