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Workplace violence does more to damage employee health than the physical injuries that result — as if those effects weren’t enough. Morale is severely damaged; employees in workplaces where violence has occurred can be permanently affected. With violence in the workplace on the rise, it is important to establish, communicate, and carry out clear workplace violence-prevention policies.
"The psychological impact violence can have on everyone in and around the workplace and the negative publicity a violent act generates can be hard to recover from," says Lori Rosen, a workplace law analyst with CCH Inc., a Riverwood, IL-based provider of human resources and employment law information, software, and relearning programs. "Compounding this is the potential liability that an organization and its managers may face if it can be shown that they didn’t take appropriate precautions. It all adds up to a significant financial cost and a bad position for any organization to find itself in."
To help protect employees, companies need to establish effective workplace violence-prevention programs. While these programs need to be tailored for each specific organization and work environment — according to CCH — there are some common essential points that should be part of most workplace violence-prevention programs.
Your violence prevention program should clearly state that no talk, jokes, or acts of violence will be tolerated, and should outline ramifications for violating this policy. While "no acts of violence" obviously would include shooting, bombing, sabotage, and destruction of property, these acts only account for a small percentage of workplace violence. Behaviors that occur much more frequently, like pushing and shoving, are also considered workplace violence. Even horseplay that starts out as playful touching, punching, or slapping may become more aggressive, so it too may be considered violent behavior to be discouraged.
Threats of violence, including intimidation, harassment or coercion, that involve or effect employees, their families, friends, or property as well as customers of the organization, are also considered violent and should be taken seriously.
Employers need to make it clear that no weapons are allowed in the workplace. This includes banning weapons not only in the actual work area, but also in the company parking lot or on any other business property. The ban should apply to everyone — both employees and nonemployees — unless specifically exempted by the company (for example, a security guard).
As part of the violence-prevention program, it also needs to be made clear that weapons include not just guns and knives, but other devices that could be used to threaten or harm someone. For example, a baseball bat can be considered a weapon if wielded by someone in a threatening manner.
Because it’s impossible for managers to continuously monitor potential violent behavior, employees have to be the first line of defense when it comes to preventing workplace violence. As a result, the violence prevention program should emphasize that any violent behavior must be reported immediately and the program should include educating employees on signs of personal behavior that may signal that a co-worker is near the breaking point.
"Often, the immediate reaction to violence at a company is surprise; they hadn’t expected the individual to act violently," says Rosen. "But after further investigation, it’s not uncommon to find that there were signs. For example, others had seen the individual displaying resentment or anger, or the person had made previous threats that had gone unreported."
Because violence can quickly escalate, employees must be made to understand and take seriously their responsibility to report any threat of violence or behavior they question as violent. The company also should assure employees that all reports of violent threats, abuse, or violent behavior will be investigated promptly and thoroughly, and that reports will be kept confidential. It’s also essential that employers follow through once a report is made, taking appropriate disciplinary action against any employee who violates the organization’s violence prevention policy, up to and including termination.
Not only should the policy include measures to teach employees how to identify and report violent behavior, but also how to work safely. This includes basic techniques, such as being alert to your surroundings, as well as knowing where the nearest and safest evacuation routes are, and where the nearest phone is to call for assistance.
Working safely also includes providing employees with guidelines for diffusing hostile situations. Such techniques include trying to keep a safe distance from an aggressor, speaking calmly, not being confrontational, and taking a nonthreatening stance.
Many organizations have put in place specific measures that can support a workplace violence prevention program. These may include photo ID badges required to enter the building, security cameras, and metal detectors at entrances or bulletproof glass in retail situations.
Employers need to emphasize that those measures are in place for the employees’ protection and that employees should not try to "get around" them. For example, holding secured doors open for others, carrying things in for people they don’t know, or not taking time to relock secured areas.
"Creating a workplace violence prevention policy is really only one step in the process," says Rosen. "To be fully effective, the program has to be communicated to employees, and employees have to be given the training and the tools needed to help carry out the program."
[Editor’s note: To help employers create and maintain a safe workplace, CCH is launching "Shared Learning: Workplace Violence Prevention," an Internet and CD-ROM training tool. For more information, visit www.cch.com, or call (888) 224-7377.]