AlliedBarton chairman looks at how to stem tide of workplace violence

Sept. 21, 2011, Orlando, Fla. -- Distraught employees are injuring or killing co-workers and supervisors at an alarming rate. Customer rage is at an all-time high. Domestic violence has spilled over into the workplace. And it’s not that these incidents are getting more media coverage – the Center for Disease Control has officially classified workplace violence as a national epidemic.

According to a 2008 report conducted by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than two million American workers experience some instance of workplace violence each year. Every day there are an average of two people killed and 87 injured as a result of a workplace violence incident.

These are staggering statistics, which reflect the ever-growing concern of C-Level executives who have ranked workplace violence among their top two concerns in business surveys conducted by various research and government think tanks over the last decade.

“There is an extremely wide gap between the perception of how employees see their organizations dealing with the issues of workplace violence and how the C-Suite perceives its workforce understanding how the company actually handles these incidents,” said Bill Whitmore, chairman, president and CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services at a closed ASIS media session Tuesday In Orlando. “Workplace violence is a day-to-day reality that cannot be ignored. Every organization has to understand its fundamental dynamics, risks and costs to their business. But there certainly seems to be a wide disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to employees and their management as it relates to this issue.”

Business concerns aside, employers have specific legal obligations, and there is little wiggle room. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules require companies to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards.” The courts interpret this to mean that to meet liability requirements, companies must:

  • have a written policy on how the company will avoid workplace violence,
  • educate employees and managers to avoid and deal with threats, and
  • provide adequate security.

Despite the fact that statistics underscore the threat posed to all U.S. companies from workplace violence, most employers are failing to mitigate the increased risk of such incidents. Most employers are failing to take proactive measures to protect their most valuable assets -- their people.

As businesses assess their risk, the statistics can become deceiving. Some executives and risk managers may compare the regional and national data with their own internal statistics and conclude that their own internal risk too low to merit attention. However, what is often underestimated is not the cost of action (proactive steps to avoid violence), but rather the cost of inaction: the widespread financial consequences when an incident occurs.

The cost to American business from workplace violence is estimated at $120 billion a year. The average jury award, in subsequent liability cases where the employer failed to take proactive, preventive measures under the 1996 OSHA guidelines, is $3.1 million per person, per incident.

It is the growing cost in both human capital and organizational risk that led Whitmore to write the book, “Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success”, which is scheduled to be released by the end of the year.

“If you don’t feel safe and secure in your own environment you will never reach your full potential,” Whitmore said. “I fully believe that this lost potential in an organization’s workforce impacts a company’s balance sheet and bottom line. So preventing violence in the workplace and making workers comfortable in the workplace has definite ROI.”

As workplace violence increases and the number of high-profile incidents flood the media, the shocking truth is that less than 30% of all companies even possess a formal program or set of policies to address workplace violence issues.

The disconnect is also startling when you consider that 72% of CEOs say that their organizations offer counseling to their employees who have experienced workplace harassment or violence yet only 48% of their employees say they even knew the services existed. Or consider that 81% of C-suite executives said they had specific corporate policies in place to deal with workplace violence, but that 71% of their employees never knew the policies existed.

“So who is responsible for the disconnect between management and its workforce? I can’t answer that,” Whitmore added. “I would suspect in most cases there are policies in place, unfortunately they are sitting on the shelf and not being applied.”

From a practical standpoint, many mangers find themselves confused as to who really owns workplace violence prevention: Human resources? Security? Risk management?

The answer: all of the above and then some. The reality is that the elements of workplace violence crop up on many different levels and areas within the company. Therefore, companies need a team of people to handle workplace violence prevention including representatives from all the relevant areas of the company.

Whitmore is extremely adamant that preventing workplace violence is an organizational responsibility and not simply the domain of the security personnel.