How prevalent is workplace violence? In 2020, over 20,000 private industry workers were victims of nonfatal workplace violence. These are only incidents that required them to take time off. 392 people were killed in workplace homicide. It does not count minor incidents or threats.
Workplace violence isn’t always the spectacular situation where somebody “goes postal.” More often, it is smaller incidents such as fights. Regardless, all employers should have an up-to-date workplace violence policy.
Who Is at Most Risk of Workplace Violence?
Statistics actually do give a picture of the person most likely to be non-fatally assaulted on the job. They’re usually female, between 25 and 54, and work in healthcare and social assistance. Why is this? It’s because they often deal with people in pain, who may be cognitively challenged, hugely stressed, etc. In other words, the most common workplace violence incident is a patient or family member losing it and throwing an object or a punch at staff.
However, when we look at homicides, the victims are more likely to be male retail workers.
None of this means that your business doesn’t need a good policy.
Elements of a Good Workplace Violence Prevention Policy
So, how do you put together a workplace violence prevention policy that protects your employees (and, for that matter, your customers)? It’s true that you can only do so much. You can’t, for example, do something about an incident where somebody flees into your fast food restaurant from the police and attacks your staff.
You can build an environment where your own people are
- Less likely to perpetrate violence and
- More able to protect themselves.
So, what does this look like?
Mental Health Support
Stress causes violence. It may be self-directed or directed at others. It may not always reach the level of physical violence, but somebody who is snapping at all of their coworkers is making for a hostile environment.
Ensure that your wellness program includes mental health support and a good Employee Assistance Program (EAP). While this is separate from the policy, it is a key part of protecting people. If violence does happen, refer the person to trauma counseling and screening and actively encourage them to get help, whether they were the victim or a bystander.
Also, don’t be part of your employees’ mental health problems! An environment where people feel valued and supported is one in which they are much less likely to lose their temper.
Provide a Means to Report Violence Safely
Many people are afraid to report violence, especially if it comes from a supervisor. Regularly surveying employees can help understand their concerns about violence and personal safety.
At the same time, the surveys may sometimes be read by the person who makes them feel unsafe, so also make sure that there is a way to report issues and concerns anonymously, to somebody other than their supervisor, such as a hotline. All incidents should be properly recorded and used to keep the prevention plan current.
Do a Worksite Analysis
Employee surveys can also be used as part of a worksite analysis. This can then be used to identify and address risk factors and develop policies to minimize them. For example, let’s say your employees park in a poorly-lit garage. If somebody is working late, finding a way to provide them an escort back to their car can help reduce the risk of being a victim of street crime or carjacking.
Panic buttons can be extremely helpful and are advised for anyone working directly with the general public or customers (especially in healthcare settings.) Phones are not a substitute…a properly-designed panic button can be activated discreetly in a single action.
Develop a Training Plan
No policy is going to work if people don’t stick to it. Employees need to be trained in violence prevention but should not be encouraged to risk themselves. Training includes correctly using protective equipment, abiding by policies, and reporting situations that may escalate.
For some employees, training in de-escalation techniques may prove valuable. This includes recognizing and evading potentially violent situations. Managers should be trained in informing workers, identifying and defusing conflicts, and encouraging stressed employees to get help. Managers should also watch for potential domestic violence; sometimes, a violent partner (or parent or child) may show up at the workplace and cause issues.
Have Clear Consequences
Lay out in the policy what the consequences are for different levels of violent behavior. Making threats, for example, may warrant a warning and disciplinary action. An actual assault likely warrants termination. Every incident should be properly investigated and dealt with. The rules must apply to everyone at every level. For one-on-one conflicts, mediation and dispute resolution might be appropriate, or, if possible, transferring one to a different location so they no longer have to deal with each other.
Have Good Termination Policies
Every so often in the news, you will hear about somebody who got fired coming back with a gun. Ensure you have a solid termination policy that is visible to everyone. You do not have to give notice when terminating somebody for cause, and you may need to take steps to keep them from returning. At the same time, you should fire somebody in person when possible. If this is not possible, or if you genuinely believe they may do something on their way out, video conference is better than email…or somebody showing up to work to find their badge has been deactivated with personal possessions still in the office. Speak to the rest of the staff right away and tell them (in general terms) that the person was terminated and provide instructions on what to do if they return to the office.
Support Employees When Violence Hits the News
In April 2023, a disgruntled ex-employee shot up the Old National Bank in Louisville. There were 53 workplace mass shootings between 1966 and 2021, and “going postal” is a very real thing. These incidents remain rare, but when one hits the news your employees may be concerned, especially if it happened at a similar workplace. Parents may also be very nervous when a school shooting incident occurs. When something like this happens, your employees need to know about EAP resources that can help. If somebody wants to take a couple of days off because they are too afraid to come in to work, respect that.
A good workplace violence prevention policy helps keep your employees safe, reduces downtime, and increases morale. Make sure you keep it updated and review it at least once a year, and your company will be ahead of many when it comes to caring for and protecting your employees.
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