Assessing and Preventing Workplace Violence 15 Jul 2017


Stories of campus and workplace violence, including homicides, have become all too commonplace here in the United States.

Workplace violence: an urgent and rapidly escalating problem

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that workplace violence victims number some two million people a year, and homicide remains one of the leading causes of death on the job. (Remember that schools are also workplaces, and often staff – such as the six teachers at Newtown Elementary – become the victims.)

With threats of workplace violence on the increase, prudent employers have begun to examine and adopt formal strategies for assessing the possibility that an employee might suddenly show up with a loaded gun after a triggering circumstance that may be known only to the shooter himself.

How to assess and manage the risk of workplace violence

While you can’t prevent or predict what might trigger someone to assault co-workers with a deadly weapon, there are steps you can take to assess and manage the potential signs of trouble.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued guidelines for on-site managers on the Pathway to Violence, how to recognize its warning signs, and what to do if you spot them.

Potential warning signs of violent aggression include:

  • A pattern of Increasingly erratic, unsafe, or aggressive behaviors
  • Hostile feelings of injustice or perceived wrongdoing
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Marginalization or distancing from friends and colleagues
  • Changes in performance at work
  • Sudden and dramatic changes in home life or in personality
  • Financial difficulties
  • Pending civil or criminal litigation
  • Observable grievances with threats and plans of retribution

One essential tool to start with is the professional employee background check that includes credit and debt obligations, criminal records history, and any pending civil litigation. (Some civil grievance lawsuits are aggravating enough that they really can cause temporary insanity.)

The rest of the assessment is a matter of understanding what’s “normal” and what seems out of the ordinary when an employee’s behaviors begin to noticeably change and recruiting all employees to look out for each other when a member of the team shows signs of trouble.

Steps to prevent or manage workplace violence incidents

1. Review your employee handbook to make sure it defines standards of employee conduct and includes prohibitions on harassment, bullying, discrimination as well as zero tolerance of violent assaults. Are there prohibitions on bringing non-service weapons to work, or onto your campus?

2. Train managers on how to recognize the signs of potential violence, and on how they can de-escalate a situation that threatens to turn violent.

3. Encourage employees to report erratic or aggressive behavior through a confidential communication.

4. Investigate complaints and reports. Include professionals such as risk assessment specialists, law enforcement and legal counsel when appropriate.

5. Enforce Protective orders: Encourage workers to report if they have a restraining order or a protective order against someone (such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner). Assist in their enforcement with steps such as alerting building security about and restraining or protective order, and sharing a photo of the person subject to it.

6. Have a written emergency response plan, contained in a printed manual close at hand.Besides directing staff to immediately call 911, you’ll also want to make sure it covers how to evacuate or secure trapped personnel, instructions on administering CPR and first aid, and procedures for sheltering-in-place until help can arrive.

7. Educate employees on the common warning signs of workplace violence. DHS has a printable poster listing the potential signs of trouble, which you could post on an employee bulletin board and/or circulate in a company-wide email.

8. Take secure precautions when terminating employees. Before taking the action, assess whether there is any threat risk from a planned layoff, termination or disciplinary action. Have a witness present when you inform the employee. If you’ve perceived a potential threat, have Security present or close by. Workers should be escorted from the premises, with all keys and security passes turned over before they go.

If your need is large, there’s professional help. And soon, some helpful software.

For larger institutions such as colleges or universities, government installations, or any place with a lot of employees working in close proximity, it may be worth it to ratchet up your threat assessment efforts to the next level. The WAVR-21 – Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk – is a 21-item coded instrument for the structured assessment of workplace and campus targeted violence risk. It’s designed for use by mental health or emergency preparedness professionals (not usually the HR generalist) to turn on the microscope on the profiles of employees considered to be in high-risk or sensitive areas.

A private software developer has licensed the WAVR-21 system to develop an application that’s designed to be more user-friendly for managers in general. It is due to be released soon, and you can read about it, or sign up to get a notice when it’s released, by clicking here.

Continuous employee screening remains one of your best allies

Your first line of defense is still the professional employee background check, which can flag potential warning signs about financial problems, litigation trouble, or past brushes with the law. Remember too, that employee background screening isn’t only done at the hiring stage. Continuous or regular reviews can turn up new or ongoing problems that arose since they’ve been on the job.

Beyond that, prudence and heightened awareness are the order of the day when it comes to preventing workplace violence.