Managing Workplace Violence

March 16, 2012
Only planning and training for workplace violence will mitigate your risks for threats and accidents

You’ve been practicing drills for fires, tornados, and earthquakes since childhood. But have you been trained for workplace violence and man-made disasters? Do you and your building occupants have emergency plans for dealing with an active shooter, medical emergencies, industrial accidents, domestic abuse, harassment, bomb threats, or civil disturbances?

No facility is immune to violence or accidents that disrupt business, productivity, and your bottom line. Make sure you have comprehensive emergency protocol in place that’s supported by routine training and business continuity plans.

The Price of Being Unprepared
When a crisis strikes at an unprepared facility, a poor and uncoordinated response to the event has far-reaching impacts beyond the price of cleanup.

Without a plan in place, things will fall through the cracks as you respond to a crisis on the fly. “You may be making decisions you didn’t think through well enough, which leads to making key mistakes that could have long-lasting effects on your brand as a facility or as a company,” says Roger Aldrich, director of training for the Center for Personal Protection and Security (CPPS). “These could have been avoided if you had planned ahead.”

In the past, it was a courtesy to offer workplace violence policy and training. With a growing emphasis on OSHA mandates from Procedures for Investigating or Inspecting Workplace Violence Incidents, you could be in violation of the General Duty Clause, which requires workplaces to be free of recognized risks that cause serious harm or death, cautions Aldrich.

Extreme violence can result in the loss of life or severe damage to your building, but even a minor event can cause hours of disruption. Mitigating your risk for workplace violence makes good financial sense as an accident or crisis generates intangible costs that you could sustain for years down the road, such as:

  • Business continuity
  • Worker productivity and morale
  • Brand identity
  • Enrollment or attracting talent
  • Ongoing litigation
  • Insurance premiums
  • Occupancy and lease rates

Emergency planning isn’t just a function of your security department anymore – it’s at the core of your business operations. “Traditionally we’ve looked at emergency planning for man-made disasters as a code compliance or due diligence requirement, something to have in place for insurance,” says Jason D. Reid, founder and principal advisor of National Life Safety Group (NLSG) in Canada. “Owners now recognize that there is a tangible reason to invest in these programs because it impacts their bottom line, from employee productivity and satisfaction to business continuity and reputation.”

Prepare for the Worst
The only way to properly respond to a man-made emergency is to draw on existing crisis management plans. Many companies have individual elements of crisis management and recovery in motion between different departments, but often fail to incorporate them into one master plan. These eight areas will create the foundation of your emergency planning:

Microsoft Puts Its Emergency Plans in Motion

Brian Tuskan, senior director for Microsoft Global Security, recounts a surprise car accident that required Microsoft to put its emergency plans in play.

A driver was having a serious vehicle malfunction and randomly pulled into Microsoft’s parking lot. With the brakes out, the car slammed into the building and caught fire. No one was injured, but the building also caught fire and everyone had to evacuate. This included the security operations center, a key business unit.

Following the emergency and business continuity plans, all security calls were switched over to a facility in the U.K. while employees set up a site nearby to work remotely on laptops. Within 60 minutes, the call center was restored to the U.S., even though the building couldn’t be occupied until several hours later because of smoke damage.

Because there were multiple crisis management plans in place and the company routinely scheduled emergency drills, Microsoft didn’t lose any security operational functionality during the emergency. As Tuskan summarizes, “you’re only as good as the training and emergency plans you have in place.”

You don’t need a crisis on the scale of Virginia Tech or 9/11 to force your emergency plans to be tested. Even a suspicious package, empty bomb threat, or a chemical spill can trigger an evacuation. Only by having emergency plans and training in place can you be prepared for the unexpected.

Start with a risk assessment from a third-party professional, advises Reid. You can’t adequately address security concerns if you don’t know your potential threats. A security audit will evaluate everything from physical security measures and HR practices to common risks associated with your location or business type. You will then receive recommendations on how to strengthen your workplace violence preparedness.
  • “Craft a company-wide code of conduct, a policy that defines what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is,” recommends Dave Benson, director of global security for CPPS. “It should also address what counts as a deviation from that code of conduct and the resulting consequences for it.”
  • Create multiple reporting mechanisms so people feel comfortable bringing questionable behavior to your organization’s attention.
  • Have your threat management team process any reported concerns, taking a multi-departmental approach to resolving the issue. “This group will administer the policy, process information, and make recommendations and determinations as to what type of intervention strategy is going to take place,” Benson explains.
  • Instruct your HR staff to work in tandem with security. They can identify risks during exit interviews, recover keys and ID badges, ensure IT has revoked access to email and server accounts, and have security remove access privileges.
  • Remember that a tornado or shooter can have the same impact – damage to your building, loss of staff, and disrupted business operations. Ensure there is a connection between your extreme violence response and your business continuity plans because each component piggybacks off the others during a crisis, says Benson. Outline how you will run your business if workers are displaced or you are unable to occupy your building for extended periods of time.
  • “Line up a cleaning or restoration company,” recommends Mike Coleman, vice president of Commercial Real Estate for AlliedBarton Security Services. “This allows you to review their terms of agreement, packages, and pricing without being in a rushed or stressed mind frame. An unvetted company may not offer the best financial deals, or worse, cause more damage and disruptions with sloppy work than your crisis did.”
  • Account for any PR and legal needs. It is prudent to hire or specify from within a recordkeeper, someone who can take detailed notes during the event and coordinate all documentation. There should also be a select few who are authorized to give statements to the media, which may require the help of an outside firm.
  • Above all, ensure your program has support from all facets of your organization. “Elements of the workplace violence prevention program should include a management and employee commitment as well as joint occupational health and safety involvement,” says Reid. “This workplace violence policy applies to everyone, from the most senior level all the way to front-line employees.”

    Train the Individual
    Most organizations excel at preparing department leaders for an emergency, but they often overlook individual response. From the onset of an incident, it can take first responders 2-10 minutes to arrive. These are the critical moments where people need to recall training as they wait for the situation to resolve.

    “Individuals without proper awareness training may freeze in fear or begin to make decisions that make an already tense situation more detrimental and volatile,” says Benson.

    Training familiarizes employees with resources, tools, and procedures that are in line with industry best practices. Workers need true understanding of your emergency plans, not just buy-in, so they develop a comfort level with them, Reid argues.

    Emphasize to occupants that they are a crucial part of the plan and empower them with options, says Benson. Everyone is comfortable with what to do during a fire drill, but employees may not have a frame of reference for a gunman or domestic abuse. They need permission to be part of the solution and a role to play during recovery.

    While you can’t control individual responses to an emergency, occupants with training are more likely to behave rationally and respond in productive ways than employees left to their own devices.

    “If you reach back in your mind and you have nothing on your brain’s hard drive to give you an idea of what your options are, then you can be stuck in denial or deliberation and move from anxiety to a more panicked mode,” says Aldrich. “Almost like a hamster spinning on a wheel, you’re wasting precious seconds and minutes when it could mean your or someone else’s life. But if you can work through that shock more quickly and become more proactive – which preparation and levels of training provide – you at least have tools you can use.”

    You can also foster employee support during training by framing it as a business continuity issue. “If we knock down the walls and do educational and training sessions for the leaders of each internal department and business unit, employees will see the tangible benefits,” explains Reid. “They will say, ‘Wow, this applies to me. This is just not a security or life safety issue – this applies to my goal and objective within my department.’”

    The Role of Security and Life Safety Systems

    Policies and procedures are a good way to spot suspicious behavior, but if a situation is escalating, your security systems will be your next level of defense.

    Access control, entrance alarms, physical barriers, surveillance, and security guards can go a long way toward protecting your facility from violent individuals. They can foil an irate spouse, stop an unauthorized vehicle, or sound an alarm when a door has been forced open. Ensure whichever combination of systems you depend on meets the risks and threats of your facility.

    Physical security systems catch problems further in on “the potential path to violence,” says Dave Benson with the Center for Personal Protection and Security (CPPS).

    “If you don’t have good access control policies and procedures, you become more vulnerable,” says Benson. “When individuals become troubled, they’ll ‘boundary probe’ your facilities. If they can get away with certain things and there’s no corporate response to it, they’ll assume that they’ll be able to do that and continue.”

    Robust security methods can also protect you from litigation after an incident. In conjunction with your emergency planning, they serve as proof of the measures you’ve taken to mitigate risks.

    Training is most effective when done as a combination of practice scenarios and written refreshers, Coleman suggests. PowerPoints and online modules are a good way to verify and certify completion, but they can’t stand on their own because they don’t have a hands-on element. The same gap occurs if you do only drills but have no mechanism to test for comprehension.

    “You can also contact your local police or fire department to see if they offer crime prevention resources and training you can leverage,” recommends Brian Tuskan, senior director for Microsoft Global Security. By establishing a relationship with your first responders, they’ll gain basic familiarity with your company and building, which can make a big difference during an emergency. Your contract security company can also serve as a resource.

    Just like fire drills, training for workplace violence must occur on a continual basis. It should become a force of habit just like sheltering in place for a tornado or any other disaster you’ve practiced since grade school.

    “If you do training long enough, often enough, and frequently enough, it becomes a part of the company’s fabric,” Coleman explains. “The things that are in front of us every day are the most effective.”

    Take Immediate Steps for Recovery
    After an incident has occurred and your building is secured, it’s time to turn your attention to recovery efforts. Communication can be your greatest ally, but a lack thereof can create additional damage. “The information flow must continue throughout the whole situation and is just as important in the recovery phase as it is when you’re actually going through it,” stresses Benson.

    One of the biggest problems in an organization is that departments operate in silos and are cut off from one another, Reid adds. If you have an emergency, you need to make sure that your business employees, HR, occupants, facilities department, concierge or customer service staff, and the public are getting the same message.

    If a tenant asks concierge or security for details regarding the incident and neither party has received any communication, you can imagine the potential embarrassment, confusion, and misinformation.

    “Also keep in mind how your organization will respond to the families of those who are involved from the onset,” explains Randy Spivey, CEO of CPPS. “The first few hours play a significant role in whether or not there’s follow-up litigation. If families feel like they’re being treated with transparency and respect, then the likelihood of a lawsuit is decreased.”

    The same communication courtesy also applies to tenants and occupants. Even if you had an isolated medical emergency like a heart attack, you have two groups to account for – the person who experienced the emergency and those who witnessed it. Not only do you want to minimize the water cooler talk, but it’s important to review critical incident stress with your employees.

    “We really need to take a look at ensuring that their mind frame is OK after an incident because employees respond to traumatic events in many ways,” says Reid. “There are psychological impacts too. Not dealing with this type of stress may lead to emotional and physical problems that can affect a person’s social and work life.”

    You should also review all of your building systems after an emergency. Ensure your critical infrastructure is working as expected and hasn’t been compromised, whether it’s HVAC, water, gas, or life safety systems. The review can be as basic as ensuring all systems are functioning, particularly since they tend to work in tandem with each other.

    Evaluate and Adjust
    Once the dust has settled after an event, schedule time to review your emergency plans, identify gaps, and take corrective measures. “Too many organizations put plans together and they’re static – they’re not agile enough to adapt to changing circumstances,” Benson warns. After an event, you need to look at your organization honestly and ask what could have been done better and how you are going to change.

    “It’s all about lessons learned and sharing those in an open concept within the debrief,” says Reid. “You can provide action steps and assign a person or team who is responsible to rectify those steps. This will help to mitigate losses, improve occupant safety, and help you to recover faster the next time.”

    Particularly if your facility is part of a portfolio, you need to summarize the lessons learned from an event and share them with your other colleagues. You don’t have to air the dirty laundry, recommends Reid, but you can take this knowledge and use it to strengthen corporate policies across the board.

    Lastly, make sure your workplace violence prevention plans are a living document. Revisit your protocol after a trigger point, such as structural or manpower changes. New tenants, changing job descriptions, or adjustments to internal layout should also prompt a review. Proactive planning in the present will help keep you flexible and safe during a crisis in the future.

    Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

    About the Author

    Jennie Morton

    A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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