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Is Your Company at Risk of Workplace Violence?

Some possible warning signs

Posted by Janette Levey on November 30th, 2015

Last week we discussed how hiring practices could help minimize the risks of workplace violence. Now changes to hiring practices do not guarantee that workplace violence will end. They are, a good starting point. What about those who were hired under your “old” practices? What about those who manage to get hired in spite of changes to hiring practices? What do you do now? 

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We know there are no guarantees, so how much sleep should we lose over this issue? At the same time, you can’t afford not to take at least some precautions. Let’s face it: overt physical violence means people get hurt, which often leads to legal liability. Employers run the risk of negligent hiring and retention lawsuits if they knew or should have know that an employee posed a threat and they did not take reasonable steps to prevent or at least minimize the threat. Moreover, when employees do not feel safe, morale drops. Lower morale tends to result in higher turnover and lower productivity. Other results: increased absenteeism, increased health care costs,  and similarly, costs incurred for any necessary counseling or crisis intervention. If your company is publicly held, the value of your company’s stock may drop.

So workplace violence is bad–and, to be brutally and concretely practical– it affects your bottom line. So what now?Some conduct/performance issues can serve as warning signs that an employee is a victim or perpetrator of workplace violence or domestic violence (more on that next week). Please note, however, that presence of one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean that violence will occur. They may also be indicators of other problems such as depression, anxiety, illness, bereavement, etc. That said, it still behooves you as an employer/manager/HR staff person or even a co-worker to be in tune with any of these issues. Why? You may need to respond to them in terms of a family medical leave request, a request for reasonable accommodation of a disability, or need to evaluate performance problems or other possible misconduct. Here are some possible indicators:

  • Attendance issues such as excessive absences, latenesses, leaving work early, implausible excuses for absences could be indicators that an employee is a victim or workplace violence;
  • Signficant expenditure of supervisor’s time coaching/counseling an employee, re-doing his/her work or dealing with issues between the employee and co-workers could indicate a situation that, left unchecked, could escalate to violence;
  • Decreased productivity could indicate a troubled worker,  the root of which could be a brewing or escalating issue with violence — either on the giving or receiving end;
  • Inconsistent work patterns including alternating high and low-productivity periods, inconsistent quality of work,  seeming overreactions to criticism or minor setbacks, mood swings;
  • Sudden changes in or unusual  behavior, such as inappropriate comments, threats, throwing things (this would already be early stages of workplace violence);
  • Constant or continuous excuse-making or blaming: to the point where the employee is unable to accept responsibility for even inconsequential mistakes;
  • Carrying a concealed weapon or displaying a weapon;
  • Actions indicating excessive focus on a particular person or group of people;
  • Aggressive actions or gestures (such as fist-shaking, kicking, pounding desks or walls, screaming);
  • Offensive, vulgar or other verbally abusive language;
  • Threats either in person, via phone, email or letters.

Now admittedly, determining whether any of the above indications or likely to escalate is complex — and very fact-sensitive. Again though, even though they do not always mean violence, as business owners, executives, managers, HR staff or even co-workers, they are still indicators of a potential problem that employers should be addressing anyway. Therefore, anyone encountering any of these situations, at a minimum, should not ignore them. But, once again, what do you do? While this is not intended in any way to be an exhaustive list, here are a few places where you can start:

  1. Implementing and updating workplace violence/workplace safety policies and train your staff accordingly: If you have no such policies and procedures, now is a good time to put some in place. If you already have some, then this is a good time to review and update them — and educate your staff as to: a) what behavior is and is not acceptable; b) what to do if they believe there is any cause for concern; and c) what to do if they are faced with a violent situation.
  2. Evaluate and make changes as appropriate to the work environment: This might include taking steps to minimize negativity, isolation, resentment and hostility among employees; promoting open, honest and timely communication of issues and concerns, offering opportunities for professional development; maintaining mechanisms for expressing complaints/concerns in a non-judgmental forum. This category would also include ensuring that you have effective anti-discrimination/harassment policies in place and that your organization is complying with them and disciplining employees properly, appropriately and consistently for any violation of those policies. (A victim of harassment who does not feel his/her situation is being adequately addressed could resort to violence.)
  3. Evaluate and make appropriate changes to your security measures: This might include installing surveillance cameras, implementing procedures for locking up, prohibiting employees from being on the premises after certain hours. It could also include designation of certain areas as higher-clearance and requiring photo id badges and coded card keys for access, as well as policies and procedures for when to call in local authorities. Of course, much will depend on the type of business you run, the types of customers or clients you cater to, location and many other specifics.
  4. Consider offering an Employee Assistance Program: Employees under stress either because of personal or work-related crisis or because of mental or physical illness can benefit from short-term counseling or referrals for other assistance. This type of help, could, in some instances, be the difference between an employee beginning to turn things around or resorting to violence.

Disclaimer: This post and all its contents are for educational/informational purposes only, are not intended as legal advice, do not create an attorney-client relationship, and are not intended to replace consultation with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people

Janette Levey
Janette Levey

Employment/HR Attorney

Employment and HR attorney Janette Levey has more than 20 years of legal experience, more than 10 of which she has spent in employment law. It was during her tenure as sole in-house counsel for a mid-size staffing company headquartered in Central New Jersey, with operations all over the continental US, that she truly developed her passion for Employment Law.

Janette works with employers on most employment law issues, acting as the Employer’s Legal Wellness Professional — to ensure that employers are in the best position possible to avoid litigation, audits, employee relations problems, and the attendant, often exorbitant costs.

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