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Deflecting Workplace Violence

October 1, 1994
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Safety and Workplace Violence, Featured Article
Nestled in the mountains approximately 60 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina, Deborah Hollis' office would seem to be a safe haven from violent crime. But, just as an increasing number of American workers have discovered, violence is something that can't be escaped.

As the vice president of human resources for Rocky Mount, North Carolina-based Hardee's Food Systems Inc.-which operates 1,100 company-owned Hardee's and Roy Rogers restaurants east of the Rockies and employs 35,000 people-dealing with violence is part of Hollis' job. All too often, she has been put in the position of reacting to bloodshed within the company's restaurants as robbery attempts have led to murder, or the aggression from the streets has been brought inside.These days, however, more of Hollis' time is spent in proactive measures against workplace violence. In taking a stand against this growing epidemic, the company created a comprehensive violence-prevention program in 1990. The program is run by a full-service loss-prevention department that reports directly to Hollis. It includes extensive training, a 24-hour reporting hotline and an intervention policy, and aims at reducing violent crimes within the restaurants. It also addresses threats, harassment and domestic violence targeted toward any member of the company's work force. And although it's impossible to tell how many threats, harassments or other such incidents the program has deflected, evidence shows that the program led to a 48% decrease in robberies in 1993.

The program isn't cheap. Francis D'Addario, director of loss prevention, estimates that the company spends nearly $3 million a year on prevention and security. But, he believes it's a small price to pay. Just look at the figures. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), an average of 15 people are murdered on the job each week, which averages to nearly 800 murders a year. And, restaurants are high on the workplace-homicide risk list.

Even more workers are physically attacked, threatened or harassed. In fact, these incidents, although less brutal than murder, are much more prevalent and nearly as detrimental to a business and its workers. Between July 1992 and July 1993, for example, 2.2 million full-time workers were physically attacked on the job, 6.3 million were threatened with violence, and 16.1 million were harassed, according to a study by Northwestern National Life Insurance Co.(NWNL). And these incidents cost companies more than $4 billion in lost work and legal expenses in 1992, according to the Monroe, North Carolina-based National Safe Workplace Institute. The research company calculates that the average cost to employers of a single episode of workplace violence can amount to $250,000 in lost work time and legal expenses.

Despite the numbers, a poll taken by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) of HR professionals, released in December 1993, revealed that only 28% of companies have a formal plan aimed at preventing violence or dealing with its aftermath, and only 22% have plans to introduce such a strategy. Why the lack of action? S. Anthony Baron, chairman and CEO of San Diego-based Scripps Center for Quality Management Inc., and author of Violence in the Workplace: A Preventative and Management Guide for Businesses, cites three reasons: a lack of knowledge of what to do, cost, and a belief system that "it won't happen here."

The truth is, it can happen anywhere. And although the retail and service industries remain the bloodiest worksites (because many transactions involve cash and these businesses are easily accessible by the public), other industries are vulnerable. The contributors to workplace violence cited by workers interviewed for the NWNL study present themselves everywhere. They are: alcohol and drug abuse, layoffs and firings, job stress and job-related conflicts, violence on TV and in the movies, accessibility of guns, and poverty.

In addition, workplaces everywhere have become battlegrounds for domestic violence. Ac cording to the U.S. Justice Department, boyfriends and husbands, current and former, commit more than 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year.

Clearly, it's impossible to completely prevent violence from happening in our workplaces without eliminating it from society, but there are steps companies can take-and indeed must take-to defuse potentially violent situations and keep their workers as safe as possible. Increased security is one measure. But security personnel shouldn't hold the burden alone. Violence is a human issue that HR can and should play a leading role in preventing. Hollis says that Hardee's created its program under HR's jurisdiction because company officials believe it's important that it have a strong focus on the human element. "Whatever strategies the company comes up with have to meet our internal standards of how we want employees treated," she says.

Part of HR's role in preventing workplace violence is creating an environment less conducive to volatility, an environment in which workers are empowered, have support systems such as EAPs in place and are treated fairly. But more than that, HR departments can be proactive by putting together violence-prevention strategies that at the minimum include extensive pre-screening to keep potentially violent people out of the workplace, training managers on how to recognize and handle violent behaviors, and developing action plans that include processes for reporting threats.

HR in organizations such as Hardee's, the U.S. Postal Service and Kraft General Foods are going one step further by leading or serving on prevention task forces with people from their companies' EAP, security, legal and other staffs. Together, they take such measures as investigating threats and intervening in potentially explosive situations.

Employee-committed violence can be minimized with proper pre-screening.
According to the NWNL study, 30% of workplace attacks are committed by co-workers, bosses or former employees. What's more, 43% of threats of violence against workers come from this group, along with 88% of harassment. It's acts of workplace violence committed by this group of people that human resources can have the most significant effect in preventing.

The first step in this strategy should be pre-screening both internal and external applicants. Conducting interviews that focus on uncovering character, competency and chemistry, says Scripps Center's Baron, is the first step. Jack Jones, vice president of research and development at London House in Rosemont, Illinois, agrees. He recommends developing job-related questions that probe to get people to reveal how they have reacted in the past, or may react in the future, to certain situations.

J.L. "Larry" VanderHaar, vice president of of HR at the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Co. in Louisville, Kentucky, says screening temperamental people out during the interview process is key to his company's strategy. He asks questions such as, "What frustrates you?" and "Who was your worst supervisor and why?" Says VanderHaar: "If they come in and badmouth their last employer because they changed their benefits plan or something like that, there's no sense bringing them in here because we're going to make changes like any other employer as time goes on."

The newspaper company began paying closer attention to interview responses after September 15, 1989-the day an armed employee on long-term disability from a company leasing space in its building shot to death seven people and wounded 12 others before killing himself on the premises. "None of our employees were injured, but it impacted us because it was in our building," VanderHaar says. He can still picture the human carnage, which he says keeps him aware of the consequences of a slack prevention strategy.

Warren Lawson, director of training & development operations at Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft General Foods Co., has the same awareness. Earlier this year, a male employee shot and killed a female co-worker at one of the company's plants. The victim recently had broken off a relationship with her killer.

Ironically, the company already was aware of the potential violence that can happen in the workplace and was preparing to roll out a companywide violence-prevention program when the murder occurred. As part of this program, which it has since implemented, the company tries to avoid hiring workers who have violent tendencies through a three-pronged pre-screening process, which comprises behavior-based interviewing, thorough reference checks and attitude tests.

For the first step, Kraft asks candidates questions that probe into their behavior patterns. The questions focus on discovering how a candidate will likely react to situations that may occur at work, and are job-specific. For example, if someone's interviewing for a position that requires working on a team, the questions address team activity. If they're managerial candidates, they'll be probed as to how they would handle specific relations with employees. "We're getting them to talk about what they'd actually do on the job rather than asking them what college they went to or what their favorite course was," Lawson says. "That doesn't tell us very much."

Along with behavior-based interviewing, Kraft conducts thorough reference checks. Lawson has found that the company can obtain a greater amount of background information by contracting with an outside firm.

Other organizations have learned this as well. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, which has developed a six-part strategy for prevention that's being enlisted nationally (see "The Postal Service Delivers a Violence-prevention Program"), uses an outside firm with access to national data bases to check such applicant records as criminal, driving and credit histories. "Because we have a unique population in that we're across the entire country and we have mobile people, it's been difficult for personnel to do thorough checks on the local level," says Ann Wright, national manager for safety and health, who has been coordinating the prevention program. Use of the outside firm has freed up the Postal Service's personnel workers to do more qualitative screening, such as contacting former employers and personal references.

Wright says that the postal service has explored behavioral tests to incorporate into its screening process, but hasn't been able to identify one that does an effective job of screening and also has been validated as a predictor of violent acts.

In fact, many companies stay away from behavioral or psychological tests for fear that their validity will be tested legally. Their use is indeed tricky, says Mary Russell, a partner in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Group at San Diego-based Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. Probing questions about behavior can be an invasion of privacy, and seeking out mental problems can be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For this reason, she recommends companies avoid them.

However, London House's Jones, who has conducted research on these types of tests, says that as long as tests are designed to assess workplace violence specifically and are grounded in psychology, they can be not only valid and legal, but effective in identifying tendencies for everything from vandalism to physical abuse. "What you're primarily interested in is identifying what percent of applicants could have some violent workplace disposition," says Jones.

To specifically address workplace violence, he says, these types of tests need to seek answers to job-related behaviors and attitudes. For example, questions may ask candidates to agree or disagree with the way a problem is solved, or ask to what degree of anger a proposed problem would cause them.

Jones' research on these types of psychological tests has included having workers who take them also complete biographical questionnaires in which they admit to past violent activities. He has found a high degree of correlation between the test scores and the admissions. "It's a myth that tests can't predict violent behavior," he says.

He believes that these types of tests, coupled with structured interviews and reference checking, benefit companies in several ways. "Not only do they help deter negligent hiring claims by showing that you're responsible in keeping out the more severe offenders, but they also seem to be related to customer-service behavior," he says.

That's something that Kraft has discovered. As the third prong of its pre-screening process, the company conducts behavioral tests that uncover how candidates react to certain situations. The process, while weeding out potentially violent people, also has netted a better- quality work force. At the company's four new facilities, which used the process from the outset, the turnover rate has been less than 2%. "We've got a better caliber of employees in these facilities, and that's because the selection process was good to begin with," says Lawson. "Had we had this process before, we probably would have screened out some employees that we hired in the past."

Augment pre-screening with training about violence, its predictors and preventions.
Along with extensive pre-screening, Kraft is training its work force on violence issues as part of its prevention program. The video-training program from Des Moines, Iowa-based Excellence in Training Corp. explains what workplace violence is, identifies its causes and signs, and offers tips on how to prevent it and what to do when it occurs.

Kraft plans to train all of its approximately 75,000 North American workers in 168 facilities. It's starting with the management group, who will in turn train their employees. Lawson says the program is being well received. "Our plant managers are asking us where they can get more information," he says.

At San Joaquin Health Care Inc. in French Camp, California, training on how to recognize and handle potential, violent incidents also has been successful. The company held a three-hour seminar for approximately 60 managers in July presented by Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff, Tichy & Mathiason, a San Francisco-based law firm that has approximately 20 lawyers on staff who work full time on workplace violence cases. Only a few days after the seminar, a manager was presented with a potentially violent incident. An employee approached her because another employee's husband had threatened to harm his wife and anyone around her. The manager had learned in the training how to advise the threatened employee about getting a restraining order, and bringing human resources into the process. "She was thrilled that she had had the training so that she could try to prevent anything from happening," says Judy Courtney, director of HR for the hospital. She adds that the training sent a clear message that this issue should be taken seriously.

That's a message that the Postal Service wants to get out. Training is one way it's doing so. Approximately 5,000 managers in California, for example, recently received training on how to report threats as well as how to recognize early signs of violence and how to intervene. In addition, postal managers and supervisors nationally are going through a series of training programs that addresses such climate-improvement measures as employee empowerment, labor relations and conflict resolution.

How to handle conflict is part of the training Hardee's managers get as well. The fast-food company does extensive video training for managers on everything from store security systems to dealing with stalking situations. Workers receive training on cash handling and such preventative measures as keeping the back door of restaurants locked. And, the company communicates safety information constantly to its work force through a monthly newsletter produced by human resources, a training newsletter and a semi-annual internal publication called The Stop Watch. Occasionally, it even sends out special bulletins to stores in particular areas if a crime analysis indicates a particular risk.

Hardee's program goes beyond just job safety training. All of Hardee's workers receive personal safety training. They're taught travel tips (such as not going directly to their hotel room if there's someone following them); road safety (such as driving in spite of flat tires if a suspicious person approaches); and general safety tips (such as not going to ATM machines alone at night). "Most of the violence that's occurring in the United States occurs off the job, and if a company is going to address the potential for keeping its employees and their loved ones safe, it would be remiss to only prepare workers for what might happen in the workplace," says D'Addario.

Adds Hollis: "If there are unsafe practices at work or at home, it costs the company in lost time, in workers' compensation and in health-care benefits."

Wilmington, Delaware-based EI DuPont De Nemours & Co. shares this philosophy. It began a personal-protection program in 1986 that has won the company several awards. The program also has been copyrighted and purchased by other businesses. "DuPont is focused on safety," says Jane McManus, human resources manager for DuPont's nylon business. "So when we had a changing dynamic in the workplace-an increasing number of women going into nontraditional jobs, interfacing in different types of business and traveling more-coupled with a growing awareness of violence against women and violence in general, the company put in place a personal safety program."

Its most intensive training module is an eight-hour rape prevention workshop for women. The seminar was created by human resources development and is facilitated by female workers who volunteer. The training focuses on understanding rape and its aftermath, providing prevention measures and outlining support systems for rape survivors.

Other modules include a managers' workshop that's designed to help managers understand how to support workers who have been through a crime such as rape. The workshop also gives managers some strategies for preventing rape; a Right to Dignity program that talks about physical and psychological battering; and a Matter of Respect seminar focusing on sexual harassment. All of the programs are facilitated by DuPont volunteers, who are trained to conduct them in a five-day workshop. "People volunteer generally because they understand the topic and have the energy to try to bring about change," says McManus.

Task forces focused on violence prevention put energy into action.
DuPont's training program raises its workers' awareness and knowledge of violence and how to react to it. To facilitate reaction, DuPont also recently created a Corporate Threat Management Team that is developing an action plan for handling threats, harassment and physical attacks. The team consists of someone from security, external affairs, human resources and the company's employee assistance program.

Scripps' Baron says that forming a crisis team such as DuPont's Corporate Threat Management Team is key to a prevention strategy. These teams should comprise senior, onsite managers; HR personnel; legal counsel; security representatives; people to handle communications both internally and externally; a psychologist, EAP representative or violence specialist; and a union representative if the company has a unionized work force. The duties of these teams may vary, but at a minimum should include performing crisis-vulnerability assessments, establishing written policies and procedures, such as guidelines for reporting abuse, and developing action plans if crises do occur.

San Joaquin Hospital created a safety task force after a female employee was attacked from behind in the parking lot. "We decided we needed to really look at the incident, as well as some increasing activity that was occurring, such as vandalism and emergency room violence going on around the country," says Lynn Cook, director of nursing, who chairs the task force. Also, medical facilities in California must abide by new Cal/OSHA guidelines that require them to develop plans for reducing violent behavior on their pre-mises.

Cook enlisted the personnel director, hospital director, a risk manager, a security person, an education coordinator and managers from various departments to serve on the task force. One of the first tasks the team undertook was conducting an employee survey of safety concerns. The survey revealed that workers' fears stemmed most from the distance of the parking lot from their work sites, hospital accessibility (there are 35 entrances into the hospital) and emergency room chaos.

The team then began meeting monthly to address these concerns. It did a security survey, looking at lighting systems, security measures and building access. The members all stayed after dark one night to walk the parking lot, noting bushes growing too high, light locations and employee parking spots.

Since the task force has been in place, several new safety measures have been implemented. Security guard schedules have been adjusted to meet identified needs. An ID badge system with electronic readers has been installed. And the company is in the process of creating a "lock-down" system to limit access into the buildings. In addition, the team has added a reporting procedure to the employee handbook that defines what constitutes violence and outlines workers' responsibility for contacting the proper people.

Creating a reporting system was also a key achievement of Kraft's task force, assembled to design the company's prevention program. Kraft enlisted an outside consultant to lead its team, which also consisted of corporate security personnel, safety and risk management people, human resources staff, an EAP representative and workers from operations.

The team developed guidelines for workers to report either actual violent incidents or suspected trouble. The guidelines stipulate that supervisors should be employees' first contact. If the incident requires further action or investigation, the chain of involvement is human resources, the legal department and then security. "The key is that it's better to take some action than no action," says Lawson. "We'd rather err on the side of prevention than be sorry for it later."

Some companies are finding hotlines to be the answer for threat reporting. Hardee's, for example, has a 24-hour crisis-reporting center run by the loss prevention staff. And the Postal Service has two toll-free numbers that ring at the headquarters any time day or night. One, run by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service), takes all reports of any overt threats or any kind of illegal activity. The other one takes reports of almost anything. Sometimes, says Wright, the reports regard climate issues or conflicts with supervisors or co-workers. Sometimes, people just call with personal problems. "If a caller contacts us and needs some sort of counseling, then counseling is available on that phone line," says Wright. "And that's in addition to our EAP services."

The agency's inspection service pursues all threats reported to either line, as well as threats reported at local levels. And it does take action if threats prove authentic. In Southglenn, Colorado, for example, a postal worker made a threat against his supervisor during a session with his personal counselor. Obligated by a duty to warn, the counselor informed both the police and the postmaster about the situation. The postal service removed the threat maker from his job until he was cleared by a psychiatric fitness-for-duty test.

The action, although proper for the situation, had its implications. At the time the employee was released, his union filed a grievance. Nine months later, when the postal service cleared him to return to work, co-workers again filed a grievance, some of them walking off the job. The problem, says Wright, is that the Postal Service probably didn't do a good job of communicating to the work force that the agency no longer deemed the worker a danger. Currently, the employee isn't working but is being paid, and the Postal Service is continuing with its training, climate improvement and labor relations initiatives.

In addition, some regions of the Postal Service have created crisis intervention teams to address threats and other potentially violent behaviors on a local level. The pilot project began in California, where each district created its own team comprising human resources managers, EAP coordinators, medical practitioners, line managers, safety and health personnel, injury compensation people, labor relations representatives and outside resources. "The teams provide an organized way of addressing potentially dangerous situations so that we can have control and respond appropriately," says Jim Merrill, an HR executive with the Pacific region of the Postal Service.

Action the teams take can include gathering information about the threatening workers, offering counseling if appropriate or even terminating if necessary. For example, there was an incident in Antioch, California, in which an ex-employee wrote his supervisor a threatening letter and sent Prodigy messages to the post office stating, "I have post-traumatic stress disorder, I haven't been properly treated, I'm enraged and I wake up at night thinking that I want to kill the postmaster."

The threat assessment team for that region took over the case, investigating and taking action. The team discovered that the ex-employee had an attorney to deal with some employment issues. It talked to the attorney. It sent the doctor on the team to discuss the situation with the man's therapist, who confirmed the man was under treatment. The team got a permanent restraining order against the ex-employee, installed some security guards in the office temporarily and moved the postmaster to a different location until the situation was stabilized.

Currently, the postmaster's back in the office, the restraining order is holding and the ex-employee's therapist knows that if the man acts up, the agency needs to be contacted. "You don't have control of that person because he's outside your work force," Merrill says. "But through these efforts we were able to put him on notice, determine that he wasn't dangerous, that he was just blowing off steam, and defuse the situation. Had we not been organized, we don't know where it would have gone."

Having a team in place provides organization. It creates opportunity for input from several areas of expertise and divvies up responsibility. And Merrill believes that it's important for human resources to lead the team. "HR managers have most of the information about employees, and have experience dealing with employee problems and medical situations," he says. "They're the natural choice in an organization to take the lead."

But they shouldn't have full responsibility. "They tell me that having a threat assessment team reduces their stress because in the past they ended up doing it all themselves."

At Hardee's, the human resources personnel work closely with the loss prevention team in following up threat and harassment reports. "Our loss prevention staff in the field have a dotted line relationship to our field HR staff," Hollis says. "Their skills are different, so they match up and blend very well."

The HR and loss prevention staffs work as a threat assessment team collecting written and verbal statements from victims and witnesses and doing background checks on both perpetrator and victim. "We want to make sure that the incident occurred as described and that the integrity of the person making the allegation is reasonable," says D'Addario.

If the incident indeed is real, which D'Addario says is the case 90% of the time, the team takes action. First they check the public record for other acts of violence committed by the perpetrators. If some is found, action is escalated.

Action may vary. In most cases, immediate steps include informing law enforcement of the situation and moving the potential victim temporarily to another location out of harm. The company also will advise the victim on such things as getting restraining orders, working with police and cataloging evidence, such as gifts, phone calls and letters from stalkers. If phone harassment or threats have been made, the company will serve as liaison with the phone company. And if employees need the company to go to court for them, it will. "One of our missions is to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for threats or harassment at Hardee's," says D'Addario.

The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Co. has zero tolerance as well. Shortly after the murderous rampage occurred at the company site, for example, an employee came to work with a water gun shaped like an assault weapon. He was immediately fired. "His intent was to be funny," says VanderHaar. "We didn't take it that way."

In another instance, an employee frustrated about a particular work assignment threatened the company that it "hadn't seen anything yet," in reference to the previous deadly incident. Her termination withstood an arbitration with her union. "We're just not going to tolerate that," says VanderHaar. "This isn't a kindergarten. People need to have a minimum amount of respect for one another."

Joseph Kinney, executive director of the National Safe Workplace Institute, agrees that zero tolerance is necessary, but warns that immediate termination isn't always the answer. He suggests finding out a perpetrator's side of the story, weighing it and making a decision to suspend without pay or terminate. "There may be mitigating factors," says Kinney. "And if somebody's creating a hostile environment, you need to know because other people are likely to be affected and it's going to be a situation that's going to come back to haunt you legally."

He stresses, however, that some sort of discipline be applied. One of the reasons for increased crime in our workplaces, he says, is a failure to equate crime with punishment. "The boundaries of allowable behavior have changed," Kinney says. "We've allowed people to get away with too much. Companies need to go back and redefine those boundaries. If somebody's abusive toward somebody else, they need to be disciplined."

D'Addario believes this extends to people outside the workplace as well. Hardee's offers rewards for the capture of people who harm any of its workers, be it on the job or elsewhere. "We will do anything that's legal to bring that person to justice," he says. "We want everyone to know that Hardee's and Roy Rogers will not abide by somebody injuring a customer or employee, and we will move to take whatever measures are necessary. We want people to realize that ours won't be a place where they can act out aggressively and get away with it."

Even this can't stop the violence, however. On August 9th, as this article was being written, a female employee was shot and killed at a Hardee's restaurant in Georgia during a robbery. Investigators believe that the killers were let in through the back door by an employee-an employee who has been trained to avoid potential violent situations.

"Tragedies happen even if you have the best of training," says Hollis. "We do everything within our power [to prevent them], but there's a human element involved, which isn't predictable."

The recent Hardee's murder is a painful reminder of this and a warning signal that even more must be done.

Personnel Journal, October 1994, Vol.73, No. 10, pp. 66-77.

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