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An effective workplace violence prevention program starts with employee screening and ends with publicizing a tough anti-violence policy, according to Dennis A. Davis, a former SWAT team negotiation coach who now directs client training for the employment law firm Ogletree Deakins.

Speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employment Law and Legislative Conference, Davis said tough economic times could cause some people to snap—and they might do so at work.

There’s never been a better time to implement a violence prevention plan with these five elements:

1. Screen applicants

“Your best chance to avoid workplace violence is to avoid letting in a violent person in the first place,” Davis said.

Ask all applicants for personal as well as professional references. Insist on a face-to-face interview so managers can gauge an applicant’s temperament. Ask everyone who comes in contact with the applicant about their impressions.

Then trust your gut. Does this person seem stable?

2. Craft a tough anti-violence policy

You need a policy that stands on its own—not part of some other general policy on professional behavior or misuse of office equipment. That sends the signal that you’re serious about preventing workplace violence.

“Most people will go along with your expectations if you’re clear about them,” Davis said. Having a written policy does that.

Make sure it states you have zero tolerance for any kind of violence—and threats of violence. You can even expand it to cover off-duty threats that might spill back into the workplace later. Prohibit weapons on your premises. Require employees to read the policy and sign a receipt. Ask your vendors to read and enforce the policy when their employees are on your premises or work site.

3. Establish a crisis management team

A crisis management team consists of six to eight people who function as coaches before violence erupts and incident managers if it does. Include staffers from the HR, legal and security functions. There should be a representative from senior management and your employee assistance program if you have one.

The team should track complaints of violent or intimidating employee behavior. That can help identify potentially violent employees before they become physically dangerous. The crisis management team also functions as your liaison to the police if an incident occurs.

4. Train front-line supervisors and greeters

“These people are your eyes and ears, your early warning system,” said Davis. They’ll probably know if someone is about to become violent long before anyone else does.

Instruct supervisors to report every incident. Train receptionists and security how to read aggressive body language and how to use verbal skills to defuse dangerous situations.

Tell everyone to call 911 if they are in danger or believe a situation is about to become violent.

5. Publicize your anti-violence program

Use meetings, newsletters, e-mail and the intranet to get the word out that your organization has a zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence. Be sure everyone knows how to contact the crisis management team and when to call 911.

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