No workplace is immune from unusual behavior, threats of violence or even violence. Indeed, every office, warehouse, factory or facility employs people . . . and those people bring to the workplace their own psychological and emotional issues, their own family history, their own personal challenges, their own work-related disappointments and frustrations, their own financial struggles. Some are camouflaged. Some are out in the open for all to see. In fact, the workplace serves as a large vat containing every employee’s emotional DNA. Mixing those elements together in the workplace sometimes creates a toxic brew.
Workplace violence issues can take many forms – from employees to family members, from vendors to customers, in response to terminations or personal stressors unknown to employers, caused by interactions at the office or online. While workplace violence issues no doubt raise a myriad of legal concerns involving both employer liability and employee rights, the ultimate concern for employers should be creating a work culture and work environment free from violence and threats of violence. And if concerns of violence do arise, to deal with those issues thoroughly and swiftly in an effort to protect the safety of the employees, customers and others.
Identifying Specific Risks
The news media is rife with stories of seemingly stable employees committing workplace violence. But how can an employer identify a volatile situation or a high risk employee?
William C. Nugent, Sr. Managing Director at Kroll Worldwide, a company focused on corporate risk and security consulting, observes that “prediction of violence is not a precise science. It relies on personality assessments and a deep probing of the human psyche, as well as a multitude of other work and non-work factors and events which may have occurred or may be occurring in the individual’s life.”
Employers must be tuned into clues. Initial clues can be provided from a job interview. For example, an applicant who speaks with hostility about a former employer may be providing a warning sign. Criminal background checks are also helpful to unearth concerns. Résumés should be examined for unexplained time gaps. According to Nugent: “Oftentimes, some warning signs are viewed in isolation from other red flags. As a result, important clues may not be communicated up the chain to others in the organization. Such compartmentalization of information and clues undermines proper and comprehensive synthesis and analysis of relevant information.” The end result may be a failure to identify specific risks, which ultimately leads to less effective decision-making.
In the end, employers simply need to be keenly aware of behavior, language and even non-work events that are out of the ordinary and to be sensitive to unsettling situations, and to share any “clues” hinting at potential violence to appropriate management personnel.
Performing Threat Assessments
When a specific concern about an individual arises, the employer should assess the threat, either internally or with the help of outside experts. “Threat assessments” of current and former employees can be a vital tool for employers who seek to manage potentially volatile situations. Companies like Kroll Worldwide are often retained by businesses who have identified a potentially threatening employee or received a threat from a third party to conduct a threat assessment of that individual. Nugent explains: “Threat assessments are used to evaluate the risk of violence and have the goal of preventing its occurrence in the workplace. Such assessments typically involve among other things intensive information and fact gathering of the incidents giving rise to the assessment; a comprehensive investigation of the individual’s background including work and family life; behavioral observations; and careful analysis of the frequency, language, theme, tone and nature of the threats.”
Threats and the concomitant threat assessments are usually fluid and dynamic as the threats evolve and unfold. Organizations need to be especially sensitive to how they respond to threats because employers can influence the likelihood of safe and positive outcomes. Nugent concludes, “While there are many best practices, ultimately these are delicate matters that ideally should be handled by a team comprised of individuals from several departments in the organization, and sometimes outside experts who are experienced in matters of this kind and can exercise sound judgment in navigating through the psychological, emotional, security and criminal issues.”
Implementing Security Measures
If a specific threat has been identified, an employer must then implement security measures designed to reduce or meet the current threat. The specific security measures considered and employed will depend on, among other things, the specific threat, the nature and seriousness of the threat, and whether the threat is from a current employee, a former employee, a customer or the general public. Actions to consider include: enhancing the security perimeter (locks, security personnel, pass codes, etc.), advising certain key personnel of the threat and what to look for, engaging outside security professionals, seeking to diffuse the situation by communicating with the threatening individual and reporting the threat to local law enforcement.
Developing a Crisis Response Plan
Most employer handbooks include anti-violence policies prohibiting threatening behavior and weapons in the workplace and requiring employees to report violence or threats of violence. In a real life emergency, however, policies often provide very little guidance to the managers on the front lines. A crisis response plan tailored to the business needs of each employer is key. An administrative assistant who is the first to greet clients may have a different perspective than a back-office manager. Ask for input on security measures from key personnel throughout the company. A plan should address threats of violence not only from employees and former employees, but from third parties such as vendors, customers and the general public.
Regardless of the particular needs of each workplace, every crisis response plan should contain:
Maintaining a Positive Culture in the Workplace
- Security measures to protect against both internal and external threats.
- Protocols for sharing of information about clues, threats or concerns of violence to designated management personnel at the company.
- A communication chain, both for key managers to communicate with each other and for company-wide communications. One or two managers should be designated as responsible for informing employees or family members of threats of violence or actual violent acts.
- Procedures to “return to normal” after a threat or act of violence. These procedures may include identification of a service provider to provide victim counseling and guidelines for media communications.
There are no magic buttons to press to keep a workplace free from conflict and violence. And many employers become paralyzed trying to address these complex issues. However, an employer can reduce the likelihood of conflict and violence by endeavoring to keep the work environment positive, proactively managing the tensions that no doubt will arise, diffusing workplace disputes and insecurities, providing outlets for employees to complain (including through Human Resources personnel) and showing a level of empathy and respect to employees who are being disciplined or terminated.
When employers have a concern about a volatile situation, they should proactively manage the situation and meet with the people involved. Employers should also provide mechanisms for employees to air their frustrations before volatile situations spin out of control. Managers responsible for hearing grievances, however, should be properly trained to promote conflict resolution without becoming counselors embroiled in unproductive personality conflicts. The appropriate human resources personnel also should be available, not just to employees who have complaints, but also to managers who are uncertain whether mere office banter has the potential to escalate into threatening behavior.
Employers also might want to consider the following:
- Negativity spreads like wildfire. Proactively manage those employees who tend to incite negative attitudes. Problem employees do not fix themselves.
- Act consistently and as transparently as possible. Let employees see that their managers treat all employees fairly.
- Make employment decisions (promotions, disciplinary actions, etc.) in a business-like and respectful way. Avoid vitriol, vengeance or rubbing salt in an employee’s wound.
- Give problem employees opportunities and the tools to dig themselves out of the performance ditch.
- Focus on the positive contributions of employees, and address the negative only as necessary.
- Train and promote managers who have demonstrated strong leadership skills and are adept at interpersonal dynamics.
- Encourage autonomy by publicly praising a job well done. Do not publicly humiliate employees, but assign responsibility where appropriate to correct workplace performance issues.
- Set and follow standards of professional demeanor and minimum performance standards.
Stradley Ronon's Employment & Labor Practice Group, together with outside security consultants such as Kroll Worldwide, are available to assist employers in implementing measures to manage and respond to threats of workplace violence and in developing a crisis action plan.
We counsel businesses on how to prevent employment-related problems before they arise. At the first sign of a problem, our clients receive practical, step-by-step advice on how to manage the situation. If a dispute erupts, our lawyers render advice at every stage - investigation, negotiation and, if necessary, litigation.
The posting of information on this Web site, or the receipt of information by viewers of this Web site, is not intended to — and does not — create an attorney-client relationship. This Web site is not intended to provide legal advice, and visitors to this Web site should refrain from acting on information posted here without seeking specific legal advice from individually qualified counsel.