Putting an End to Workplace Violence

What does it take to create a safe environment for employees? Park Dietz and other experts and CSOs discuss how to head off a security department's worst nightmare: Workplace violence.

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Companies may want to bring in a mental health professional because violent, antisocial behavior can be the manifestation of mental health issues instead of deep-seated aggressive tendencies. "Some people have severe mental health problems and don't take their medication," says Bob Hayes, a former CSO at 3M and Georgia-Pacific who works as a security consultant. "Schizophrenia, paranoia, depressionthese conditions include other behaviors. The individual might stop taking baths, stop combing his hair, become overly defensive, overly argumentative. Supervisors are familiar with the behavioral indicators of employees who are high on drugs or alcohol, such as slurred speech or unsteadiness. Well, it's the same tactic for workplace violence." 4. Formulate a PolicyOnce your team is in place, conduct an audit to get a sense of where the threats are. Risks vary from industry to industry. In fields such as retail, health care and law enforcement, the threats are typically external in the form of unruly customers, patients and offenders. But don't dismiss internal issues, Hayes says. "If you're hiring people, you're going to hire trouble," he says. "You can't screen every one out. Sometimes people become violent." Best to start with a base-level understanding of the risks unique to your business.

The next step is for the response team to formulate a policy on workplace violence and determine how to respond to various situations. Remember that not all situations should be treated equally.

In general, the response team should investigate each incident and do a risk assessment, but that doesn't necessarily require a long process. If an employee is accused of making a threatening comment, questioning witnesses could reveal if the accusation is legitimate.

At AdvancePCS, a health management services provider, Director of Corporate Security Milt Brown advises adjusting your response according to the severity of the circumstance. In cases where an employee is using intimidation, explain the company's zero-tolerance policy to him. Other situations may require immediate intervention.

On Halloween 2003, an employee in one of the AdvancePCS's Southern offices came to work in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The employee meant it as a joke, but management found it tasteless and moved quickly to isolate her from the rest of the employees. She was then promptly terminated. "She could have really incited something," says Brown. "It was just stupid."

Zero-tolerance policies have gained currency in school systems and companies, but executives must take some time to consider what zero tolerance really means at their companies. Should an employee be terminated no matter the severity of the problem? Eugene Rugala, supervisory special agent with the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, suggests that zero tolerance needs to have some flexibility built into it. "Sometimes companies overreact and terminate somebody before all the facts are in. It's important to take all threats seriously. Look at what may have caused that to happen," he says. "The final consequences have to be flexible. You can't have a one-size-fits-all strategy." 5. Educate and Train"The stereotypical profile of a workplace shooter is a 25-year-old male who lives with his mother, wears combat boots and likes guns," says Hayes. "But many people have those attributes and never commit a crime." A more effective way to identify an employee in trouble is by marked changes in his behavior. Is a previously happy employee suddenly withdrawn and surly? Does he feel victimized, or is he willing to break the rules?

At Sony Electronics, Vice President of Corporate Security Ken Wheatley and his direct reports attend Dietz's training programs, and Sony requires managers to attend four hours of in-house workplace violence training and employees to attend an internal session that lasts several hours.

An important part of educating the workforce is teaching employees to ask for help. "An employee may feel uncomfortable intervening, may be intimidated, and if there's a union, there may be environmental influences that cause them not to report things to the proper people," says Brown. "I want them to buy in to our process."

Often there's already plenty of expertise available through HR and employee assistance programs or corporate security and legal departments. Their purpose is to reinforce the idea that employees shouldn't feel timid about asking for help and to ease their burden of having to make a judgment about how to handle a situation.

Asking employees to volunteer information about their private lives is also tricky but necessary to ensuring the safety of everyone in the workplace. Employees at AdvancePCS are asked to make their managers aware if they have taken out a restraining order so that corporate security will know that the individual is not allowed on the property. "We make it clear that we respect your privacy, and we want you to be safe and happy and performing to the best of your ability as often as possible," says Brown. "We maintain their confidence, we don't spread gossip, and we give them some counseling and suggest some changes in behavior so that they leave feeling better able to cope and grateful that they came forward. As word spreads, more people are willing to talk to us."

Finally, employees should be taught to trust their instincts. At Procter & Gamble, Ed Casey, director of worldwide corporate security, tells his managers, "If you feel something is not right, if your gut tells you it's not healthy, then involve the multifunctional team."

As companies take their workplace violence prevention programs forward, they face a number of ongoing challenges. But the largest by far is keeping workplace violence training current in an ever-changing employee population. "The churn of people in the workplace is a challenge," says Brown. "You can build a team that's really knowledgeable and six months later its all changed." Brown notes how four years ago, he took all of his senior managers, including the CEO, to Scottsdale, Ariz., for one of TAG's workplace violence seminars. "Only one person is left out of that group," Brown says. "A new company has purchased us, and this time next year the team will have changed again." That means he has to go through the process of reeducating his workforce on workplace violence and convince management again that this is a worthy investment for corporate funds. To help expedite the training process, Brown plans to move the training to a CD-ROM and to the company's intranet. The handbook and policy will be available on the intranet as well, and new supervisors and managers will take a workplace violence test online to assess their understanding of the problem and the company's policies. Every two years they have to take a refresher course and pass the test.

If your program works effectively, workplace violence prevention will change more than the overall safety level. It will change the corporate culture in important and perceptible ways. A good program will create a culture that says certain kinds of behavior are not acceptable, thus making a more comfortable place for everyone. Casey suggests that corporations should take a lesson from airport security. "You know you can't walk on an airplane and joke about having a bomb," he says. "Nearly every time, the employee [who has made a threat] says, 'My God, that's not what I meant!' but the fact is that these kinds of words are not acceptable in the workplace."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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