Preventing Workplace Violence

What can you do to protect your workplace from violent incidents? Get advice from Business Know-How’s Crime & Security columnist Paul Davis.

The Virginia Tech student massacre and the subsequent murder/suicide hostage-taking incident at NASA’s facility in Houston bring home the idea that workplace violence can erupt anywhere and often without apparent motive. 

According to OSHA, more than two million workers are victims of workplace violence each year. Some workers are at increased risk, OSHA notes, such as workers who handle money with the general public and those who work alone or in small groups. 

Workplace violence is defined as any act of physical violence, threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation and any disruptive behavior that occurs in the workplace.

I recall meeting with Marvin E. Wolfgang just prior to his death in 1998. Wolfgang, the author, along with Franco Ferracuti, of The Subculture of Violence, is widely considered to be one of the most influential criminologists in the world.

Professor Wolfgang was the Director of the Center for Studies in Criminology and Criminal Law at the University of Pennsylvania when I interviewed him at great length in his on-campus office in Philadelphia. We touched on a good number of crime issues, including workplace violence.

Wolfgang noted that only in recent times have studies been made in workplace violence. The public, he said, was more concerned than ever about workplace violence and crime in general, which he noted, comes from an increase in random robberies and random murders.

“Workplace violence is a reflection of society in general,” Wolfgang said.

Although it may be an impossible task to predict everyone’s behavior, law enforcement and security professionals say that the perpetrators of workplace violence are generally disgruntled or mental ill employees, spouses, friends and others somehow related to an employee, as well as customers and those who enter the workplace to commit robbery and other crimes.

As an employer, you should institute a Workplace Violence Program. First, you should carefully pre-screen your employees. Extensive background and drug checks are best, but even a few simple telephone calls to former employers can offer you a warning that the potential hire has a history of aggressive behavior towards other workers.

You should take stock of your work environment. If there is evidence of anxiety, frustration and low morale, you should try to alleviate the tense atmosphere. Treat your employees with dignity and respect and insist that employees treat other in the same fashion. Make it known that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. State that goal in writing and post it on the premises.

Providing basic security should be a foundation of your workplace violence plan. Access card reader systems are becoming as common as a locked door. Install panic buttons for employees who meet and deal with the general public. Cameras are also a good crime prevention tool. Limit the amount of cash and other valuables you have on hand. The military “buddy” system is another way to make your employees feel safer.

Romantic relationships and obsessions are often behind workplace violence incidents. Are your employees arguing loudly with each other or with their spouse or friend in the workplace or over the phone? Are they overaggressive or argument with customers or suppliers? Learn to spot and diffuse inapposite behavior in the early stages before it leads to violence. They are a variety of alternative dispute resolution programs available.

Workplace violence, like any crime, can occur anywhere, anytime. But with a good Workplace Violence Plan, you can perhaps avoid a violent confrontation in the workplace that would be bad for your employees, bad for your customers, and bad for business.

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