There is calm before the storm, as the old saying goes. It's always best to plan while it's calm instead of reacting after the storm. Too often, due to a lack of preparation, cities end up in a reactive mode when responding to workplace violence situations. "Who's going to talk to the media? Where should employees assemble if there is an active shooter incident?" are question that should be answered prior to an incident.
Workplace violence has emerged as an important safety and health issue and has become a growing concern for municipalities. Workplace violence is rarely the mass shootings with homicides, but "more often, it's a threat uttered under an employee's breath, an intimidating stare or a domestic violence victim who is being harassed by her spouse at work," according to a description in Security magazine, cited by Diane Ritchey, editor in chief.
Homicide, the most extreme form of workplace violence, is a leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to OSHA, two million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year. In 2015, more than 400 employees died in work-related homicides while another 229 employees committed suicide. Workers who exchange money with the public and those who work alone or in small groups are at increased risk. Social service workers, such as water utility employees and law enforcement officers, face higher risks. Cities must anticipate threats, plan and prepare to protect employees.
What should cities do?
Employees are more likely to be involved in a workplace violence incident than in a fire. Cities should plan step by step what would happen should the workplace go awry, so that everyone knows their roles and how to respond. From the hiring and onboarding process to the exit interview, management must examine the entire employment process to identify gaps to prevent an incident from occurring.
Develop a zero tolerance policy for workplace violence and address so-called teasing and horseplay so employees understand "off script" behavior is unacceptable.
Train employees to recognize threatening conditions and how to verbally de-escalate them. Management should investigate all complaints of bullying and intimidation, and there must be immediate follow-up. Perpetrators often send signals of their violent tendencies through comments, social media posts and notes, so every threat must be taken seriously. Often, people come forward after the event has occurred because they saw warning signs and did not respond.
Avoid hiring a "time bomb" by properly vetting and screening applicants.
Though viewed as time consuming, proper background checks are a necessity and can prevent bad hires. Since some employers limit the information they provide to future employers to the basics: hire date, position, and termination date, managers must spend ample time reviewing applications and developing tough questions to get to the bottom of employment gaps and questionable applications. Troubled applicants can be identified by thorough vetting, and managers should be trained to spot unusual behavior patterns during the interview process.
Treat employees with dignity and respect during disciplinary and termination meetings.
It's unnecessary to embarrass employees. Both parties are uncomfortable, and the meetings are tense. Performance conversations should be kept confidential and only managers who "need to know" should be included in the discussion. Plan ahead by determining the meeting location and who will attend a termination meeting ahead of time.
Always consult with the city's labor attorney before terminating an employee who displays erratic behavior.
In some instances, employees may be suffering from a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even if the employee suffers from the condition, the Act does not protect individuals who violate policy by inciting violence.
Identify an employee-assistance program that can provide counseling resources for employees in stressful situations to prevent employees from becoming violent.
Some employers offer these services to employees for free and extend benefits to the employees' immediate family members. What happens at home comes to work, and emotional triggers often cause outbursts in the workplace.
Training employees on what to expect during a critical incident reduces workplace anxiety and communicates to them the city is aware of potential threats and is working to reduce them. Organizations also deal with the aftermath of workplace violence incidents. Review OSHA's factsheet on workplace violence for additional tips on preventing workplace violence. Partner with a consultant or local law enforcement to identify hazards, conditions, and operational situations that could lead to an incident.