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Violence in the Workplace

By Cady Barrett

Workplace violence is a serious concern for most employers, in both private and public sectors. The media only scratches the surface of workplace violence by only reporting sensational issues, usually involving guns and homicides. In reality, the problem of violence in the workplace is much bigger than it appears in the news. Because homicide remains a rare occurrence, employers and employees have adopted a “that couldn’t happen to my workplace” mentality. This mentality reflects a misunderstanding about what “workplace violence” means and how to prevent it from happening to you in the future.

According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, nearly five percent of the 7.1 million private businesses experienced an incident of workplace violence. The National Center for Victims of Crime reported that one out of six violence crimes experienced by U.S. residents occur at work. In addition to the devastating effects on victims of violence in the workplace, workplace violence is costly to employers. After an incident of violence, productivity and morale are likely to lessen among employees. In addition, the reputation and public image of the organization may suffer.

The issue of workplace violence is sensitive for employers and employees alike. Employers can take steps to prevent and minimize the risk of workplace violence. With this in mind, you should enact specific policies to clearly define your stance on workplace violence. There are several things that you should know to create an environment less conducive to violence:

Know the Importance of Pre-Employment Screening:

    • Consistent and through background checks can do a lot to prevent workplace violence. By doing pre-employment screening in compliance with state and federal laws and actually checking references are two simple ways to effectively screen applicants.

    • No matter what information you uncover about the applicant, remember that you are restricted from using certain information in your hiring decisions. It’s best to not jump to conclusions regarding a person’s potential mental condition. Instead, focus on their references and the conduct and actions they’ve been involved in to make your decision.

Have Clear Policies & Procedures:

    • Be sure that your policies specify that your organization doesn’t tolerate violence and employees may be terminated as a result. 

    • Key components of an effective workplace violence prevention policy should include:

        • A statement of zero-tolerance for any threatening act of physical aggression and/or intimidation of any employee.

        • Specific examples that exhibit a wide range of prohibited conduct.

        • Provide multiple violence reporting avenues along with a clearly defined reporting procedure

        • A statement reassuring employees that no retaliation will occur if they do report.

Prepare for the Worst:

    • Employers must be prepared to handle emergencies before they even happen. To be better prepared, organizations should:

          • Identify a crisis management team

          • Establish communication channels

          • Assign areas of responsibility during a crisis 

Train Employees for the Best Prevention:

    • Training in the workplace should always include safety and emergency procedures. Training should cover warning signs of a potential threat and reporting procedures when they observe warning signs. Discussions on warning signs should include:

        • Employees who openly discuss feelings of workplace humiliation may be a signal to others that they may act out, either in talk of suicide or statements with a lack of future orientation. Employees exhibiting such behavior may make statements such as, “I don’t know if I will be around for the company’s July 4th picnic.”

        • Employees who bully or treat others as less than equal. Such employees can perpetrate the workplace violence, but can also be the target. 

        • There is a link between domestic and sexual violence that can carry over to the workplace. If an employer becomes aware of violence issues affecting an employee’s personal life, they should be proactive and resist the urge to stay out of their employees personal problems as they may wash over into the workplace. Many states have special considerations for those affected by domestic or sexual violence. In Florida, victims of violence may be entitles for three days leave in a twelve month period. North Carolina law states that employees have the right to issue retraining orders on threatening individuals to protect their employees and work space. Check your local laws to see if your employees are protected in the way as well. 

        • Other types of conduct that may foreshadow workplace violence could include: an increased use of alcohol and/or drugs, increased absences from work, a lack of attention to physical appearance and hygiene, emotional outbursts, mood swings, discussion of “fixing things” or “exit plans”, difficulty adjusting to changes in the workplace, or discussion of guns or other weapons in the workplace.

Be Respectful in Terminations and Discipline

    • Sometimes, humiliation is a factor when violence hits the workplace, employers can try to prevent these issues by doing what they can to ensure that discipline and terminations are carried out in a respectful manner. The best response to workplace anger is compassion and understanding. 

In the last decade, 16 states have enacted laws that prohibit employers to prevent their employees from bringing guns to work and storing them in their cars in the employer’s parking lot. Compliance with the laws puts the employer at risk of violating their obligation to protect their employees, while at the same time by not complying with the laws they are then subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. The states that have adopted this law include Alaska, Texas, Arizona, Maine, Indiana, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, it was concluded that job sites that allow guns are five to seven times more likely to suffer homicides and violence than locations that have banned all guns. 

A bill was presented to the NC General Assembly this year that may have made NC the 17th state to enact the restriction of the employer to restrict guns at the workplace. Although the bill didn’t pass, it was only by a very narrow margin and it is likely to come up again. If you are an employer in North Carolina and have a strong feeling on this issue, contact your local representative to express your concern. 

Sources: American Journal of Public Health, Center for Disease Control, bNet, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Center for Victims of Crimes

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