Disgruntled and dangerous

Identifying stressed, angry workers can help prevent workplace violence

By Lauretta Claussen, associate editor

  • In most cases, warning signs appear before an act of violence occurs, so knowing what the signs are and how to handle them can help stop violence before it starts.
  • In the event that prevention programs are unsuccessful and an act of violence occurs in the workplace, employees should receive emergency preparedness training that covers safe ways to respond in such situations.

Hours after being laid off in November 2008, a product test engineer at a Santa Clara, CA, technology company returned to his former place of employment to clean out his desk. While doing so, co-workers said he suddenly became agitated and entered the office of the company CEO. What co-workers did not know was that the former employee had brought a 9 mm pistol to the office. The next thing the workers heard was a rapid succession of gunshots. When the shots ended, the CEO, a vice president and the head of human resources were all dead.

This story garnered headlines for its shocking nature, but workplace violence is not entirely uncommon. Although incidents are not always fatal, 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence every year, according to OSHA. By far, the most fatal type of workplace violence is committed by criminals who enter during a robbery attempt and have no connection to the workplace.

According to the FBI, such incidents represent nearly 80 percent of workplace homicides. However, a more insidious type of workplace violence is that which is perpetrated by someone on the inside.

Recognizing the signs

Nicholas Dillon, director of education and risk services for Brookfield, WI-based Aegis Corp., has been studying issues of workplace violence for more than 15 years. He said recognizing the warning signs of potential violence is critical. “In most cases – 85 percent of the time – there’s warning signs before an event happens,” he said, noting that anger, alterations in hygiene, attendance issues, depression and appearing withdrawn all serve as red flags.

Everyone in the workplace should be instructed on how to handle potential incidents of violence, including their responsibilities with regard to confronting or reporting any issues. The FBI recommends employers provide training and, if necessary, seek help from outside sources such as law enforcement professionals, threat assessment psychologists or social workers.

Rising levels of workplace and school violence in recent years have changed the way law enforcement officials (who previously became involved in volatile situations only after violence had occurred) think and plan. Many local police departments and law enforcement officials now are willing to work with organizations ahead of time and provide assistance with background checks, security assessments and the creation of violence prevention plans.

Employers also need to understand the psyche of the individuals they are dealing with. Ray Pettit is a security consultant who has been dealing with workplace violence issues for more than 20 years.

According to Pettit, acts of workplace violence often are perpetrated by longtime employees who are angered by ill treatment – real or imagined. “Angry, disgruntled employees often feel people in the company are out to get them,” Pettit said. “They feel they are unfairly treated. They often claim that they were disciplined for no worse behavior than other employees get away with.”

In some cases, that anger eventually explodes in an act of violence. “Their anger eventually seeks retribution,” Pettit said, “because ‘they’ – meaning management or co-workers – ‘can’t get away with treating me that way.’”

The FBI recommends paying particular attention to employees in smaller companies and low-wage, lower-status workers.

Termination and layoffs
One of the most difficult decisions an employer has to make is whether to terminate an employee. This also is one of the most potentially volatile situations ...

The decision to create a prevention plan

A Bureau of Labor Statistics survey conducted in 2005 indicated 5 percent of the 7.1 million private industry business establishments surveyed had experienced an incident of workplace violence in the 12 months prior to completing the survey. Despite this, more than 70 percent of all workplaces reported having no violence prevention program in place, the survey found. In fact, although nearly half of the respondents who experienced an act of workplace violence indicated the incident had a negative effect on the workplace beyond the victims, only 10 percent of workplaces were motivated by that incident to create a workplace violence prevention program.

The lack of a prevention program can have far-reaching negative effects. In addition to having a moral and ethical obligation to prevent violence, an FBI report also noted that companies “can face economic loss as a result of violence in the form of lost work time, damaged employee morale and productivity, increased workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, and possible lawsuits and liability costs.”

Dillon recommended bringing in a third-party source to speak with employees to get a fair and accurate reading on how they believe they are treated by management and co-workers. Stress to employees that the answers are confidential, and use the data to structure a program that includes training and preventive action.

A survey of this kind requires an “uncomfortable conversation,” which Dillon said is one of the reasons so many employers are reluctant to begin a program.

“That’s what makes it difficult, which is why you don’t see a whole lot of plans in place, let alone training,” he said. “Because you end up having to have an uncomfortable conversation, even in training.”

Further, Dillon noted, acts of violence are unique situations that many employers have not been properly trained to handle. “It’s not your everyday thing that you deal with,” he said. “It’s not your simple safety and health risk hazards type of thing that human resources and safety managers are comfortable discussing.”

Pettit agrees that employers are reluctant to begin violence prevention programs – he refers to workplace violence as the “orphan” security problem. “No one in the organization really wants to assume full responsibility to ensure it never happens,” he said, noting that blame is often shifted between human resources and security personnel. However, he noted that “effective programs to prevent workplace violence result from a collaborative effort involving human resources, operations, security and top management.”

Zero tolerance

Considering your workplace’s culture will help tailor a plan that specifically addresses your employees’ needs. “It’s a program that you can’t really cookie-cut,” Dillon said.

He recommended all employers enforce a zero-tolerance approach toward workplace violence. Under this type of policy, acts of violence or threats are quickly addressed. “Zero tolerance means zero tolerance,” he said. “That means we don’t want it here at all, even if you’re joking.”

Maintaining open communication with employees is the first line of defense in workplace violence prevention. “If anything’s going to happen, employees typically are going to know it before managers and executives,” Dillon said. “They are your observers out there, so they need to know the warning signs and they need to know the employer’s position on it.”

Although consistent and fair discipline is a prime component of a violence prevention program, other elements need to be considered, according to Pettit. “Less often mentioned are other critical components of an effective program, such as ensuring that troubled employees feel they were treated with dignity and respect,” he said. The purpose of a violence prevention program is to diffuse sources of anger and hostility before they result in violence, so understanding any problems employees have is a huge first step.

Empathy is critical. “Cautious and enlightened early intervention with a genuine desire to help resolve a troubled employee’s complaint helps defend against overreacting or misinterpreting behavior as indicators of imminent violence,” Pettit said.

Emergency preparedness

No matter how many precautions you take in the workplace to prevent violence from occurring, no program can offer a guarantee. “If an attacker is intent on harming someone, he can,” Pettit said. “When imminent violence is possible, it is too late to deal with the situation.” He noted that employees, unlike unknown intruders, are familiar with the layout of the workplace and often know exactly what kind of security measures are – or are not – in place.

“These disgruntled employees know the system, they know the limits and weaknesses of the organization’s security capabilities, and they know when and where their targets will be most vulnerable,” Pettit said.

In such cases, having a prepared workplace can save lives. Most workplaces regularly conduct emergency preparedness exercises for situations such as fire or extreme weather, yet few do so for potential acts of violence. Dillon strongly recommends employers teach workers what to do in such an event, because evacuation – which is how workers have been trained to react to other types of emergencies – is often not the safest response. If a gunman is roaming the halls, fleeing may expose workers to even greater danger.

“In those types of scenarios, you may not want to evacuate outside as much as you want to get behind a piece of furniture or something to stay hidden,” he said. Make sure employees know about areas that may be well-protected or bulletproof.

In the aftermath of an incident, OSHA recommends employers immediately contact the local authorities and provide medical treatment. The agency also suggests offering post-traumatic stress counseling to co-workers who may have been affected.

Employers can be cited by OSHA for not providing employees with a safe work environment, and failure to take reasonable steps to prevent an incident of workplace violence also can be a citable offense. Understanding the workplace culture and establishing a violence prevention program may not be a guarantee against acts of violence, but it can go a long way toward providing a safe work environment.

“We think we know our employees. We think we know what they will and will not do under pressure,” Pettit said. “Being wrong about that speculation can be fatal.”

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