Employers need role in preventing workplace violence

Once again the news is filled with another workplace shooting.

In a Minneapolis sign shop, a former employee fired hours earlier came back with a gun and took the lives of five people, which included the shop owner and a visiting UPS driver, before taking his own life. Could anything have been done by the business owner or staff? In this case we may never know, but workplace violence (WPV) is an issue that we as business owners and managers cannot ignore.

The purpose of this article is not to prescribe recommendations, since every business is different, but to encourage the start of an intentional process of education, training and prevention.

According to federal statistics, out of more than 1.5 million workplace assaults last year, WPV took the lives of about 450 people, and its lingering effects have destroyed successful businesses, well-intentioned leaders and entire families.

WPV specifically by coworkers or former coworkers accounts for only 15 percent of all deaths. The majority of workplace homicides occur in the course of robbery (67 percent). In contrast to the popular notion that “going postal” is a common problem among government workers, in actuality 86 percent of workplace shootings occur in the private sector. Workplace violence can happen here, and it can happen to you.

Though there are many types of WPV, many cases share behavioral patterns. In her book Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace, Dr. Lynne McClure defines eight categories of behaviors that indicate the need for management intervention. They include: first behaviors (the employee does what he wants, regardless of the negative effects on others), shocker behaviors (acting in ways out of character and/or inherently extreme), and fragmentor behaviors (the employee takes no responsibility for his actions), to name a few.

“When the manager, supervisor or HR person sees these behavior patterns, she must document, talk to the employee, discuss the behaviors in terms of their negative effect on work, and require training, counseling, or both,” McClure writes.

There are many different types of WPV, and thus the preventative strategies may differ depending on the type of threat. At a 2004 national conference sponsored by the DHHS documented in the report “Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research Needs,” there are four major types of WPV, each with its own prevention strategy (you can locate the report by Googling the title).

Type 1 WPV through criminal intent is most prevalent in industries that interact with the public and handle cash (such as retail). The most appropriate preventive measures involve environmental changes (cash control, entry and exit control, surveillance) and employee training. Type 2 WPV involves customer or client violence and is common in retail, health care, and social services. Type 2 prevention often involves recognizing behavioral cues, employee training in customer service, and violence de-escalation techniques. Worker-on-worker violence is classified as type 3 WPV and is illustrated by the Minneapolis sign shop shooting. Type 3 preventive measures include better background screening during the hiring process, policies that define prohibited behaviors, and managerial and employee training to encourage reporting violations. Finally, type 4 WPV is personal relationship violence and is one of the hardest to address or prevent because its roots often go undetected or unreported. Companies attempt to prevent type 4 WPV by creating a culture of information about the nature of intimate partner violence as well as a culture of victim support and professional help for perpetrators.

Regardless of the type of WPV, there are common strategies that any company can implement to help safeguard employees and management. It all begins with a commitment on the part of management to take the threat seriously and do something. If you ignore the threat, your employees will have little recourse. In addition, business owners who do nothing are increasingly being held liable for not making their premises safe for employees and customers. Implement preventive security measures appropriate for your business: limited card-key access to the building, surveillance, cash control, hours of operation, etc.

Kent Wilson (PhD) is a business practitioner and nonprofit leadership specialist and coaches each member with Vistage International in Colorado Springs. Reach him at kent.wilson@vistage.com.