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Workplace Violence Prevention

Don't Put Your Employees at Risk—How to Avoid Homicide in the Workplace

James Madero | July 1, 2003

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Each year over 600 workers are murdered by co-workers or family members and acquaintances while they are while at work. In most instances there are warning signs and other kinds of behavior that precede the homicides. A comprehensive workplace violence prevention program is designed to identify the potential for workplace violence in its very earliest stages so that murder and other types of workplace violence can be avoided entirely or safely dealt with.

Consider the following three snapshots of workplace violence:

  • Example 1: Bill W. was called into his supervisor's office and told that he needed to attend a meeting the next day to discuss his recent work performance. This was the third time this year that this had happened. The past two times the meetings ended with Bill being given some suggestions on how he could improve his performance. This time Bill thought that the meeting would result in his being fired.

    Bill had been working for the company for over 10 years, and although he was having some problems, he didn't think he should lose his job because of them. Bill decided he wasn't going to be treated like this. He left the building he was working in, went out to his car, and got the gun that he always kept in the glove compartment. He then went back into the building, found three of his supervisors, and killed each one of them.

  • Example 2: Martha H. had been a human resources manager for over 10 years. During this time she had to fire a number of employees, some of whom became quite angry during the termination meeting. When she was told that she had to terminate Ron M., she became concerned that he too could become angry. Ron was a scary person and could become quite belligerent at times. She decided to ask Larry B., another human resources manager, to sit in on the termination meeting with her.

    The meeting went pretty much as Martha had expected. Ron was upset over losing his job and became increasingly agitated. Halfway though the meeting, he suggested that they take a break so he could go to the bathroom and try to calm down. Martha and Larry agreed to his request. Ron went back to his desk, unlocked the drawer that he kept his personal items in, and took out a gun. He then went back to the meeting and, without saying a word, shot and killed Martha and Larry.

  • Example 3: Cathy S. was sitting at her desk in the reception area when her husband Rick suddenly appeared. She and Rick had been having problems in their marriage for the past 2 years. Things had gotten to the point where Rick had hit her on several occasions and started to accuse her of having an affair with one of her coworkers. He had threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him. Cathy lived in fear of Rick and his abusive behavior. She was ashamed at what was going on in her marriage and didn't want anyone to know about it, so she never told anyone about Rick and his threats.

    Cathy was surprised to see her husband at work, but before she could say anything he began yelling obscenities at her. He then took a gun out of his jacket and killed Cathy and two coworkers who were standing near her.

A Familiar Story

Incidents such as these have become all too familiar in today's workplace. There was a time when most workers viewed their workplace as a haven of safety, far removed from the violence that they saw in other parts of their lives. This feeling of safety has been shattered by the homicides and other forms of violence that now occur at work on a regular basis.

Each year over 600 workers are murdered by coworkers, family members, or acquaintances while they are at work. These deaths are tragic, but even more tragic is that many of them could have been prevented. In most instances there are warning signs and other kinds of behavior that precede the homicides.

While each homicide incident has its own unique characteristics, most have a number of elements in common. Multiple warning signs usually precede any homicide. For example, the perpetrator may have engaged in angry, hostile behavior, made threatening comments, talked about how unfairly they felt they were being treated, promised to get even, or in some instances either talked about the weapons they owned or showed them to some of their coworkers. Tragically, in most cases involving workplace violence, the victim's employer does not have an active or efficient workplace violence program.

Prevention Works

Over the past decade, comprehensive workplace violence prevention programs have been developed and implemented by numerous companies and organizations in both the public and private sectors. These programs usually include a workplace violence prevention policy; a security audit; a workplace violence prevention team; training for the team and all managers, supervisors and employees; an incident reporting and response system; methods for dealing with difficult employees; and procedures for terminating a potentially violent employee.

Once the program is in place and everyone has been trained, the workplace violence prevention team is able to deal more effectively with incidents when they occur and to prevent many of them from happening in the first place. The workplace violence prevention team is usually made up of members from the company or organization's internal human resources, legal, security, safety, employee health, and executive management departments. In addition, a workplace violence prevention/threat assessment consultant works with the team to develop and monitor the program, evaluate the level of risk in each incident, and help manage the incident to a safe conclusion.

The Program in Action

A comprehensive workplace violence prevention program is designed to identify the potential for workplace violence in its very earliest stages. Employees are trained to recognize the early warning signs and communicate their concerns to the team in a timely manner. The team then evaluates the risk involved, and manages the incident in ways that decrease and/or eliminate the potential for violence. Since most violent incidents are usually preceded by warning signs and certain types of behavior, the most successful teams are those that are part of a program designed to identify and report problems in their early stages of development. Once this is done, the team can then respond to an incident according to established protocols and procedures.

In each of the three incidents described above, the homicides could have been prevented with an effective workplace violence prevention program and team. For several years, Bill W. had been exhibiting a number of the warning signs and behaviors associated with individuals whom commit serious acts of workplace violence. These warning signs and behavior were incorrectly dealt with as performance issues. Had they been recognized early on for what they were, the team either could have worked with Bill and resolved his issues and problems, or safely removed him from the workplace long before he killed his supervisors.

In the second incident, Martha H. and Larry B. correctly identified Ron M's potential for violence, but they never received the training they needed to effectively deal with it. Had they been trained, they would have seen the need for having security present during the termination and would have not allowed Ron to take a break. Among the most basic principles of terminating a potentially violent worker are the following:

  • Have security present.
  • Do not take a break.
  • Plan for every eventuality.
  • Consult with your team's threat assessment specialist.

The third incident illustrates how Cathy S. was a "sitting duck" at work. Her company had never conducted workplace violence prevention training. Had they done so, Cathy and her coworkers would have been aware of the importance of recognizing and reporting the potential for domestic violence spilling over into the workplace. Had Cathy informed her employer about her situation, the workplace violence prevention team could have developed a plan to protect Cathy and her coworkers.

A Simple Solution

There is a great deal of violence in 21st century America. Some of this violence occurs in the workplace on a somewhat regular basis. In addition to the homicides described above, there are millions of instances of other forms of workplace violence including threats, harassments, and physical attacks.

Employers who fail to recognize the extent of these problems are putting their employees at risk. Employers who recognize these problems and do something about them are decreasing the potential risk to their employees. The solution to reducing workplace violence is not complicated. It consists of developing and implementing a prevention program with the assistance of a workplace violence/threat assessment specialist. Such a program enables an employer to reduce the risk of violence at work by identifying and responding to incidents in their early stages and managing them to a safe conclusion based on established principles and procedures. By doing so, employers can reduce the risk to their employees and make the workplace safer for all.

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