Develop a Workplace Violence Program for Every Site

December 17, 1999
Issue: As most employers are aware by now, acts of workplace violence are no longer limited to high-hazard jobs like taxi driver, police officer, and late-night convenience store clerk. The reality today is that perpetrators of workplace violence can strike in any workplace. It is therefore critical that risk managers take action to prevent violence from occurring and be well-prepared to respond if violence strikes. But what specific actions can employers take?

Answer: There are three essential steps: a prevention program, a recognition of the warning signs, and an effective response strategy.

The prevention program should consist of the following elements:


  1. Assess the risk: The first step is to understand how the various risk factors relate to your workplace. There are several sources to consult to determine risk factors, including OSHA, NIOSH, and the Family Violence Prevention Fund. Employers should consider the risk factors in light of their company’s corporate culture; in particular the way managers handle tasks such as performance reviews, referrals to an EAP, and terminations. Employers should also take a look at their absenteeism rate and overall stress levels.
  2. Evaluate current controls: After reviewing the level of risk, assess what the company currently is doing to manage that risk.
  3. Design a team process: Build a team from both inside and outside the company. Safety, security, and HR personnel are internal choices, but it is important to bring in some outside personnel to handle functions like background checks and drug testing.
  4. Create a policy statement: The emphasis should be on reporting incidents. Employees should be obligated to report any acts or threats of violence. In addition, if an employee has obtained a restraining order against another person, the security staff must be made aware of it.
  5. Formalize a reporting system: Most acts of violence go unreported, so it is critical to set up an easy way to report incidents, such as a toll-free number. It also helps if the call center is anonymous and outside the company, rather than through HR.
  6. Establish a threat response team: The team should be responsible for managing any crisis that comes up, including having counselors ready to respond. An important aspect is to thoroughly document everything that transpires, including facts, actions taken, and the rationale for any action taken. Preferably, the documentation should be routed through the company attorney so it is protected by the attorney-client privilege.
  7. Train frontline personnel: Managers and supervisors should understand how to encourage employees to report acts or threats of workplace violence through the company hotline. They should also understand the warning signs and how to respond to them.

Several "yellow flags" can be helpful. Examples include workers who exhibit feelings of powerlessness, perceive themselves as victims of an injustice, make their co-workers uncomfortable, and approve of acts of violence when they hear of them. Violent workers often react to some "traumatic" event that strips them of their dignity, such as a mishandled reprimand or firing.

Supervisors should be trained in how to deal with angry employees and how to preserve the employee’s dignity when issuing a reprimand. A simple example would be to discipline the employee in private rather than in front of other employees. If the employee is angered, the supervisor should avoid taking a confrontational stance. Diffuse the situation; don’t point a finger at the employee; keep the emotional temperature down.

Employers should also plan in advance how they are going to respond in the aftermath of the crisis. How will they deal with the police or the media? Who should contact the victim’s families? How will they handle employee relations? These are but a few of the considerations that employers must think through in preparation for a potential act of violence.

Cite: Presentation by Gary A. Nesbit, director of risk management for Buffets, Inc., and Stephen Holcomb, senior vice president, Specialty Risk Services.

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The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.