Workplace violence, a growing concern for U.S. businesses, became an unfortunate reality recently in Aurora, Illinois. A 45-year-old employee, tipped off that he was going to be terminated, came to work armed with a 40-caliber handgun, killing five coworkers. Tragedies like Aurora have Virginia employers considering, some for the first time, whether it has become essential to have a workplace security plan in place.
If your business does not have a workplace security plan, or has been using one that has not been updated recently, now may be the time to act. Consider these tips for creating a safer workplace environment:
A recent government survey found that 70% of U.S. employers do not have a workplace violence policy. You should. A centerpiece of your policy should be a comprehensive prohibition of verbal threats, intimidation, disruptive behavior, and physical violence. Be clear with your employees that you have “zero tolerance” for threats or acts of violence, and that such behavior will result in discipline.
No threat or act should be ignored; prevention requires employer action on all reports of violence, without exception. But “zero tolerance” in this context does not mean a one-size-fits-all punishment for violations. Employers should retain the flexibility to impose a penalty that fits the circumstance.
2. Use Background Checks and Security Screenings for Job Applicants
Employers are increasingly relying on criminal background checks as means of identifying those who pose an unacceptable risk in the workplace. A comprehensive background check is your first security barrier. If a background check reveals a criminal conviction, require the applicant to explain. A conviction for a violent act, especially a recent one, can disqualify a candidate outright. However, EEOC guidance still requires employers to weigh the gravity and age of the criminal offense against the nature of the job sought before acting.
3. Proactively Address Indicators of Employee Violence
Employers who adopt a proactive approach to potentially problematic employee behaviors are less prone to workplace violence than those who take a passive approach. Encouraging your employees to recognize and report troubling behavior by coworkers makes it far more likely that concerning behavior will be addressed before it escalates or becomes life threatening. While each situation is unique, factors that often correlate with future problems include:
- Sudden changes in behavior patterns
- Excessive absenteeism or lateness
- Decreased productivity
- Deflecting blame for mistakes; handling criticism poorly
- Disrespect for authority
- Domestic or personal life issues
- Social isolation
- Neglect of personal hygiene
Helping your employees to recognize warning signs of potential workplace violence and empowering them to respond to those red flags can be challenging: Threats are subjective; many are not criminal. Yet early intervention by your employees is key to increased workplace safety.
4. Evaluate the Risks of Your Workplace
Effective workplace risk assessment should include an evaluation of your current physical security measures and those that may be protective of your particular work environment. Security measures commonly utilized are:
- Key-card access systems at main and other appropriate entrances
- Check-in for all visitors with your security or front desk, with appropriate safety measures, such as a silent alarm, partitions, or counters
- Safety-glass or pass-through windows in high risk areas
- Video surveillance in common or isolated areas
- High-visibility lighting
- Silent alarms
- Work spaces designed so that employees cannot be trapped in a small enclosure
- Clearly designated employee escape routes
Use of employee risk surveys can be valuable. Feedback from those who know your business best can help you to identify particular jobs, locations, or work circumstances susceptible to risks.
5. Have a Functional Action Plan Ready in Case You Need It
Even the best risk prevention measures cannot shield you from all threats or violence in all circumstances. So what kind of action plan should you have in place to deal with the possibility of workplace violence?
Well-resourced corporations often rely on dedicated, trained, threat assessment teams, which can include HR, EAP, security, legal, and medical professionals, who can quickly respond to a violent outburst. Threat assessment teams are highly effective in identifying and assessing risks using the employer’s workplace violence policy. If you have the financial means, threat assessment teams are the gold standard.
Small businesses may have fewer resources to dedicate to violence prevention but can still take cost-effective steps to improve workplace safety. A key is for small businesses to ensure that their employees are properly trained to recognize the warning signs of workplace violence and are practiced in how to respond. As a consideration, many government and law enforcement and security agencies offer free or low-cost training resources to help you prepare your employees to deal with threatening or violent circumstances.