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An employer in Hawaii was cleared of a charge that it failed to prevent the worst mass shooting in Hawaii history, but not before the complaint and a more recent shooting in Wakefield, MA, ignited a debate over employers’ responsibility for such incidents.
The state labor department filed a complaint in November against Xerox, saying it failed to enforce workplace-violence policies that might have prevented the deadly shooting. The labor department’s occupational safety and health division soon withdrew the complaint, saying it was satisfied with additional information that showed Xerox developed and implemented a safety and health program.
Xerox, based in Stamford, CT, contested the findings. A jury already had convicted the shooter. Byran Uyesugi, a Xerox copier repairman, was convicted last June of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for gunning down seven co-workers at a Xerox warehouse on Nov. 2, 1999.
Homicide is the second-leading cause of workplace death in the United States, so many experts say employers should take precautionary measures to limit the potential for violence on the job. Indeed, the recent history of work-related homicides represents only part of the violence-related challenges facing American companies. In 1998, for example, there were more than 8,000 serious on-the-job assaults, says Kathryn Hartrick, a partner in the Chicago law firm of Stickler & Nelson, who advises employers on violence-related issues.
"The bad news is that workplace violence is becoming more widespread across a broader range of companies and not-for-profit organizations," she says. "However, there is some good news for employers. There are usually warning signs that precede an outbreak of violence in the workplace. As a result, employers can take preventive steps to minimize the chances of assaults and deadly attacks."
Hartrick says there are three key ingredients that most often contribute to lethal work-related violence:
1. An employee with a heightened potential for violence. Potentially violent employees may have a substance abuse problem, experience mental illness, or harbor a longstanding perception of being treated unfairly by an employer.
2. A workplace environment that can be a catalyst for an unstable or angry employee. High-pressure, fast-pace, low-paying workplaces can be high-risk environments for employees predisposed to violence.
3. A triggering event experienced by a company employee, either on the job or at home. This could include the termination or layoff of an employee, or a personal setback, such as a divorce or the breakup of a relationship.
Other factors, including personal financial pressures and the accessibility of guns, can also play a role in workplace violence. Although there are no foolproof steps to prevent workplace violence, companies can establish and implement comprehensive workplace violence policies, Hartrick says. She lists these key elements in a strong prevention program:
Hartrick says it is important that companies set up clear lines of communication, all along the reporting chain, regarding the monitoring of aberrant employee behavior, including verbal or physical threats. Employers should implement a zero-tolerance policy toward any kind of violence, with clearly communicated disciplinary measures commensurate to the threats. "Companies should use every tool possible to create a safe working environment," she says. "Many employers are uncomfortable confronting mental health and personality issues, which are frequently the basis for aberrant behavior. But in order to maximize on-the-job safety, management needs to be tuned into the behaviors that are high-risk."
In addition, companies need to create proactive policies that also address disgruntled customers who pose security risks. "A while back, we saw a day trader murder several people in Atlanta, allegedly because of his anger at losing thousands of dollars in the stock market. Creating a system in which management can be promptly alerted when an employee becomes abusive or threatening is essential. Having a clear policy of how to handle such an individual is equally important," explains Hartrick.
ComPsych Corp., a business consulting company in Chicago, often addresses employers’ concerns about addressing workplace violence. Anita Madison, a vice president with ComPsych, says employers are increasingly concerned. "We receive a significant amount of calls from our clients regarding violence in the workplace, especially when the topic hits the headlines like the recent fatal shooting in Wakefield, MA," she says. "Employers today realize that workplace violence is cause for major concern." Madison offers a summary of the advice her company gives employers:
• Pay close attention to unusual behavior and address it from the onset. You as an organization have set behavior and performance standards for your employees. If an employee is not meeting these expectations, address it with him or her immediately and discuss the consequences involved in a future violation. Dealing with irrational behavior early on can prevent it from spiraling into something more serious.
• Take a look at your security. Adopt physical security measures as part of your approach to combating violence against your employees.
• Does your company perform pre-employment screening? Do you perform background checks? They may be expensive, but they are well worth the money when it comes to your employees’ safety.
• Also, during the interview process, pose questions to your candidates that gauge their ability to deal with high-pressure situations. Ask them how they deal with tense situations they encountered at work. Oftentimes, their responses may be good indicators of whether the candidates can deal with high-pressure predicaments.
Occupational health professionals also can look to the findings from a national "Workplace Violence Survey and White Paper" and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) for help. The ASSE urges employers to review their workplace violence prevention policies and conduct a risk assessment and vulnerability audit now in an effort to save lives and prevent additional acts of workplace violence.
A recent analysis of a national survey of safety professionals and risk managers conducted by the 89-year-old Illinois-based ASSE and the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS) assessing the awareness and prevention techniques used to avoid workplace violence found that although the number of incidents in the respondents’ workplaces have stayed the same, employees remain concerned. In response to those concerns, the ASSE/RIMS white paper outlines several steps employers should take to prevent a violent incident and what can be done following one to assist employees to cope with the tragedy.
In the "Workplace Violence Survey and White Paper" the ASSE Risk Management/Insurance Practice Specialty members suggest that officers and directors establish a workplace violence prevention and security policy. Upper management of any organization needs to promote a clear anti-violence corporate policy by addressing the issue in a formal written policy that must be distributed and discussed with all employees.
Human resource managers are advised to examine and improve hiring practices, implement pre-screening techniques, use background checks, encourage employees to report threats or violent behavior, establish termination policies, and provide post-termination counseling. Risk management and safety departments are advised to train all employees in the warning signs of aggressive or violent behavior, train management in threat assessment and de-escalation techniques, and review and verify insurance coverage, exclusions, and so on.
Also recommended is that a supportive, harmonious work environment should be fostered that allows employees to be empowered and, at the same time, empathetic management skills should be encouraged, as authoritarian leadership styles tend to promote higher rates of on-the-job violence, according to the study.
In an important section, the white paper states that employers may be legally liable for failing to provide adequate on-site safety and security measures after they have been notified of a potential danger. According to the white paper, the U.S. Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion that stated that an employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate (or successfully higher) authority over the employee.
ASSE and RIMS members noted the urgency of equipping employers with the knowledge and resources needed to prevent violent workplace occurrences following a major increase in the number of deadly incidents in the workplace over the past few years. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice found that 21,300 recent assaults and violent acts in the workplace resulted in fatalities, injuries, grief-stricken family and friends, and missed days off from work due to the emotional impact. The department estimates that the cost to employers in days missed and legal fees annually was $4.2 billion in 1992.
The report emphasizes that workplace violence causes far more than a financial toll. Employees witnessing violent acts in the workplace report increased levels of stress and lower morale, which not only can affect them negatively in their daily lives, but can lead to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover.
Workplace violence is more than homicide, the white paper states, and harassment is the leading form of on-the-job workplace violence with 16 million workers being harassed each year. Other violent acts can include stalking, threats, inappropriate communication, trespassing, telephone and e-mail harassment, property defacing, and invasion of privacy and confining or restraining victims.
[For a copy of the "Workplace Violence Survey and White Paper," contact ASSE. Telephone: (847) 699-2929. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.]