What's the Big Deal With Workplace Violence?

Homicides in the workplace, despite what you might think from reading the news, are not reaching epidemic proportions in this country. They are not even increasing. The total numbers are about half what they were in the early 1990s. Not counting the robberies and other general street crime killings, there have only been about 120 workplace homicides in the last few years. That's not much. So what's the big deal? Why should you be concerned?

The first of several possible responses to that question is that even though the number of people being killed is lower, workplace homicides are still happening. One homicide a year is too many, and your place of employment is as likely as the next for that incident to occur. Don't assume that an apparently harmonious work environment is a guarantee against such an occurrence.

Studies show that approximately one-third to one-half of workplace incidents have nothing to do with the workplace. They are caused by problems brought in from the home, such as serious domestic relations problems. Shootings resulting from the breakup of relationships have occurred in police departments, churches, city halls and banks.

Here is another response to the above question. Most disgruntled employees, former employees or customers, when seeking revenge, do not do it by committing acts of homicide. They will destroy property, disrupt your computer system, spread rumors, harass employees, vandalize, steal or contaminate products. These acts can cause heavy financial and emotional losses. They are capable of destroying your company and its reputation. They require no less attention from you than do potential homicides.

When an employee is the victim of threat or harassment, you must intervene. Every employee, vendor and visitor to your place of employment deserves a work environment free of threats, harassment and intimidation. If this policy is violated, the employer must intervene to protect the targeted person(s), identify the offender and take appropriate action against him or her. There is no shortage of examples illustrating how the victim can become the perpetrator when management does not respond appropriately.

Do Nothing or Do Something
I do a lot of training on this topic. When trainees ask me what they should do when they become aware of a potential problem, I answer them by saying, "There are two ways to respond: do nothing or do something." No one, regardless of their education or experience, can always choose the correct course of action. But you must take some sort of action. The more training you have had, the better your decision will be under the circumstances.

Should you choose to do nothing, the chances are in your favor that nothing will happen. But if you lose, you will lose big time in the eye of the public and in the courtroom. Perhaps the following example can best illustrate my point.

An employee of a Fortune 500 company filed a sexual harassment complaint against a male coworker, claiming he touched her breasts. The company took action. The investigation resulted in the firing of the offender. The company later rehired the employee. He did the same thing again. The woman filed another complaint. This time the company chose to do nothing. The complainant took the matter to court and received an $80.2 million award. It is difficult to imagine what the company's explanation might have been for not responding to the incident the second time.

It seems most court cases are lost not because of what employers do, but because of what they don't do. The four major areas for lawsuits seem to fall in one or more of the following categories:

1) Negligent hiring. Know who you hire. Make appropriate inquiries. The best indicator of a problem employee is prior work history.

2) Negligent retention. Don't keep problem employees on the payroll. Give them every opportunity to improve. Take disciplinary action if improvement does not occur. Don't transfer your problems to another department. Past workplace shooters had been on the job for a while. Rarely were they new employees. They had been kept on the job because of unearned acceptable ratings.

3) Negligent training. All employees should be trained to recognize problem employees. I taught a class at Indiana University on private security. The students had an assignment dealing with the workplace violence issue. They were to write a report and make a presentation on an incident of their choice concentrating on the background of the perpetrator. We discussed warning signs. There are many indicators, but three became especially noteworthy after about 300 of these presentations:
'The offender was a loner or one who lacked social support.
'The offender had an unusual fascination with guns.
'The offender was anti-management. He placed blame elsewhere and was unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions. He possessed a constant "They done me wrong" attitude.

A reporting system should be established. Proactive policies and procedures should be developed and all employees should be made aware of them and their purpose.

4) Negligent supervision. Supervisors must step up and confront employee problems as they develop. Don't ignore or pass the problem to others. Understand the importance of documentation and seek training in effective intervention techniques.

Change the Policies
Here is a proactive policy that can provide many advantages to your company. Develop a standardized exit interview for everyone who leaves your organization. It should include those who retire, those who leave on their own and those who are terminated for cause. The interview serves multiple purposes.

1) Reduce losses by recovering equipment issued to the employee. Otherwise they might leave with credit cards, laptops, cell phones, pagers, or other expensive items. Worse yet, the employees might leave with keys, identification, access control cards or other methods that allow them random re-entry. In the 1987 USAir plane crash that killed 43 people in California, an armed, disgruntled employee, recently fired for cause, was allowed on the plane because his identification was never confiscated. He shot his former boss, who was on the plane, then shot the pilots.

2) Departing employees are usually more willing to provide constructive criticism than they might have been while employed. Their information might be very beneficial in the development of a more harmonious workplace.

3) In the case of an employee terminated for cause, the interview itself becomes an assessment process. You are evaluating a potential threat. Have security personnel close by. If the fired employee shows signs of remorse or regret or offers apologies, then perhaps there is less of a future threat. If threatening words or strange demeanor are displayed, then red flags should go up regarding possible problems later on.

Educate Thyself
There are a lot of good books, articles and videos available on this topic. An Internet search can produce valuable help. Nothing will educate you better than going through an incident, but you can't afford to wait for on-the-job training. Here are a few other ideas to help you in the development of your proactive plans.

Take advantage of excellent training programs already used by human resource departments, such as anger management, dealing with non-productive employees, CPR and other first aid classes, the hiring and firing process and developing a harmonious workplace.

Develop a relationship with local law enforcement. Invite them to some of your management or other training programs. Develop an understanding of the support they will provide in various scenarios.

Don't think that all problems are caused by subordinates. Management personnel are sometimes the problem.

The primary concern, in potential problem situations like those discussed above, is always for the safety of people. Don't be paranoid about the workplace violence issue. Be prepared by focusing on proactive measures.

Finally, stay away from that "do nothing" choice when encountering a potential problem in the workplace. Have a plan. Is the workplace violence issue still a big deal? You'll find out if you allow an incident to occur at your workplace.

J. Branch Walton is the president of the National Association for Bank Security-Profit Protection LLC. Mr. Walton had a 21-year career with the United States Secret Service, retiring as the Special Agent-in-Charge of a field office. Post-retirement activity included director of corporate security for Cummins Inc., Columbus, IN, chief of the FLETC Management Institute and criminal justice instructor at Indiana University. He is a well-known speaker and author on workplace violence and continues to instruct at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at Glynco, GA.