Violence in the workplace makes headlines all too often. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Violence in the Workplace" study, each week "an average of 20 workers are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted while at work."
More sobering statistics: According to Northwestern National Life Insurance Co., 2,500 workers per 100,000 have been physically attacked on the job. The company's survey further notes that 44 percent of workplace attacks were committed by customers or clients, 24 percent by strangers, 20 percent by coworkers, 7 percent by bosses and 3 percent by former employees.
According to the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Statistics, homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace and the second leading cause of death for men. And, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2 million people become victims of violent crime at work each year.
Some experts blame lax gun laws for the carnage, while others say the ever-increasing pace of work and the stress it creates are factors as well. Whatever the reason, violence has become a grim reality for HR professionals.
So what, if anything, can HR people do to stop the madness?
Lowering the Numbers
Larry Chavez, principal of Critical Incident Awareness, has seen violence of all kinds in his time. His background includes 29 years in law enforcement, and he is also a hostage negotiator. And when there's a well-publicized incident of workplace violence, his phone rings off the hook.
Chavez hopes that his phone will eventually stop ringing. He believes that many incidents of workplace violence are preventable with minimal intervention by properly trained personnel.
"Training is key," says Chavez. "Companies can't afford not to do training in this area. By the time someone comes into your office with an Uzi, you have no choice but to run."
Although Chavez agrees that not all situations can be prevented, he does believe that management often misses some pretty clear signals that distressed employees send before acts of violence occur.
Chavez has compiled a comprehensive list of warning signs from his days on the front lines:
- Change in a person's behavior.
- Changes in the person's patterns.
- Newly acquired behavior, such as suddenly not showing up on time or at all.
- Newly acquired poor personal hygiene.
- Romantic or sexual obsessions.
- Obsessions with, and possession or access to, weapons and/or paramilitary training.
In addition to proper training, Chavez believes there must be a zero-tolerance policy straight from the CEO. It should clearly state what kind of behavior violates the policy, and it should be distributed to all employees, not just included in the employee handbook.
Patricia Reppucci, HR manager for Cardinal Information Companies, also advocates a zero-tolerance policy. While at another company, Reppucci had to deal with a situation that could easily have become violent. Her former employer had a very loose policy in place and no plan for handling such a situation. As a result, Reppucci was unable to get the support she needed to defuse the incident, and the outcome could have been disastrous.
"If your company isn't prepared to deal with these issues, you need to think about walking," she says.
Reppucci's current employer takes workplace violence very seriously. Her company has a zero-tolerance policy, and management does not hesitate to bring in the corporate office's security team at the first sign of trouble. Reppucci is currently arranging training for her frontline managers so that they are fully prepared for any incident.
Employee Assistance Programs
Chavez and Reppucci both believe companies should have employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place. EAPs can help defuse many situations, which are often triggered by personal stress. Often, they say, senior management is too far removed from employees' lives to gain a clear understanding of their mental health needs. That's where an EAP comes in.
What HR Can Do
Reppucci believes that HR people should take the time to get to know employees, something that's often impossible for time-starved managers. Put names and faces together. That will make employees feel more comfortable about coming to you with problems, creating just the kind of support system that can prevent someone's slide over the edge into violent behavior. Communicate openly with employees, she adds, making sure they know that the company takes incidents of violence seriously. You can then recommend community resources or the EAP.