By now, less than a week later at the time of this writing, the deaths of 12 people from workplace violence in Virginia Beach, VA is no longer in the news. Our society has become so inured from school shootings, workplace violence and other senseless acts of violence that we’re no longer shocked when they occur. We weary at the thought that it’s happened again and then we quickly move on.
In the Virginia Beach case, there was no indication that the shooter, a municipal employee who had resigned that day, was about to go on a killing rampage. His work record was satisfactory and he was “in good standing within his department” according to the City Manager. A co-worker indicated, “There was no warning whatsoever.”
The absence of warning signs is not typical. Half of mass workplace shooters had exhibited prior warning signs according to one recent study funded by the Justice Department.
Workplace violence is not uncommon
Workplace homicides are actually relatively rare. There were 458 workplace homicides in 2017 and 500 in 2016. The number has been mostly unchanged over the past decade. While workplace homicides are rare, workplace violence of any kind shows that occurrences are much more common. Each year, an average of nearly 2 million U.S. workers report having been a victim of violence at work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Several states require employers to implement workplace violence prevention programs. For example, in 2017, California health care employers became regulated by the Workplace Violence Prevention in Health Care rule. This rule requires a written workplace violence prevention plan, employee training, and state reporting among other things.
Steps to Prevent Workplace Violence
Whether required by law or not, preparing for any type of workplace violence is key to prevention. There is no one-size-fits-all-plan, but a recent article in MarketWatch by Meera Jagannathan outlines steps that experts recommend:
- Have more than a zero-tolerance policy. Workplace violence prevention shouldn’t be limited to traditional zero-tolerance policies for threats, fights and sexual harassment, said Matthew Doherty, a senior vice president for threat and violence risk management at the security consulting firm Hillard Heintze. “This goes way beyond zero-tolerance policies,” said Doherty.
- Know the warning signs. Educate employees on warning signs that could potentially lead to a workplace violence incident if left unchecked. Signs might include a marked change in behavior, sudden withdrawal, disgruntlement, being disruptive, aggressive and hostile behavior as well as exhibiting prolonged anger and being sad for a long period of time. What begins as sadness can lead to depression and suicide. Individuals who are contemplating suicide might think about taking their lives and the lives of others as well.
- Create a relaxed, open and transparent work culture. Fostering a hostile, fearful environment to keep an eye out for potential perpetrators doesn’t help. Having employees memorizing a list of warning signs can create an atmosphere that erodes trust among coworkers. Simply encourage employees to speak up if they see any behavior that makes them worry about their own or someone else’s safety.
- Don’t respond to reports in a punitive nature. While there may indeed be times you react with termination, suspension or involvement of law enforcement after learning about an incident, “that shouldn’t be your default reaction,” said Joel Dvoskin, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the University of Arizona who consults on workplace violence prevention. Employees will be less likely to speak up if they fear the company will overreact or punish the person they’re reporting, he added.
- Establish mental-health support and policies, and be open about them. This might involve referring an employee to your company’s EAP or arranging for them to receive mental healthcare. Alternatively, it could involve transitioning them to a role that better suits them, facilitating additional training or mediating a dispute. Consider severance or outplacement assistance if the employee needs to be terminated.
- Show compassion rather than fear or recrimination. Don’t ever disrespect the person or try to humiliate them, Dvoskin added. “You don’t help troubled people mainly to prevent gun violence — you help troubled people because they need help,” Dvoskin said. “That helps your organization in a lot of ways,” including productivity and morale.
- Make people comfortable with reporting concerns. “If the organization’s response is reflexively punitive, then the stakes are high if I really need to be sure that I’m right,” Dvoskin said. “If the response is not punitive — if it’s thoughtful and measured and helpful — then so what if I’m wrong?” Let workers know they won’t be thrown under the bus for reporting misbehavior, ensure confidentiality and encourage them to be as accurate and detailed as possible in their report, Dvoskin said. “This is not a whistleblowing exercise. This is not to get your coworker or an outsider in trouble,” Doherty said. “It’s to ensure the safety of all involved.”
- Don’t be afraid to speak even if you’re low on the totem pole. You may be the first or only one to know about troubling behavior. If you don’t feel like you can tell your boss — or if it’s your boss’s behavior in question — try approaching corporate security, HR, an employee-relations representative or even local law enforcement. Many companies’ whistleblower tiplines for fraud and mismanagement can also be used to report safety concerns.
- Assemble a threat-management team. This multidisciplinary, collaborative effort among a company’s security team, human resources and legal departments can also include senior leaders, local law enforcement, labor unions and experts from your EAP or other behavioral health partners. Espyr frequently serves on threat assessment teams and workplace safety teams for its clients. Threat assessment can help in figuring out whether someone is on the path to violence, as well as in uncovering whatever problems or desperation they might be facing.
- Be aware of domestic violence issues. One in three workplace homicides among U.S. women between 2003 and 2008 was perpetrated by someone with a personal relationship to the employee, according to one 2012 study. A majority of those were intimate partners. Encourage employees to bring their protective orders to the attention of the company and refer them to domestic-violence advocacy resources. If they’re reluctant to disclose to their boss a restraining order against a former partner, provide alternatives such as corporate security, HR or someone in their EAP.
- Take a climate survey to gauge how employees feel about issues like workplace safety and fairness. Be transparent about the results even if they’re unflattering.
Know What Workplace Mental Health Services Are Available
Employers should inquire with their EAP or other behavioral health partners to find out what type of workplace violence services they provide. At Espyr, in addition to participating on threat assessment teams, we provide Workplace Violence Prevention training for employees and managers. We provide consultation with managers when there is concern with a specific employee or about policy development. For occupations such as law enforcement or security, we provide Fitness for Duty evaluations to determine if psychological issues are or would impair function or create a risk of violence. Finally, we conduct threat assessment and consultation services aimed at helping employers discharge a potentially volatile or at-risk employee and mitigate the possibility of workplace violence upon termination of employment.
If a workplace issue occurs, Espyr provides Critical Incident Response services including a 24/7 consultation with affected managers and employees; in-person debriefings with affected employees; 24/7 access for affected employees to behavioral health professionals for immediate support, triage and referral for in-person counseling if needed; and access to educational materials.
Espyr is a leading behavioral health company with a mission to help employees and organizations achieve their full potential. To learn more about our workplace mental health programs, including workplace violence services, call us at 888-570-3479.