As a series of tragic events in recent years illustrate, employers must confront the reality that they are not immune from workplace violence, including the risk of active shooter events. While that challenge may seem daunting, there are certain steps employers can and should take to ensure their workplace and their employees are protected.
In a recent XpertHR webinar, former Secret Service agent Matthew Doherty, currently the senior vice president of Hillard Heintze, a security risk management company, provided insight as to how to recognize, prepare for and prevent violence in the workplace. As Doherty stressed, it is important for an employer to first understand that workplace violence, as defined by the FBI, is “any action that could threaten the safety of an employee, impact an employee’s physical or psychological well-being, or cause damage to company property.” As such, “workplace violence” encompasses a wide category of acts.
In order to help an employer recognize and prepare for a potential threat, Doherty recommends the following three steps.
1. Conduct a Needs Assessment
According to Doherty, one of the most important things an employer can do is to conduct a needs assessment across the organization to determine the strengths and/or weaknesses of its policies, procedures, practices and other resources aimed at preventing or mitigating an act of violence. Also recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, this audit should be a cross-functional, multi- disciplinary effort that encompasses HR, legal, security and other departments that may be somehow involved in ensuring that appropriate measures are taken in the event of an incident.
In addition, by conducting a needs assessment in the organization, an employer will be able to identify any shortfalls it may have. For instance, a small business without a legal or security department of its own may decide that it should outsource certain functions such as drafting and/or reviewing its policies and safety procedures. Doherty also suggests that organizations, especially small businesses, develop a relationship with their local law enforcement agency and have them “on call” in the event an employee or third party raises concerns.
2. Educate the Workforce
Doherty stresses that an employer should focus on awareness as a vital first line of defense because, he says, “There are always warning signs of behavior before a violent incident.” As a result, training the general workforce, including supervisors and department heads, about how to identify behavioral indicators of concern is critical.
First, however, employees should be made to understand that a potential attacker does not fit a particular descriptive or demographic profile. Doherty explains that based on his experience with the Secret Service, it was always certain behavior or indicators exhibited by the person that assisted the agency in assessing and identifying a threat, not the fact that the attacker fit a particular profile.
Some common behavioral indicators that should cause concern include:
- A dramatic decrease in productivity;
- A systemic pattern of being disheveled or unkempt;
- Paranoid delusions, e.g., “Everyone is out to get me.”
- History of despair or depression;
- Comments alluding to suicide;
- Major loss or change in life, e.g., divorce or death in family; and
- Increased interest or discussion about violence or weapons.
In recognizing these behavioral indicators, it will allow the employer to increase scrutiny over an employee’s actions, productivity and interactions with others.
As important as training the workforce on behavioral indicators is, creating a “culture of safety” that encourages employees to report concerns as they emerge rather than wait until they escalate is just as critical. An employer should have a reporting procedure in place that allows employees to make a report without fear of retaliation. Also, supervisors should be trained on how to address an employee who comes to him or her to raise a concern and know when to escalate it through the appropriate channels (e.g., a department head or law enforcement).
Doherty adds that an attacker rarely will make a direct threat. In fact, in most cases, he or she won’t make a threat at all. Therefore, being able to identify behavioral indicators is key.
3. Understand the Domestic Abuse Connection
One component of workplace violence prevention that Doherty believes employers rarely consider is the connection between domestic abuse and violence at work. He notes that 33% of women killed in the workplace are killed as a result of a domestic abuse.
Employers should encourage employees to voluntarily bring a domestic abuse situation and/or restraining orders to the attention of HR. In doing so, HR may be able to take appropriate steps to ensure the physical security of the domestic violence victim as well as his or her co-workers.
For instance, HR may give the receptionist or the security guards a picture of the perpetrator to be on alert and ensure that he or she does not gain access to the workplace. Also, HR may change the victim’s parking spot, email address or phone number to inhibit the perpetrator’s ability to find the victim and protect the workplace. Oftentimes, a restraining order specifies the workplace as a forbidden area for that person to visit so it is imperative that the employer as well local law enforcement are made aware of the parameters of the restraining order.
Doherty stresses that it is also important for the employer, HR, supervisors and employees to be trained on how to spot someone who may be a victim of domestic violence. In other words, all should be aware of “behaviors of concern” related to domestic violence, including:
- Increased nervousness;
- Harassing phone calls; and
- Appearance of bruises.
A full understanding among the workforce of the behavioral indicators of potential violence is key to intervening before a tragic event occurs. For more insights from Doherty, such as how an employer should assess concerns about a threat, listen to XpertHR’s latest webinar.