By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2023
Workplace violence has become so common in 2023 that reports of employees murdered at their place of work no longer shock us. On April 10, 2023, victims were employees at a bank in Louisville, KY. No one knows where the next incident will occur, and the voluminous recommendations for prevention that come from federal entities such as OSHA and HHS do not always persuade us that anyone has a full understanding of what can be done.
OSHA recommends a “zero-tolerance policy” as a way to thwart violence. The policy should apply to everyone—not just employees, but customers, vendors, utility personnel, and so on—who are on the premises.
What does zero-tolerance mean? In an ideal world it means that anyone who acts inappropriately at a site will be prohibited from returning. In the real world it might mean that the owner of a business will become the subject of litigation.
But let’s start with the truly ideal world. That’s the one in which conflict arises so infrequently and is so tempered when it does that it evaporates quickly. It’s the vintage model of behavior: people apologize to each other, shake hands, and move on.
The tradition of making amends in the easiest possible way has been disappearing before our eyes. Many theories from sociologists, psychologists, and other interested parties try to explain why tensions rise to dangerous levels in workplaces. Many of the theories skirt the obvious: individuals have a responsibility to control angry impulses.
Control must be learned, of course. Children learn there are disappointments and expectations, and they come to appreciate that an unruly response to either disrupts but does not change outcomes. In other words, they grow into responsible adults who deal with the mix that life brings them.
Employers can do a great deal to prevent workplace violence by finding employees who have learned to deal with the mix. Careful screening of job applicants is a way to put in place a team of employees who bring respect for others and responsibility for actions to all their job efforts.
With the restrictions on hiring processes in place in many states, it’s often impossible to determine why an applicant left a previous job. The former employer will not be able to provide any information without it being deemed a violation of the former employee’s rights. (The federal government gets involved in restrictions, too.)
The best opportunity that an employer will have to assess overall capability—and that includes temperament of an applicant—is a thorough conversation. Does the individual understand the nature of the work, the hours, the importance of learning on the job, etc.?
It’s not easy. But talking, person-to-person, is the best tool in hiring. The hiring process should be conducted in person, not via video conference. Many people still do not realize how many subtle signals can be conveyed in three dimensions that are lost via a digital interaction.
Hire good employees who are responsible adults (even if they are in their late teens), and go from there.
The investment of time in hiring employees keeps the foundation of a workplace strong. Maintain strength by fostering harmony.
Harmony in a workplace—just like harmony in a musical composition—does not just happen. Fortunately there’s much an employer can do to ensure that accord prevails.
“Be supportive of employees,” says Becky Voth, PHR, SHRM-CP, CIC, the human resources manager at Chappell Supply and Equipment in Oklahoma City, OK. “Listen to their ideas and concerns. Be attentive”
OSHA recommends each workplace have a well-written violence prevention program. The program can then be used for training. It can also be used for administrative purposes—e.g., reminding an employee an action did not conform to expectations.
During intense work periods, it may seem impossible for a manager or employer to pause to listen to the concern of an employee. But a quick dismissal with, “Let’s talk about it later,” may seem abrupt to someone in a state of distress. It is better to say, “Let’s talk at three p.m. in my office.”
Specifics send a signal that the employee has been heard, even though a discussion must wait. It’s the little things that add up to harmony.
After the fact, some incidents of workplace violence are linked to perpetrators who perceived that that they were being harassed, and some incidents are tied to perpetrators who had a record of harassing fellow workers.
“Train managers and employees on the different kinds of harassment, how to recognize them, and what steps to follow next,” says Voth. Written harassment policies are required by some states.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) categorizes harassment as a form of employment discrimination. Unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including orientation), older age, disability, or genetic information may be unlawful if enduring or severe.
We mention the EEOC purview (in abridged form) because it illustrates the complexity of trying to assess
the difference between a flash of anger and a serious indicator of violent behavior to come. The EEOC notes that “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.” (See the full text via https://www.eeoc.gov/harassment).
No employer wants to spend the day weighing remarks of employees and how they are interpreted by coworkers. So, again, if employees understand workplace policies and commit to follow them, misunderstandings are minimized, and efficiency is maximized. At the same time, it becomes easier to recognize a team member who may be moving toward a violent action.
A team—in a plant, on a jobsite, or on a basketball court or concert stage—works in harmony because each person understands and fulfills his or her role. The manager (or coach or conductor) keeps everyone focused on the goal and skilled at knowing how to handle discord.
“Promote team effort and provide respectful feedback,” says Voth. “Introduce new team members to current employees.”
Do everything possible to promote harmony.
According to statistics compiled by OSHA from other federal entities, an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime while at work or on duty in United States between the years 1993 and 1999. Violence in the workplace is not new.
Neither history nor events being more widely disseminated because of social media can somehow make workplace violence any less a concern. Neither can the fact that many incidents happen because of a perpetrator from the outside. For example, according to OSHA, 60 percent of workplace homicides in California occur late at night in retail establishments.
Finding ways to reduce violent episodes in every setting is a societal imperative. For business owners, the legal requirements for prevention measures are a bit murky.
The OSHA.gov website leads its coverage of the workplace violence topic with this statement: “There are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence.”
Yet the enforcement explanation then goes on to note that the part of the general duty clause about an employer’s obligation to provide an environment “free from recognized hazards” could encompass workplace violence. Some courts have interpreted it that way.
If an employer does not report or act to correct transgressions, such as “horseplay,” by workers that involved an injury to another worker, it could be enough to result in liability for the employer if a worse event happens later. Thus, an incident of workplace violence can be costly for an employer.
Tom Svrcek, president of CSC Insurance Options and Joseph D. Walters Insurance in Belle Vernon, PA, says that every employer must be concerned about preventing workplace violence.
“I think every business owner and company is subject to workplace violence,” says Svrcek. That includes power washing contractors. Is there insurance coverage? “Yes, this coverage is available and can be pricey, too.”
Svrcek gave us an example of coverage provided by Philadelphia Insurance Company (PHLY.com). Coverage that is available through the company includes business interruption, public image restoration, and related expenses (e.g., payment to victims, replacement workers).
In the foregoing summary of coverages is the broader story of workplace violence. Injury or worse to employees takes an emotional toll, but a company’s finances can be harmed by a forced shutdown for recovery efforts. Moreover, bad press may repel customers out of latent fear, not disloyalty. Insurance can help with the cost of restoring equilibrium.
The best thing about insurance, however, is having it but never needing it. Prevention or risk reduction is always the best choice.
There is a risk in working with “volatile, unstable people” (from the OSHA.gov page on workplace violence). Ensuring that individuals who are unstable get mental health treatment before they act out is a societal issue.
For employers, the situation is endlessly complex. They must balance prevention with federally mandated protection of employee/prospective employee rights. A worker may be deemed unstable by co-workers, but in rebuttal, the unstable employee may declare he or she is being harassed.
In the realm of workplace violence, employers really are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.