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In Practice

Anatomy of Workplace Violence: Identification, Prevention and Response

Every year, nearly two million American workers are victims of workplace violence. It is a growing and persistent concern for organizations, threatening not only the safety of their employees, customers and others, but also their financial well-being.

Who is at Risk?

Workplace violence can occur nearly anywhere and at any time; however, some occupations face an elevated risk, including:

  • Retail workers
  • Bartenders and restaurant employees
  • Health care professionals
  • Public service employees
  • Educators at all levels
  • Customer service agents

In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has identified several employee or job characteristics that lend themselves to increased risk of falling victim to workplace violence, including working with volatile or unstable individuals, working alone or in small groups, working in isolated or high-crime areas and more.

Who Commits Workplace Violence?

Only a fraction of violent incidents are committed by an individual with whom victims had a work relationship. Most are committed by non-employees and frequently involve robberies, especially for convenience store employees, taxi drivers and fast-food restaurant workers.

While it is not always possible to profile potential perpetrators, certain red flags or behavioral signs have been identified. In some cases, an employee’s past behaviors may presage later violence. An employee may have filed grievances, had multiple arguments with coworkers, or become angry when disciplined. Furthermore, studies suggest that a history of substance abuse may be the strongest indicator of an employee’s potential for violent behavior.

Among the most common triggers of violent actions is personal rejection, such as a relationship breakup or termination of employment. According to experts, some employee-caused workplace violence incidents are committed by psychologically maladjusted workers seeking vengeance for real or perceived workplace injustice. These employees also may have underlying, long-term disorders such as depression, schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.

Only a fraction of violent incidents are committed by an individual with whom victims had a work relationship.

Preventing Workplace Violence

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, workplace violence costs U.S. businesses $121 billion annually. A comprehensive program to address problems before an incident occurs can help safeguard employees and customers, protect the brand and mitigate business interruption.

Zero tolerance: Establishing an organizational culture of zero tolerance toward violence, including bullying or abusive behavior, is a key part of any workplace violence prevention program. Such a policy should cover employees, patrons, contractors and others.

Educating the workforce: An effective prevention and mitigation program includes employee awareness and education. According to the American National Standards Institute, training content will vary depending on the participants. Typically, training should cover such areas as the basic facts about workplace violence, the organization’s prevention program and what to do to in response to an incident.

Assessing threats: OSHA recommends that employers establish a standing threat-assessment team charged with managing workplace conflicts. This team should consist of frontline supervisor(s), employee representatives and/or executives from the human resources, legal, security and risk management departments, as well as outside counsel, a mental health clinician or employee assistance program executives. The team’s key responsibility is to monitor the workplace climate.

Careful Hiring: One critical strategy to lessen the risk is to avoid hiring potentially violent employees in the first place. The hiring system should spell out the precise knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes required for each position. Employers should consult with legal counsel to ensure that their hiring practices are compliant with applicable laws.

On-the-job monitoring: It is important to monitor job performance and provide employees with frequent, honest and constructive feedback. Pinpointing subpar job performance sooner rather than later and removing problem employees before they become deeply invested in the job may prevent future problems. Fairness in employee treatment should also be a significant consideration. Employees who behave violently often identify inequity in the workplace as the trigger.

Anti-bullying policy: In a May 2014 study conducted by VitalSmarts, 96 percent of respondents said they had experienced workplace bullying. Only 51 percent said their company had a policy for handling bullying complaints. An organization’s zero-tolerance policy should explicitly ban bullying and similar behavior, especially as few state or federal laws prohibit bullying. All allegations should be promptly investigated and, if found credible, addressed via discipline, coaching or termination.

More sensitive dismissals: Being fired is psychologically and emotionally jarring. When a person’s livelihood is threatened, it’s natural that some level of fear may creep in. But for a particularly emotionally or mentally compromised employee, this can sometimes escalate into violent thoughts. Many organizations now emphasize humanizing the dismissal process.

Protecting Against Outside Threats

Since most workplace violence incidents emanate from outside the organization, employers should develop strategies to help protect their employees from such threats.

Securing the workplace: A well-written and effectively implemented workplace security strategy combined with engineering controls, administrative controls and training may mitigate outsider violence. Securing the workplace begins with a security assessment. Bringing together a multidisciplinary team—including outside resources—can help to identify and counter possible threats.

High-risk occupation strategies: In industries that are at highest risk for workplace violence, OSHA encourages employers to develop additional strategies. For example, in retail environments where workers handle cash, OSHA recommends installing drop safes and keeping a minimal amount in registers during evenings and late-night hours. In addition, organizations that require employees to work in the field should consider developing policies and procedures that cover site visits.

Some of the most important work for an organization begins after an incident. Research shows that after an incident, people may experience a combination of grief, surprise, anger, shock or a sense of responsibility for being unable to prevent or stop the attack. For up to 25 percent of those impacted, there is the potential for long-term work and psychological problems.

Focus on the Few

It is important to provide support for all employees and to quickly identify and offer assistance to those at most risk for long-term problems. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and others suggest using psychological first aid to assess those in need of assistance. Employees at highest risk for trauma-related and other psychological problems include those who:

  • Were present during the incident and may have feared for their lives or witnessed deaths or injuries.
  • Have suffered a prior trauma in their lives.
  • Are routinely exposed to life-or-death situations.
  • Have a history of anxiety or depression.
  • Lack a support structure outside of the workplace.

An organization’s workplace violence prevention program should include a list of resources and procedures to help employees during the post-incident phase.

Insurance Considerations

Depending on the nature of a workplace violence incident and policy specifics, several forms of insurance coverage may respond, including:

  • Workers’ compensation
  • Commercial general liability
  • Property
  • Crisis response

The above list is not all-encompassing, and any discussions of applicable insurance should be held with your insurance and legal advisors.

Workplace violence affects companies in all industries, across the country. While it cannot be totally prevented, organizations can minimize their risks, strive to better protect their employees and effectively manage the damages, should an incident occur. A strong workplace violence prevention program is an essential part of the effort.

Chandra Seymour

Senior Consultant, Reputational Risk & Crisis Management, Resiliency and Response team for Marsh

Chandra Seymour is a senior consultant on the Reputational Risk & Crisis Management, Resiliency and Response team for Marsh Risk Consulting, based out of Washington, D.C. In this role, she combines her business insight and diverse industry experience to guide clients on the full spectrum of crisis management mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery activities.

Joyce Long

Leader of the Global Workforce Strategies Practice of Marsh Risk Consulting

Joyce Long is the leader of the Global Workforce Strategies Practice of Marsh Risk Consulting. In this role, Joyce oversees new product development, operations and service delivery, product strategy, and development of marketing and communications for a variety of work-related issues including ergonomics, loss control, fleet safety, behavioral safety, and occupational health.

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