Leadership’s role in preventing workplace violence

Feb. 29, 2012
AlliedBarton President and CEO Bill Whitmore shares insights in webinar

Last year, security guard services firm AlliedBarton commissioned a national survey to examine employees' opinions on workplace violence and how the issue was addressed by their employers. More than half of those employees surveyed believed that their company's senior leadership was not concerned about workplace violence. Another 34 percent of respondents said that they go to work concerned about the threat of workplace violence.

The results of the survey startled AlliedBarton President and CEO Bill Whitmore to the point that he wrote a book about the subject entitled "Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success."

In a webinar on Wednesday, Whitmore discussed how an organization's leadership can play a crucial role in preventing workplace violence and some of the steps they can take in developing and implementing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program.

As evidenced by recent incidents, the threat of workplace violence is not specific to any one industry. Last week, a maintenance worker at a Connecticut hospital allegedly shot two supervisors following a dispute he reportedly had with one of them over his workload. In another incident earlier this month, a man reportedly shot and wounded his manager at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Virginia before turning the gun on himself.

"If your employees don't feel safe and secure, they are not going to do the best job for you," Whitmore said. "Good leadership is critical to creating a safe, high-achieving workplace."

According to Whitmore, everyone in an organization is responsible for workplace violence prevention. However, through research, Whitmore said that two of the greatest "falsehoods" communicated by employees are the attitudes of "it's not my job" and "it can't happen here."

Whitmore blamed complacency by company leaders as one of the reasons for these attitudes.

"It's difficult to dedicate time and resources to something that's not blatantly apparent," he said. "It's also hard to convince senior leadership to take action or invest."

Whitmore explained that efforts to prevent workplace violence need to begin with an organization's C-Suite taking steps to change the corporate culture. Among the ways companies can do this is by nurturing employee engagement, encouraging individual growth and building a practice of ethical decision making.

Employees should also be encouraged to speak up when they have either observed or been a victim of some type of workplace violence. Whitmore added that this needs to be more than a "See Something, Say Something" initiative.

"People need to know who to take this to and how that information is treated," he said.

Leaders also need to create a culture of "zero tolerance" for bullying and other forms of intimidation in the workplace. Whitmore said that he believed companies that do a good job of dealing with lower forms of workplace violence such as these are also better at preventing more severe incidents.

Another important step in preventing workplace violence, according to Whitmore, is providing continual training on the subject, not just to managers and supervisors, but to all employees.

According to the aforementioned survey, of those organizations that reported suffering an incident of workplace violence, only 45 percent implemented training programs for all employees. In addition, only 35 percent of those organizations offered additional training for managers and supervisors and 22 percent updated their workplace violence policies.

"Keep in mind, in the American workplace, the second leading cause of death is workplace violence... so it's a major issue," Whitmore said.