Considerations For Employers In Taking Steps To Prevent Workplace Violence

documents about workplace violence
The scope of and risks associated with workplace violence may both be broader than you think.

While many think of workplace violence as threatening conduct that occurs in the workplace, workplace violence is much broader and encompasses behavior that occurs outside the work premises if the incident may lead to an occurrence of violence at the worksite. This may include violent conduct or threats of violence by one employee against another (such as threatening phone calls, menacing emails or brandishing a weapon in the workplace), and threats or acts of violence occurring off the company’s premises involving an employee of the company as a victim (such as stalking or a threat of violence by an estranged spouse or disgruntled customer).

Further, the number of individuals struggling with mental health issues has risen dramatically since the Covid-19 pandemic. This has contributed to issues in the workplace, including displays of erratic behavior or threats of harm. Relatedly, the suicide rate in the United States is rising in alarming numbers. In 2022, 49,449 people died by suicide, a 2.6% increase from the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is after a 37% increase in suicide rates between 2000 and 2018. Employers have a legal duty to maintain a safe work environment for all employees. Threats or acts of suicide not only threaten the safety of the affected individual but could create an office-wide safety risk. It is also important to consider that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, mental health conditions that may lead a person towards suicidal ideations or actions may be considered disabilities.

How To Assess and Prepare for Risks

Employers are well-advised to adopt and disseminate a workplace violence policy. Key elements of such a policy include: a statement of the company’s commitment to maintaining a safe work environment; a definition of workplace violence; a statement encouraging employees to report any behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable; a reporting procedure; the company’s commitment to promptly investigate all reports of suspicious behavior/threats of violence; and the potential consequences if an employee is found to have engaged in violative behavior.

Employers may also wish to conduct periodic training on how to spot potential workplace violence and take appropriate action when confronted with such a situation. While no two incidents of workplace violence are alike, there are certain warning signs that law enforcement officials and threat assessment experts have identified. Much as a fire drill alerts employees to the steps they need to take in the event of a fire, workplace violence prevention training programs tend to reinforce awareness of possible signs of workplace violence and place employees in the position to be critical thinkers on what steps to take when confronted with actual or threatened violent conduct.

As part of its workplace violence prevention program, a company should designate a management response team (MRT) to act as the frontline to any occurrences or threats of violence in the workplace. The MRT might include representatives of senior management, human resources, security and in-house legal counsel, as well as outside representatives such as threat assessment professionals, local law enforcement authorities, risk management professionals, and outside counsel. The MRT should develop an emergency response plan that anticipates how the employer will deal with an incident of workplace violence—including securing the workplace, contacting law enforcement, informing employees of the danger, notifying families during and after an incident, dealing with media, and responding with any necessary crisis counseling and other measures in the aftermath of an incident.

Companies are also well-advised to conduct a comprehensive safety and security audit to identify and correct any gaps in security or possible unsafe conditions, such as malfunctioning security systems, broken locks, multiple sites of access, and poor lighting. Installation of deadbolts on doors could be an inexpensive precaution that may save lives in the event of an attack. As part of this safety initiative, employers should consider partnering with their local police departments; many precincts have community affairs officers available to assist. Further, to be able to account for employees in the event of a security incident, it may be advisable for companies to adopt a sign in/sign out system each time an employee enters and leaves the building as well as designated evacuation meet up points. Employers should also require employees to update their personal information and emergency contact information at least annually.

Consult Experts Before Taking Action

One of the mistakes that we have seen companies make is to precipitously terminate an employee who has made a threat of harm or is perceived as dangerous to themselves or others. Terminating the employee does not automatically eliminate the problem or make things safe, since terminated employees do sometimes come back to their former employers to seek revenge. When faced with a possible high-risk termination, a company is well-advised to take specific steps to determine the severity of the risk, carefully plan such termination, and consult appropriate experts in advance of the termination. In non-termination situations involving threats of suicide or mental health issues, a company may decide to send that employee for a direct threat evaluation by a mental health professional as a condition of reinstatement to employment. Due to the potential seriousness of direct threat situations – as well as legal issues involved – companies may want to partner with outside counsel as well as other mental health and direct threat professionals when the circumstances so warrant.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent incidents of workplace violence entirely. However, by implementing comprehensive procedures, educating employees on the necessity of recognizing and reporting threatening, suspicious or otherwise troubling conduct, and taking other preventive measures as outlined above, an employer is in a better position to recognize, confront and perhaps prevent some of the risks of workplace violence.

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