Workplace violence is on the rise, but a safetyÂ policy that addresses security, culture, andÂ management can help mitigate the risk.
By Marta Chmielowicz
For Jill Geimer and many other HR executives,Â February 15, 2019 is a day that will be hard to forget.Â According to reports from The Washington Post, afterÂ being terminated from his position at Henry PrattÂ manufacturing company in Aurora, Ill., employee GaryÂ Martin opened fire, killing five people and woundingÂ six others. This hit particularly close to home for Geimer,Â whose company, Ecentria Group, houses a large inventoryÂ warehouse in the region.
âWe have 100 warehouse workers, a smaller group ofÂ warehouse-trained managers, and two HR people onsiteÂ at the warehouse,â says the managing director and headÂ of HR for Ecentria Group, an online retailer of outdoorÂ gear, hunting accessories, and military equipment. âIÂ was sitting at my desk in February and we received newsÂ that there was an active shooter situation in a warehouseÂ in Aurora. We all tuned into the news coverage andÂ they werenât saying the name of the warehouse orÂ the company. It was a heart-stopping moment and weÂ reached out as quickly as we could to our employees. WeÂ were able to identify that it was not our location, but itÂ was right down the road.â
The shooting was a wake-up call. In response, theÂ company doubled down on its security measures inÂ preparation for a significant upcoming staff restructuringÂ initiative. According to Geimer, the HR team wasÂ careful to avoid several of the risk factors of violence byÂ implementing these best practices:
- Terminations were conducted in small groups arrangedÂ by department rather than unmanageably large groupsÂ or individual meetings.
- Meetings were kept completely confidential with onlyÂ top executives prepped in advance.
- Security guards were hired, given floor plans, andÂ stationed in specific areas to closely monitor theÂ situation. Cameras, facilities, and parking lot proceduresÂ were also reviewed.
- Meetings were conducted close to the front door andÂ terminated employees were immediately escorted out ofÂ the office with their building access revoked.
- Police officers were alerted to potential threats byÂ specific employees.
- Terminated employeesâ concerns were only addressedÂ after the weekend, once the intensity of theirÂ communication subsided.
But even more importantly, Geimerâs team made sureÂ to check in with employees and give them a platformÂ to voice their fears and concerns following the staffÂ changes and the tragedy in Aurora. âI followed upÂ quickly. We met with all employees at all locations,Â but the warehouse was the first stop,â she explains.Â âEmployees got a platform to share their feelings and weÂ let them know what the company was doing. EverybodyÂ appreciated how quickly we addressed what was goingÂ on. We then met with our HR department and talkedÂ about what we did that was right, things that we couldÂ do better, and things we wouldnât do based on newsÂ reports.â
These types of precautions are a safe and smart route toÂ take considering that the Henry Pratt tragedy could haveÂ occurred in any organization. According to SHRMâs 2019Â Workplace Violence study, nearly half of HR professionalsÂ said their company had at some point experienced aÂ workplace violence incidentâup from 36 percent in 2012.Â And of those who reported having experienced workplaceÂ violence, over half said the incident occurred in the lastÂ year. Furthermore, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reportsÂ that 16,890 workers in the private industry experiencedÂ trauma from nonfatal workplace violence in 2016, andÂ in the same year, 500 employees were the victims ofÂ workplace homicidesâan increase of 83 cases from 2015.
But is it the job of HR professionals to prevent theseÂ violent situations from occurring? Ian D. Meklinsky,Â attorney at law and co-chair of the labor andÂ employment department at Fox Rothschild LLP, reportsÂ that employers have a legal responsibility to secure theÂ safety of their employees under negligence law andÂ the Occupational Safety and Health AdministrationÂ (OSHA)âs general duty clause. According to the former,Â organizations can get sued for damages related to anÂ injury if they fail to act on a known threat. Similarly,Â the OSHA general duty clause, Section 5(a)(1) of theÂ Occupational Safety and Health Act, requires thatÂ employers provide a workplace that is free from hazardsÂ that may cause death or serious physical harm. FailureÂ to do so can result in an inspection, citation, penalty, orÂ even criminal sanctions.
Securing the Workplace
These termination procedures are merely one componentÂ of Ecentria Groupâs broader âViolence in the WorkplaceÂ and Emergency Prevention Plan,â which also includesÂ background screening and reference checks; real-time cellÂ phone alerts; evacuation drills; manager training sessions;Â and more. By introducing a formal, structured workplaceÂ violence policy that addresses security, culture, andÂ management considerations, the company has succeededÂ in creating a safe space for all employees.
Organizations that wish to develop a similar approach toÂ workplace violence prevention should implement theseÂ essential practices:
1. Keep an eye on security. EveryÂ organization should have aÂ delineated workplace violenceÂ policy and a well-knownÂ action plan in case of anÂ emergency. These shouldÂ be communicated toÂ employees throughÂ regular safety trainingÂ sessions.
âWorkplace safetyÂ training and policiesÂ mitigate the threatÂ of violence,â saysÂ Nikki Harland, seniorÂ vice president of HRÂ at Paradies LagardÃ¨re,Â a travel retailer thatÂ operates in airports acrossÂ the country. âWe also haveÂ a loss prevention team thatÂ focuses on safety. When they areÂ in the field, they are talking aboutÂ emergency evacuations for acts of GodÂ or violent situations so that folks know whereÂ to go and how to remove themselves from a setting thatÂ is unsafe. That is something that is frequently discussed,Â updated, and documented. Across all of our airports,Â hazardous materials, fires, and gun violence are thingsÂ that we openly talk about.â
According to Harland, these training sessions alwaysÂ reference specific language contained within the writtenÂ anti-violence policy. The company also makes sure thatÂ the leadership team frequently reiterates the policy,Â tools, and resources available to employees in orderÂ to reassure them that the organization can respondÂ adequately to an emergency.
In addition to developing a concrete safety policy,Â Meklinsky also emphasizes the importance ofÂ maintaining the security of interior spaces by conductingÂ regular surveys of the facilities. He recommends thatÂ employers:
- assess the accessibility of entrance and exit points;
- ensure that there are adequate means of internal andÂ external communication;
- leverage technologies like swipe keys, securityÂ cameras, and buzz-in systems; and
- provide training on evacuationÂ plans under the guise of fireÂ prevention.
2. Encourage an open andÂ transparent culture.Â Another element ofÂ a safe and healthyÂ workplace is a cultureÂ where employees feelÂ comfortable sharingÂ their concerns if theyÂ feel threatened orÂ uneasyâwhether itâsÂ by a coworker or by anÂ event in their own life.
Creating this typeÂ of environment canÂ be a challenge becauseÂ sometimes, the problems thatÂ affect work performance areÂ deeply personal. For example, GeimerÂ shared a story of an employee who wasÂ experiencing a painful divorce and receivingÂ frequent threatening calls to the office from her ex-husband.Â This employee felt that discussing the threatÂ breached the boundaries of professionalism, so it was upÂ to Geimer to listen to circulating rumors, approach theÂ employee at the appropriate moment, and propose anÂ action plan.
âI always tell HR we have to have a friendly, approachableÂ air but not become friends with employeesâkeepÂ the sense of authority, leadership, role-modeling, andÂ conservative professionalism. You need to be able toÂ maintain neutrality. You have to keep your ear to theÂ ground, though, and keep a high alert,â she explains.
For this approach to work, employees need to beÂ comfortable bringing concerns about their coworkers toÂ the attention of managers. According to Meklinsky, thisÂ is especially difficult in unionized environments whereÂ individuals can face significant consequences for âturningÂ inâ their coworkers. âYou have to get your employeesÂ on board so that they understand that they are part ofÂ a teamâand part of that is identifying problems in theÂ workplace,â he says.
Meklinsky recommends that organizations include anÂ anti-retaliation provision in their workplace safety policyÂ so that employees are not penalized for their attemptsÂ to report suspicious behaviors. Likewise, Geimer saysÂ that a policy should include a âduty to reportâ clause inÂ which all employees are required to report any unsettlingÂ behavior on behalf of a coworker or external person whoÂ could pose a threat to the workplace.
âA 24-hour, private phone number to report concernsÂ should be set up as well as an âHR Boxâ in whichÂ employees can privately put a typed, anonymousÂ note,â Geimer explains. âThese should be checked andÂ monitored several times a day.â
Leveraging neutral, third-party outlets like employeeÂ assistance programs (EAPs) also allows employees toÂ anonymously come forward to discuss their problems.Â These and other resource groups are offered by bothÂ Ecentria and Paradies LegardÃ¨re as a way to provideÂ employees with financial and emotional support inÂ periods of stress.
3. Train management to react appropriately. ManagersÂ play an essential role in monitoring employees forÂ risky and threatening behaviors. A culture of opennessÂ cannot exist if managers do not pay attention to theirÂ employeesâ needs and create a safe space where theirÂ people feel heard and respected.
âI think employers need to monitor the workplace andÂ take note of employees whose behavior has markedlyÂ changed,â says Meklinsky. This might include employeesÂ who are lashing out, retreating as loners, or becomingÂ increasingly difficult and hostile toward others.Â According to Geimer, managers should also pay closeÂ attention to other signs of mental health deteriorationÂ such as increasingly disheveled appearance, abnormalÂ or aggressive social media behavior, and inappropriateÂ boundaries with coworkers.
Geimer recommends that organizations leverage ongoingÂ performance management tools as a way to keepÂ track of these behaviors and create a written record ofÂ performance that can be consulted if employees beginÂ to exhibit any strange or suspicious patterns. At Ecentria,Â employees, managers, and HR leaders all engage inÂ a consistent dialogue about employee performanceÂ via a single platform, making any sudden changes orÂ inconsistencies in performance very apparent.
But employers also need to be trained on how toÂ recognize these signs and appropriately engage theÂ employee of concern or reach out to coworkers forÂ further intel. Geimer says that offering training thatÂ focuses on behavioral analysis can help managers buildÂ confidence, especially when dealing with employees whoÂ are exhibiting risky behaviors like inappropriate languageÂ and passive-aggressive threats (see Identifying RiskyÂ Behaviors for more).
4. Periodically reevaluate workplace safety policies. WhileÂ following these best practices will allow organizationsÂ to create a culture that values workplace safety, itâsÂ important that leaders constantly reevaluate theirÂ workplace safety policies to deal with any new threats.Â âWe think our process and policies are iron solid, but ifÂ thereâs a new threat thatâs presenting itself, we evaluateÂ how strong we are in that space,â says Harland. âIf weâreÂ not, we update at that pointâwe donât wait a year toÂ do that. If we hear about different things that can affectÂ our environment, weâre constantly talking with our lossÂ prevention team to make sure that we are covered. ThatâsÂ an informal processâI can read something in the newsÂ and we can immediately react as a leadership team.â
With a growing pressure to keep employees safe, HRÂ needs to take proactive measures in order to reduce theÂ risk of violence in the workplace.