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Virginia Tech Offers Grim Workplace Violence Reminder for HR Execs

April 23, 2007

The slaughter at Virginia Tech was a reminder that violence can erupt in any setting. But experts say many corporate executives are not much better prepared for the risk of violence in their workplaces than was the university’s president, Charles Steger.

“One of the mistakes that companies make is that they say, ‘It will never happen here,’ ” says Greg Boles, director of threat management and security services for Aon Consulting’s financial advisory and litigation consulting services.

Workplace homicides have declined in the U.S. during the past decade, but there were still 11 people a week murdered at work in 2005, the last year for which government statistics are available.

Nonfatal violent incidents occur in much greater numbers; the Bureau of Justice Statistics put the annual count at 1.7 million. And a 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that almost 5 percent of businesses had experienced a violent incident in the preceding 12 months.

Boles says a myth of workplace violence is that “individuals just snap.” In reality, he says, “there are a plethora of warning signs prior to an incident.”

He recommends that companies set up a threat assessment team that includes representatives from risk management, human resources, the legal department and security. If an employee displays warning signs, which can range from verbal clues like threats to behavior like stalking, the team should investigate, looking at individual risk factors such as access to weapons and organization risk factors like an overbearing supervisor, Boles says.

Companies should also review physical security, such as access to controls and alarms, and operational considerations, like the proper steps to take when firing an employee, he says. And they should have plans for what to do if violence does occur and not let those plans end up on a shelf.

One measure that may help companies avoid a violent incident is to offer an employee assistance program, says Gregory Bangs, worldwide product manager for crime, kidnap and ransom and workplace violence at the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. Such programs give employees a way to vent their anger by complaining to a third party, Bangs says.

“One of the biggest causal factors for workplace violence is an employee having something happen to them that boils up inside until they just explode,” he says. “By defusing this person’s anger, sometimes you can prevent these incidents from happening.”

Should a violent incident occur, workers’ compensation pays for employee injuries or deaths, says Tony Tam, a managing director for property coverage at Marsh. And if a customer is injured and sues the company, its general liability policy would pay for its legal defense, Tam says.

Bangs argued that an episode of violence can expose gaps in a company’s regular insurance coverage. Chubb offers a workplace violence expense policy to deal with such gaps. For example, an attack may mean temporarily closing a facility while the police investigate, and business interruption insurance doesn’t normally cover such incidents, he says.

Filed by Susan Kelly of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.