Workplace Violence in Your Office Building

April 6, 2010
When violence (or the threat of violence) erupts in a tenant’s office, what your responsibility?

Suppose a senior executive working in the offices of one of your tenants approached you one day and said, “Our receptionist has just gone through a terrible divorce. This afternoon, her ex-husband called her and told her he was going to kill her. She’s terrified, and she believes he means it. Here’s a photo of him. Please don’t let him into the building.”

What’s your obligation as a building owner or property management representative?

“If building management is aware of a security threat to a tenant, and the tenant seeks cooperation, minimally, building management must enforce its regular access control policies,” says Rebecca A. Speer, principal of Speer Associates, a San Francisco-based law firm specializing in workplace violence prevention. “As a general rule, building management must adapt to security threats that come to their attention.”

Tenants may report threats by outsiders walking into the building, threats made by current or former employees, or threats made by spouses and ex-spouses. Threats could also come from contractors that come into the building to clean offices, provide maintenance services, deliver packages, and perform other routine work.

The most current statistics about workplace violence are more than a decade old, but they still indicate the scope of workplace violence.

According to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) between 1993 and 1999, an average of 1.7 million incidents of violent crime occurred in the workplace each year during the study period.

Of the 1.7 million incidents, homicide was the least common workplace violence crime. Murders per year averaged 900. Rape and sexual assault were much more common, with an average of 36,500 per year. The data show about twice as many robberies as sexual assaults; on average, 70,100 robberies occurred each year during the survey.

Assault is by far the most common workplace crime. On average, the survey recorded 325,000 aggravated assaults per year, which is about 18.6 percent of the universe of violent workplace crime.

Simple assaults averaged 1.3 million per year, or 75.2 percent of the study’s universe.

Together, aggravated assault and simple assaults totaled more than 1.6 million violent incidents, or 93.8 percent of the universe.

Remember, though, the BLS-NCVS study was conducted from 1993 through 1999. Since then, the workforce has grown larger. Some would say that our culture has also grown coarser. Certainly, the economic recession has taken a toll on our national psyche.

As a result, workplace violence has likely grown more prevalent than what’s reported in the survey. Chances are good that workplace violence will erupt in one of your tenants’ offices – or perhaps it already has.

“If you’re concerned about what your legal obligations are, or the extent of your liability exposure, you’re well-advised to seek legal counsel,” says Speer. “Broadly speaking, a building owner or manager who purports to provide security must be responsive to threats that are made or that can reasonably be anticipated.”

In other words, if you employ security officers or a security guard service, you must inform them about threats made to the employees of tenants you hear about, and you must work out an appropriate response.

If responding to a threat involves keeping someone out of the building, the officers will need photos of the individual, as well as an acceptable, effective procedure for determining who’s coming into the building. That may require visitors to sign in, show a photo credential, and display a visitor’s pass authorizing a visit to a certain company on a certain floor.

You also need a procedure for dealing with the individual if he or she shows up. You might take the issue up with the police and ask for a procedural recommendation.

Depending on the kind of threats you become aware of, you may or may not have to buy an access control and card reader system – discuss it with your lawyer.

If you already have a card access system, make sure the security officers use it correctly and effectively.

If you decide to buy an access control system, look for one with visitor management capability. With these systems, tenants can access a website, type in the names of expected visitors, what day and approximately what time they will arrive, and request passes for them.

A security officer will print the passes ahead of time. When a visitor arrives, the officer will ask for a photo ID and provide a pass. Visitors without reserved passes may call the tenant being visited. He or she can arrange for passes.

You should also keep up with what your tenants are doing in the area of workplace violence prevention.

To learn more about preventive programs – which you might consider establishing in your own workplace – visit www.OSHA.gov and search for workplace violence prevention.

You can also check in with ASIS International, which is the association for security professionals, and the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). The two associations are cooperating in the development of a Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention standard, which will eventually be issued under the banner of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  

See www.ASISonline.org or www.shrm.org for information about the standard, as well as general information on the problem of workplace violence.

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