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HR Answers: Workplace Violence

April 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 4
by Edwin G. Foulke Jr.

No office is immune

April 1, 2014

Hands hold up letters spelling “safety”Credit Union Management’s online “HR Answers” column runs the first Tuesday of the month.

One only has to turn on the evening news to see that the number of workplace violence incidents has been increasing over the past number of years.

It is estimated that nearly two million American employees report having been victims of workplace violence each year. But many more cases go unreported.

The truth is workplace violence can strike anywhere, anytime, and no one is immune. Several factors may increase the risk of violence, including exchanging money with the public and working with volatile individuals. Working alone or in isolated areas may also contribute to the potential for violence. Violence committed by criminals not connected to the workplace and who enter solely to commit crimes counts for nearly 80 percent of all workplace homicides. Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace. However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a major concern for employers and employees nationwide.

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening or disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. Such workplace violence includes beatings, stabbings, suicides, shootings, rapes, near suicides, physical trauma, threatening phone calls, intimidation, harassment of any nature and being followed, sworn at or shouted at.

Workplace violence has been estimated to cost U.S. employers in excess of $36 billion per year. This includes costs associated with loss of life, physical injuries to employees, counseling for anxiety/depression, legal actions and fees, court awards, time spent dealing with the crisis, loss of or decrease in productivity, increased absenteeism, resignation and turnover, poor morale and adverse publicity.

Risk Factors

There are a number of internal and external risk factors associated with workplace violence.  Specifically, the internal risk factors include:

  • termination of employment;
  • restructuring of organization and layoffs;
  • chronic verbal abuse by supervisors toward employees;
  • internal workloads;
  • feuds between co-workers being unaddressed by management;
  • employees with constant gripes about management or the company; and
  • favoritism by supervisors.

External factors involving workplace violence include, but are not limited to:

  • contact with the public;
  • exchange of money;
  • delivery of passengers, goods or services;
  • mobile workplace;
  • working alone or in small numbers;
  • working in high crime areas;
  • working late night or early morning hours;
  • poor lighting;
  • guarding valuables; and
  • lack of training in recognizing and managing hostile or aggressive behavior.

Unfortunately, employers, by their actions or sometimes inaction, can actually increase the likelihood of workplace violence. This includes ignoring or neglecting threatening behavior by employees. Also, the risk can be escalated by taking a confidential management approach to discipline. In addition, failure to coordinate information and resources and, in some cases, premature and inappropriate involvement of the police can lead to the potential for workplace violence. Finally, many employers fail to properly document misconduct, and when disciplinary action, especially termination, occurs, the employer is unable to defend against potential employment discrimination actions.

Employers must understand that there is identifying conduct that could indicate the potential for workplace violence. Such conduct includes:

  • excessive absenteeism or tardiness;
  • excessive work breaks or job absences;
  • difficulty with co-workers or withdrawal from contact with others;
  • accidents and injuries;
  • poor work quality;
  • missed deadlines;
  • sudden or significant deterioration in performance; and
  • difficulty accepting instructive criticism or guidance.

In addition, employers should be on the lookout for indicators signaling problems with employees. Such indicators could include irrational, unpredictable or inappropriate behavior, negative or harsh criticism of others, difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions, mood symptoms including depression, despair, anxiety, irritability, anger, and fatigue.

Employers can help prevent or minimize the likelihood of workplace violence by implementing the following 12-point action plan:

  1. Adopt and publicize a zero-tolerance policy regarding threats, harassment and violence in the workplace.
  2. Prepare a comprehensive crisis management plan, including a workplace violence prevention program, for each facility. Such a plan should include encouraging employees to promptly report incidents and suggest ways to eliminate or reduce risks.  In addition, the plan should outline a comprehensive program for maintaining security in the workplace, which would include a liaison with law enforcement representatives and others who can help identify ways to prevent and mitigate workplace violence. The plan should assign responsibility and authority for the program to individuals or teams with appropriate skill and training.
  3. Update/review employment application as well as pre-employment background checks and interviewing procedures to identify signs of potential problem applicants. Conduct appropriate background investigation compliant with current federal and state laws on all job applicants.
  4. Prepare and utilize release forms for personnel records from previous employers, course transcripts from educational institutions, certification records from training and professional organizations, credit reports from consumer credit reporting agencies and criminal conviction records from law enforcement agencies, subject to applicable federal, state and local laws.
  5. Update your personnel policies and employee handbook to include safety policies dealing with violence in the workplace. Include rules to limit access to work areas, especially during evening and weekend shifts. (Note: Insure compliance with state concealed weapons laws.)
  6. Review with your temporary employee provider the procedures it uses to screen temporary employees for potential workplace violence problems.
  7. Conduct periodic security audits and risk assessments of each facility. Provide adequate security, including access control in reception areas, parking areas, common areas, stairwells, cafeterias and lounges.
  8. Select and train management officials in conflict resolution and nonviolent techniques for handling hostages, hijacking, crisis incidents and counseling situations.
  9. As part of the company’s overall management safety and health training, instruct all managers and supervisors in how to identify and deal with early warning signs and potential safety problems associated with workplace violence.
  10. Identify and publicize employee assistance programs, employee support services and health care resources available to employees and their families.
  11. Institute policies to investigate all threats and complaints of harassment and violence immediately. Designate company official(s) and/or an office to handle all threats and complaints in a confidential manner.
  12. Review and publicize the company-wide procedures as well as the company management officials responsible for handling employees’ problems, complaints and concerns involving threats, harassment and violence.

Workplace violence has emerged as a major occupational safety and health issue in many companies, especially credit union operations. By treating workplace violence as a treatable hazard, employers can develop practical, effective strategies to protect their employees from serious risk and provide a safe and healthy working environment.

Edwin G. Foulke, Jr., is a partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP, a national law firm, representing employers in labor, employment, employee benefits, business immigration, workplace safety and civil rights matters. He is co-chair of the firm’s Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group in its Atlanta office, and former U.S.? Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. He can be reached at efoulke@laborlawyers.com or 404.240.4273. He is not a stranger to credit unions; his brother, CUES member Bruce Foulke, is president/CEO of American Heritage Credit Union in Philadelphia.

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