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The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 57% of all workplace violence is directed against fellow employees by a co-worker, and 17% involves an employee against a supervisor. Six percent of the attackers are customers; 4% are boyfriends or girlfriends of employees; 3% are spouses of employees. In many cases, at least some co-workers knew that the person might turn violent.

You can’t predict the behavior of your employees, clients and all their associates. You can’t anticipate every possible danger. But the law dictates that you, as the employer, have a “duty of care” to keep all individuals in your workplace safe from dangers you can reasonably anticipate. To do that, you need to evaluate potential dangers and formulate an appropriate action plan.

Ban weapons

Weapons in the workplace present an obvious potential for violence. Aside from allowing designated, trained security personnel to carry them, you should explicitly ban weapons from the premises.

Even in the case of security staff, carefully weigh the risks posed by the mere presence of their weapons against the potential for them to protect others from harm. Some organizations leave no room for doubt by listing categories of prohibited weapons.

Policy considerations

To reduce the chance of workplace violence—or to reduce your liability if it does happen—establish a program that covers the following:

  • Institute a zero-tolerance policy regarding threats in the workplace.
  • Screen carefully by checking references and doing criminal background checks.
  • Train supervisors to recognize personality changes and warning signs.
  • Defuse disputes. Establish a mediation program to resolve employee disputes rather than letting them simmer.
  • Evaluate your security system at least once a year. Consider whether you might need silent alarms, ID keys, cameras or even an armed guard.
  • Require employees to report all restraining orders they are involved in to management. Include this in your employee handbook.
  • Train front-line employees. Receptionists and front-desk clerks should be on the lookout for unusual or unsettling encounters and have clear instructions on how to handle and report them to minimize risk to themselves and others. Every employee should be instructed as to when and how to contact police.
  • Establish procedures for employees to report threats or other violent behavior. Offer several avenues for reporting: supervisors, security personnel and HR.
  • Document any threats and your response to them. Your zero-tolerance policy should dictate dismissal of an employee who makes a threat. If it’s a worker’s relative or friend who’s being disruptive and dangerous, you are within your legal rights to terminate the employee, provided you give adequate warning.

Caution: When an ADA-related disability is involved, you must generally tolerate a certain level of disability-caused conduct, but you do not have to tolerate direct, violent threats to the health or safety of others in your workplace.

  • Assess how your organization handles stress-inducing events. For example, what is your procedure when a police officer or process server comes to see an employee? Confrontations shouldn’t occur in view of other employees. You could instruct your receptionist to direct the officer to a private part of the office near an outside door, and then quietly ask the employee involved to report to that area.
  • Terminate with care. Have someone along as a witness if you have to terminate a violent employee; consider engaging backup security. Treat the worker with dignity and allow a way for the person to depart quietly. Afterward, change the locks.

Workplace violence adds up

One in six violent crimes occurs at work:

  • 7% of all rapes
  • 8% of all robberies
  • 16% of all assaults

Sources: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control

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