No one wants to think about it, but building owners need to face reality: workplace violence is everywhere.
Every week an average of 20 employees in the U.S. are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted while at work, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The Department of Labor estimates that some 2 million people are the victims of workplace violence each year – and those are only the reported incidents.
Although many factors are involved, the uncomfortable truth is that any workplace can have a violent incident. Having plans in place can deter or mitigate the effects of such altercations.
Learn the steps you can take to prevent violence.
The Triggers of Violence
When people hear “workplace violence,” many picture a shooter or terrorist, but behaviors ranging from verbal abuse, harassment, stalking, bullying, and threats of physical assault are all forms of workplace violence.
Eugene Ferraro, chief ethics officer and founder of risk consulting firm Convercent, Inc., says that understanding the motivation of aggressive people and their triggers is important. Feeling out of control is the most common impetus.
“The driver in these incidents is an attempt to restore control,” he says. “Violence is a form of regaining power, and violence in the workplace is an attempt to restore that order. Individuals rationalize that force or physical intimidation will put them in control.”
J. Michael Coleman, vice president of commercial real estate at AlliedBarton Security Services in Conshohocken, PA, says, “Common triggers that might precipitate workplace violence include terminations, layoffs, bad performance evaluations, and being passed over for promotion.” He also mentions domestic violence spilling over into the workplace and civil disturbances such as demonstrations, strikes, or nearby robberies.
Building owners and managers can look for certain behavior patterns in order to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Develop a Plan Now
A comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan will save you – in worry, in preparedness, in liability, and, yes, in guilt. Too often, building owners with weak violence plans are left reeling in the aftermath.
The Workplace Violence Continuum
“Building owners need to recognize that these behaviors fall along a spectrum that, depending on their nature or severity, significantly affect the workplace, generate a concern for personal safety, and can result in physical injury or even death. All of the scenarios we and others in our industry have identified occur frequently in workplaces across the country.
Any employee with one or more of the following indicators may be in need of assistance. Managers must be alert to these indirect pleas for help and provide a positive and timely response to ensure a safe and secure work environment.
■ Unusual Behavior: Can range from uncharacteristic excessive absences or tardiness by a normally punctual employee to changes in performance, work habits, or attitude.
■ Inappropriate Acting Out: Saying highly inappropriate things to people, getting very upset at colleagues, pouting, refusing to participate in meetings or work tasks, slamming doors, throwing things, testing supervisors’ authority, etc.
■ Verbal Assault: Outbursts of anger/rage, insulting or shouting at colleagues without provocation.
■ Harassment: Saying highly inappropriate things, aggressive sexual behavior or harassment, stalking, etc.
■ Threatening Behavior: Actually making threats verbally or with hands or objects. Also includes threatening written communication and brandishing a weapon at the workplace.
■ Physical Assault: Lashing out physically or actually attacking someone.
■ Deadly Encounter: Usually manifested as an active shooter scenario, a most tragic culmination of all that has come before.
Remember that just because someone exhibits one of these behaviors does not necessarily mean they are prone to acts of violence. It is when someone has an uncharacteristic, noticeable change in demeanor, when that conduct is displayed continually, or when uncharacteristic behaviors are observed in combination, that you should consider telling someone in a position of authority about the situation.”
“Building owners and managers are often reactive, not proactive, when dealing with these types of events,” says Coleman. “They need to develop preparedness plans that encompass all areas of risk exposure and, perhaps more importantly, recovery.”
Bruce T. Blythe, chairman at Crisis Management International, details four components of a successful plan.
1) Have a policy about violence. “You need a policy that clearly states what is considered unacceptable behavior,” says Blythe. He encourages using this key statement in the policy: “Any behavior that creates a reasonable fear or intimidation response will not be tolerated.”
2) Have a threat notification system. This should be a 24/7 call service with real people answering the phone. Because most people hesitate to inform on others – for their own safety or to avoid someone’s firing – it is vital to offer confidentiality and anonymity. Employee orientation should mention the notification system.
Resources on Workplace Violence Prevention
■ The IFMA Foundation (www.ifma.org) offers a publication entitled Violence in the Workplace: Role of the Facility Manager.
■ OSHA (www.osha.gov) shares information on workplace violence prevention, as does the Department of Homeland Security (www.dhs.gov).
■ ASIS International (www.asisonline.org) has guidelines on prevention and response.
■ The website of the National Crime Prevention Council (www.ncpc.org) has a section devoted to workplace safety.
He also suggests using guilt as a motivator. “I’ve dealt with more murders in the workplace than I can remember, and it’s amazing the number of people who, after the incident, say, ‘I just knew this guy was going to do it.’” For the rest of their lives, these people regret not sounding an alarm.
3) Form a threat response team. “You need a multidisciplinary team that is trained and ready to respond,” says Blythe. He suggests having representatives from HR, corporate security, and legal services involved, plus back-ups for each individual. Small organizations should outsource these roles to have the right mix of knowledge and personalities on the team.
4) Have a threat response team manual. “These guidelines should be laid out sequentially,” says Blythe. “For instance, what do you do when you first hear of a threat?” Plans for every type of situation help you to assess threats, defuse situations, and know who to call and when. A manual should include appropriate responses to all threats and explain their rationale, which is important after an incident to defend the actions taken.
The Tenant Factor
Building owners who have tenants face the challenge of forming violence prevention or response plans around them. James McGinty, vice president, training and safety at Covenant Security Services, Ltd., sees tenants as creating potential communication problems.
“They have their own policies, which are often not shared with the building owners. Most of the time, management finds out after the fact when something has happened.” McGinty suggests hosting awareness programs and encouraging a building-wide atmosphere of “if you see something, say something.”
Coleman agrees that facilities with multiple tenants can run into communication challenges. “The tenant may have a workplace violence prevention program, but those plans may not be consistent with property policies,” he says. “Communication is a big issue for building owners. These challenges can impact the property, other tenants, and victims alike, sometimes with fatal outcomes.”
Coleman stresses the importance of sharing information. “If a tenant reports something to the police and doesn’t report it to the building owner or property manager, management is compromised. It is crucial for building owners to encourage their tenants to share their workplace violence prevention plans and policies with them.”
He suggests training and tenant education programs as ways to foster awareness and communication.
Ferraro endorses the layering of security plans. “Building owners need their tenants to acknowledge that workplace violence is an issue and encourage them to have plans in place. Then, the building owner’s own emergency plans for the entire facility are layered on top to build an integrated plan,” he says.
Don’t Neglect Physical Security
If there’s a will, there’s a way. But don’t let that truth cause you to neglect physical security. Access control, security officers, and barriers like turnstiles or locked doors offer a lot of protection, says Ferraro.
He recommends channeling access through key control points and tightly managing the details. Make sure expired badges deny access to the wrong people. Encourage reporting if occupants see someone walking around without a badge or looking suspicious. Foster an atmosphere of vigilance.
“A criminal is going to choose the easiest way or the easiest target,” says Blythe. Monitor ingress and egress, and don’t let employees “piggyback” – make sure every individual enters properly. Armed guards may be controversial, but they do reduce some vulnerability. “If you have reason to worry about a shooter, you don’t want to bring a nightstick to a gun fight,” says Blythe.
Nevertheless, physical security is only a part of preventing workplace violence, and having training and a comprehensive program in place are essential – and not just for shooters. “Hostility is much more likely than a shooting, but it often goes unreported,” says Blythe. Hostility management training helps employees to defuse a dangerous person.
An Honest Assessment
Assuming that workplace violence won’t happen in your building is dangerous. Don’t live in avoidance or think that the plan you’ve had in place for 15 years is still viable.
“As we enhance our protective and prevention strategies, we can anticipate that the aggressors will be evolving and should attempt to overcome them with new innovations,” says Ferraro. “Workplace violence is dynamic, and building owners need to keep pace.”
Jenna M. Aker is a contributing editor for BUILDINGS.