Steps to help HR avoid workplace violence

Workplace violence is an issue that few want to address, but leaving the topic unacknowledged can be a contributing cause to these incidents. Experts agree that if HR did more to provide training, counseling, financial advice and other benefits to employees, it could save lives.

Incidents of workplace violence can range from arguments to homicide, which is now the fourth leading cause of workplace deaths, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Falls, being struck by an object and electrocutions take the top three spots, though they are commonly contained to construction sites.

Various workplace experts called for HR professionals to take a wider approach in devising guidelines to keep employees safer. Rather than limiting programs to the traditional biometrics and fitness initiatives, employers should consider a more holistic approach, says Lacey Robinson, senior vice president of employee benefits at Gregory & Appel Insurance.

Steps can include taking greater interest in programs that promote overall well-being — mental as well as physical — and emphasising stress management and financial wellness.

“The bottom line is, employers are responsible for keeping workers safe,” Robinson says. “A multi-faceted and coordinated approach between risk management, operations and HR is something employers should consider, and an employer’s well-being strategy could be a place to start,” says Robinson, who adds that creating mentoring programs with different workers from different departments is a good idea.

“Stress management techniques are another way to promote well-being and could help an employee who may be suffering in silence,” Robinson says.

Workplace.fatalities.4.17.19.png

There have been a number of recent examples of extreme violence. In February, an angry former employee of Henry Pratt, an Illinois warehouse company, fatally shot five former co-workers and injured five police officers. In July of 2018, a disgruntled former employee of Warren Paving in Mississippi walked into the property firing shots. Luckily no one was hurt in that case. In June of 2017, a gunman shot five of his co-workers — killing three — at a UPS facility in San Francisco before turning the gun on himself.

In any organization you will find that people disagree about things and sometimes those disagreements can lead to confrontations.

“Employee assistance programs are an absolute must,” for current workers, says attorney Kathleen Bonczyk, founder and executive director of the non-profit Workplace Violence Prevention Institute. “Because a lot of the violence doesn’t even have anything to do with the workplace. It may be because someone is going through a domestic situation or a bankruptcy and a lot of times they may just blow at work.”

Factors that can contribute to violent situations include disputes, mental illness, and even domestic violence, according to the National Safety Council. There also can be warning signs such as unexplained absenteeism, change in behavior or decline in job performance, making threatening comments or emotional volatility.

About a quarter of U.S. workers say there has been at least one incident of workplace violence within their organization, according to data from the Society for Human Resource Management. Moreover, nearly one out of five HR professionals are unsure of what to do if they witness or are involved in a violent situation — something which needs to change, say HR and benefits experts.

Employees that have committed violent acts at work often will justify their actions by saying another person drove them to the extreme, Dr. Robert Tanenbaum, regional director of the Institute Forensic for Psychology Southeastern New Jersey and Pennsylvania regional office, says. Therefore, the employee may believe they are not personally responsible for the incident.

While 90% of HR professionals say their organization has a process for identifying potential or current employees with a history of violence — mainly through background checks and personal references — organizations are less likely to have programs in place to prevent incidences or train employees on how to respond, according to SHRM data.

Active incident training can be an efficient way to prepare employees, says Trisha Zulic, senior director of business operations and strategy for WSA Distributing. However, as the recent examples show, often times it is a disgruntled employee causing the problem, and they may have knowledge of the company’s reaction plan. Therefore, Zulic says, it’s imperative for HR and upper management to have a second plan in place.

“This is difficult because, of course, your employees are thinking this will never happen to them and management thinks it’s never going to happen to us,” Zulic says. “So even learning the first part and then retaining it is difficult.”

Zulic has plans in place at her own employer and also works as a consultant to other organizations in an effort to create safe work environments. One such tactic is performing penetration tests in order to make sure the office is aware when someone that does not belong there has gotten in.

“Unfortunately, HR is looked at as hire, fire, benefits. But that’s not what we do.” - Trisha Zulic, senior director of business operations and strategy for WSA Distributing.

With workplace violence being a taboo topic, it is important to make sure the education doesn’t cause panic, Zulic says.

In one instance Zulic was concerned that a termination she had to conduct would turn volatile because the person was a longtime employee who often talked about his extensive gun collection and his love of hunting. The employee was reprimanded for an inappropriate joke he made mimicking a comedian that uses “I’ll kill you,” as a punchline. Prior to his termination this employee was suspended for a few days.

When it came time for him to come in for the severance discussion, the stage was already set. The police were brought in on a “preserve the peace” call and the people conducting the termination made sure they had three ways to get out of the room. The situation ended up resolving peacefully, which Zulic credits to those few days suspension. It gave the employee space to reflect, as well as allowed the company time to determine if they were making the right decision. In the end, they decided a joke of that nature could not be tolerated and the employee was let go.

Indeed, organizations that offer a fair working environment but have a zero-tolerance stance on workplace aggression have been shown to help mitigate workplace violence, according to a National Center for Biotechnology Information study on the issue.

There are all kinds of boilerplate lists detailing the warning signs of workplace violence, which can escalate before an incident. Still, no situation is one size fits all. It can come down to HR’s ability to effectively communicate and bridge the gap between employer and employee.

“Unfortunately, HR is looked at as hire, fire, benefits,” Zulic says. “But that’s not what we do.”

There is often a disconnect between HR and the employee. Workers don’t realize “we’re actually the advocates,” Zulic says, “trying to find middle ground to ensure harmony in the workplace.” Employees can view HR as there only to support the organization and don’t understand that HR is approachable and that they can come to the department with their issues.

“That’s how we end up in this silo,” she notes. “It’s breaking down those walls by talking to people … so people know you’re human as well.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.