A few years ago, Kristin Pine recognized a common theme in the emails she was receiving from various distribution lists: Protect your employees against workplace violence.
The director of training and education for a property management company, Pine thought she could take the issue a step further than simple active-shooter training. The workers for Peabody Properties, based in Braintree, Mass., face a specific set of risks in their everyday jobs, Pine said. Property managers must deal with angry renters facing eviction. Leasing agents walk through empty apartments alone with strangers. A maintenance worker answering a call about a broken toilet might find himself walking into a domestic dispute.
Pine worked with a security consulting firm, Safer Places, to develop an employee safety workshop that provides clear guidance about the daily risks employees might encounter, and how to prepare themselves. During the company’s one-day workshops, employees learn about topics such as de-escalating tense conversations and setting up their offices to provide a safe exit if a conflict arises. They also learn how to react in active-shooter situations. About half of Peabody’s 500 employees have undergone the voluntary training in the past 18 months, Pine said. “We’re doing a disservice to our employees if we don’t train them,” she said. “It’s absolutely paramount that our employees feel safe.” Experts say HR professionals should continue expanding their role in preventing workplace violence, from assessing threats to assisting employees in trouble. The FBI and the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals both recommend that human resources join forces with corporate security, general counsel and even mental health specialists to create safe workplaces.
The rising number of shootings has created a need for more mental health services.
In industries such as retail or property management, prevention starts with recognizing potential threats for employees — and training them how to handle those threats. Thorough pre-employment screenings and zero tolerance for workplace bullying help establish an atmosphere where pervasive conflict can’t take root. HR departments can teach employees to spot signs of trouble in their co-workers, create easy avenues for reporting “red flag” behaviors, and provide help for employees who might become violent. (See “Red Flags.”) For worst-case scenarios, it would be prudent to have contingency plans to provide support and communication to employees. “The primary message I have is: ‘Hope is not a plan,’” said Jeff Sarnacki, a retired federal law enforcement official and principal at the security consultant Skylight Global LLC. “The human resources world fears it is going to scare their employees. We have to move past that. This is a human-caused problem, and HR are the human relations people.”
The Numbers on Workplace Violence
OSHA estimates that about 2 million workers are victims of workplace violence every year, with offenses ranging from verbal abuse and threats to assaults and homicides.
Mass shootings dominate today’s headlines but, in reality, homicides accounted for fewer than 10% of the 5,190 workplace deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics were available from the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The number of workplace homicides is lower now than it was in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s.
However, workplace violence has recently seen an uptick.
In 2016, there were 500 workplace homicides, an almost 20% increase over the previous year. Workplace suicides also spiked in 2016, accounting for 291 deaths — the highest number since the census began collecting the data in 1992.
Intentional injuries that result in employee absences also have increased, with about 35,700 cases reported in 2016, up from 28,700 cases five years earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). More than 80% of the cases involved physical altercations, such as hitting, kicking or shoving.
Even active-shooter situations, while rare, have become more frequent in recent years, said Andre Simons, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
The FBI’s study of 160 active-shooter situations between 2000 and 2013 identified an average of 6.4 active shooter incidents a year during the first seven years of the study. The rate more than doubled during the second half of the study period, jumping to an average of 16.4 incidents a year.
While the FBI has not identified a reason for this increasing frequency, Simons said, the phenomenon seems to build on itself.
“For a person who is angry, feeling marginalized and seeking to punish a person or an institution for either a real or a perceived grievance, seeing that other individuals have taken a path toward violence to resolve their grievances provides not only operational cues but also inspiration,” Simons said.
The rising number of shootings has created a need for more mental health services. ComPsych Corp., a leading provider of employee assistance programs, recently reported that it had experienced a significant increase in requests for shooting-related counseling sessions. The Crisis Incident Stress Management sessions (CISM) provide on-site counseling for individuals and small groups after traumatic events.
The number of shooting-related CISMs jumped from fewer than 70 sessions in 2015 to about 275 last year.
“We are seeing a preponderance of workplace violence and related incidents, which is reflected in our increased number of interventions,” said Richard Chaifetz, a neuropsychiatrist and the CEO of ComPsych, which serves more than 100 million people nationwide. “While the raw numbers for crisis counseling sessions are up by triple digits, the increase does not directly correlate with an increase in violent events. Rather, we are seeing more counseling interventions as the need and appreciation for our services, from a psychological perspective, have increased.”
A formerly outgoing employee has become quiet and withdrawn. A colleague has sought a protective order against her spouse during a contentious divorce. A specific department experiences a high turnover rate.
Do you recognize the red flags for potentially volatile workplace situations? And does your company have policies in place to discreetly identify and help employees in crisis?
An HR director can’t know the trials and tribulations of hundreds of employees, particularly those spread out over multiple offices. But an HR department can establish policies and cultivate workplace relationships with an eye on identifying troublesome situations.
The process starts with carefully screening potential employees to make sure you’re not inheriting another company’s problem personality, said labor lawyer Scott Schneider, a partner in the firm of Fisher Phillips in New Orleans.
Train supervisors to recognize shifts in behavior and encourage them to refer workers in crisis to a company’s employee assistance program as necessary. Significant changes in personality, performance or even appearance can be considered potential “pathways to violence,” said Jeff Sarnacki, a retired federal law enforcement agent who now works as a security consultant.
An aware HR manager also takes note of strange patterns, like a department where nobody wants to work. In that situation, HR might consider interviewing former employees to determine if they left because of a particular supervisor or co-worker, Schneider said.
Schneider recommends creating well-advertised avenues for reporting problems, which can be as traditional as word-of-mouth from employees or as high-tech as website portals where people can lodge complaints.
But HR personnel must emphasize that such reports lead to help — not necessarily punishment — for troubled employees, said Andre Simons, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
“Those who are best positioned to observe the warning signs in an individual may be the most reluctant to report their friend or their co-worker,” Simons said. “HR professionals can reinforce to the workforce that interventions are not always punitive. That approach may reassure bystanders who may be struggling with whether to report a friend or colleague that there are many supportive and caretaking measures that can be leveraged to help that person navigate away from future violence.”
HR also must consider what’s happening with their employees outside the workplace. For example, many acts of workplace violence arise from personal relationships that have soured. Relatives or domestic partners accounted for 40% of workplace homicides among female employees in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Sarnacki and Schneider both recommend a policy that requires any employee who has acquired a protective order against an individual outside the office to report it to HR so that the company can take extra security precautions.
The FBI and other organizations highly recommend that companies establish multi-disciplinary teams representing HR personnel, general counsel, security specialists and mental health professionals to investigate potential threats, whether they come from inside or outside the workforce.
“One of the things that we think HR professionals can do is to cultivate nonviolent alternatives to encourage the employee to pursue arbitration or seek employee assistance,” Simons said. “Oftentimes, in our experience, the attacker thinks the only door that he or she can walk through is the path that leads to an attack. The goal of a threat management team or an HR professional is to open other doors that can lead to nonviolent alternatives.”
Zero Tolerance for Workplace Bullies
More common than physical violence in the workplace is verbal abuse. The Workplace Bullying Institute estimated in its 2017 report that nearly 20% of American workers experience bullying, and an additional 20% have witnessed it.
Based on its surveys, the institute has noted several trends. Bullies are likelier to be men than women, and women are likelier to be targets. In addition, 60% of the reported perpetrators ranked above their targets in the company hierarchy.
A company’s HR department sets the tone by creating a culture that does not tolerate abusive behavior, no matter the source, said Sarnacki, who presented on the topic of workplace violence at WorldatWork’s 2018 Total Rewards Conference and Exhibition.
“We have to get away from the old days when screaming at an employee was a leadership technique,” Sarnacki said. “Whether it’s an employee or a supervisor, they have to follow the same rule: You can’t abuse another person.”
HR personnel often face situations in which they must sort out whether bullying has taken place, said Scott
Schneider, a partner with the law firm of Fisher Phillips in New Orleans. In light of his two decades of experience in labor and employment law, Schneider said, he feels that companies now take reports of abusive behavior more seriously.
HR pros should learn to help employees have difficult conversations before emotions boil over.
Company leaders play an important role not only in establishing zero-tolerance policies for bullying but also in training employees to intercede and report abuse, Schneider said. He compares those efforts to the anti-bullying instruction that now takes place in schools.
“The research suggests that one of the best ways to prevent this sort of violence is to empower bystanders to either intervene directly or to empower them to report it to the appropriate people,” Schneider said. “The person needs to feel comfortable complaining and know that the complaint will be handled appropriately.”
Merrick Rosenberg, CEO of Take Flight Learning, said HR professionals should learn to help employees have difficult conversations with each other before emotions boil over.
Glossing over problems in the short term only exacerbates conflicts in the long term, said Rosenberg, whose talks focus on how conflict can lead to innovation.
“Workplace violence comes from people who have gotten to a place where their frustration level is so high that they have no other way to deal with it,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a progression of frustration that has built up over time. If the organization and managers were talking to their people and dealing with the issues, then they might not ever get to that level.”
Planning for Danger
The majority of what Safer Places President David Sawyer teaches to Peabody employees is about de-escalating conflict, protecting their personal space, and remaining aware of what’s going on around them.
Sawyer emphasizes to those who take the workshop that they must plan in advance how they would react in a dangerous situation.
“If you buy a computer but you don’t load any software on it, then you ask it a question, it’s not going to have an answer,” Sawyer said. “Your brain is like the computer: If you don’t know what to do, you will freeze and do nothing.”
Mike Previti, a senior manager who oversees seven housing sites for Peabody, attended the workshop twice: once to listen, and the second time to participate in the role-playing activities and ask more questions.
Previti now recommends to his colleagues that they make time for the training.
“We spend more time at work than we do with our families sometimes,” Previti said. “You want people to be comfortable and have a safe work environment.”
In addition to such training, Simons recommends that companies form multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams that can look at workplace security from all angles — whether identifying vulnerabilities in security procedures or investigating concerns about an employee who has shown violent tendencies.
“It’s impossible to predict violent behavior, but it is possible to prevent violent behavior,” Simons said. “There are numerous examples where people were clearly on the pathway toward violence and, due to thoughtful interventions that were constructed by multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams, those persons were navigated towards a more positive resolution.”
Human resources also can play a key role in planning for the aftermath of workplace violence, said Sarnacki, who recently helped draft new standards for the U.S. federal government to prepare for and respond to active shooters. He compares these plans to what companies must do in any emergency management situation.
That means addressing nuts-and-bolts issues like where to set up a reunification center for employees’ families and friends; how to communicate with displaced employees; where to relocate operations in case a workplace becomes a crime scene; and how to address payroll issues if an office must close for an extended period.
“There’s nothing more devastating to your reputation than a post-event fail,” Sarnacki said. “People understand that there’s only so much you can do to stop these bad events, but after it happens, your behavior is based upon planning, preparedness and policy — all of which are controllable.”
Trisha L. Howard is a freelance writer for WorldatWork. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.