If you see something, say something.
According to Northwestern National Life, one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the leading stressor in their lives. While OSHA reports that work-related homicides have fallen 52 percent since 1994 to about 507 a year, many experts feel that overall violence in the workplace has been rising steadily due to the recession.
According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, more than 70 percent of U.S. workplaces do not have a formal program or policy in place to address workplace violence. As security professionals, it is our role to ensure the physical security and safety of our employees, visitors, facilities and assets. And while we are trained to recognize potential workplace violence behavior stages, we must also seek to educate those within our organizations, from executives to support staff, to recognize workplace violence trigger points. Creating a corporate culture that promotes “If you see something, say something” can have lifesaving consequences.
According to ASIS, the preeminent organization for security professionals, “Workplace violence refers to a broad range of behaviors falling along a spectrum that, due to their nature and/or severity, significantly affect the workplace, generates a concern for personal safety, or results in physical injury or death.” Milder behaviors include any disruptive, aggressive, hostile or emotionally abusive behaviors. Mid-range behaviors demonstrate direct, conditional or veiled threats, stalking and aggressive harassment. Violent behaviors include overt violence causing physical injury.
Diffusing the Situation
Earlier in my career, I consulted on workplace violence cases. In one situation, a disgruntled employee, upset by his termination, began sending letters to the CEO and attempted to visit his former workplace. Law enforcement was involved and repeatedly arrested the man. The disgruntled former employee’s mid-range behaviors were ambiguous, yet reflective of an emotionally troubled individual, and were very distressing to the CEO.
The company’s concern continued, and so they reached out for help to further address the problem. Through an investigative process including background checks and surveillance, it was determined that the man was somewhat unbalanced and had no financial or family support system to help him. As part of the solution process, I contacted him in hopes of de-escalating the situation and his hostility toward his former employer. He was told that I was a third-party consultant hired by the company to help him get back on track. We spoke on numerous occasions over a three-week period, in which we slowly shifted the conversation from his dissatisfaction with his previous employer to a more positive focus on the future, which included providing him with avenues for finding a new job.
As a security professional, what you learn from situations like this is that each potential situation is different. Surveillance and background checks are key components to assessing how deep the potential problem may be, and on occasion, engaging a terminated, troubled employee may be necessary to eliminate the emotional progression.
Concern and compassion may help a disgruntled former employee begin emotional detachment from a company and help to diminish anger. The resources involved in diffusing this and other potential workplace violence situations is a critical investment considering the possible devastating ramifications if the situation is not addressed.
Signs That Intervention Is Needed
Security leaders and managers need to make sure all employees understand and recognize the warning signs of workplace violence so that everyone can act as eyes and ears to report unusual behavior to security. There are almost always warning signs when an employee requires intervention. Any employee with one or more of the following indicators should be assumed to be in need of assistance. Managers must be alert to these indirect pleas for help and provide a positive and timely response to ensure a safe and secure work environment.
- Excessive tardiness or absences. Beyond missing work, an employee may also reduce his or her work day by leaving early or departing the work site without authorization, and providing numerous excuses for doing so. This is a particularly significant indicator if it occurs with an individual who is typically prompt and committed to a full work day.
- Increased need for supervision. Generally, an employee typically requires less supervision as they become more proficient at their work. An employee who exhibits an increased need for supervision may be signaling a need for help. Security should be alert to such a change and consider offering professional intervention if the situation warrants.
- Reduced productivity. If a previously efficient and productive employee experiences a sudden or sustained drop in performance, there is reason for concern. This is a classic warning sign of dissatisfaction, and the manager should meet with the employee to determine a mutually beneficial course of action.
- Inconsistency. As in the case of reduced productivity, an employee exhibiting inconsistent work habits may be in need of intervention. Employees are typically quite consistent in their work habits and, should this change, the manager has reason to suspect the individual is in need of assistance.
- Strained workplace relationships. Many classic behavioral warning signs may be identified in this category. If a worker displays disruptive behavior, it is imperative that the manager intervene quickly to diffuse a potentially violent situation. This indicator should be taken seriously and indicates a need for immediate counseling, and if appropriate, professional employee assistance.
- Inability to concentrate. This may indicate a worker who is distracted or in trouble. Employee counseling is indicated.
- Violation of safety procedures. This behavior may be due to carelessness, insufficient training or stress. If an employee who has traditionally adhered to safety procedures is suddenly involved in accidents or safety violations, stress may be indicated. This may be a serious situation which requires the intervention of professional employee assistance personnel.
- Changes in health or hygiene. An employee who suddenly disregards personal health or grooming may be signaling for help.
- Unusual behavior. A sustained change in behavior is often a leading indication of an employee in difficulty. Workers are typically familiar with their peers’ personalities and are often quick to notice significant changes. The work environment should be managed in a way that ensures trust and open communication so that workers undergoing a difficult period may be offered prompt assistance.
- Fascination with weapons. This is a classic behavioral warning sign that should be easily recognized by coworkers and managers.
- Substance abuse. It is important that every organization have some method in place to identify and assist an employee who has become the victim of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Stress. Stress is a serious issue in the workplace. As with substance abuse, an organization should have procedures in place to identify workers who are victims of stress and provide an effective intervention program. Stress mitigation and personal wellness programs should also be considered by employers.
- Excuses and blaming. This is a classic behavioral warning sign that is often easy to identify but just as often ignored by managers. A worker who engages in this behavior is often signaling for assistance and requires counseling and, possibly, professional intervention.
- Depression. Not all individuals suffering from depression are prone to violence. If, however, the depression is evident for a sustained period of time, professional intervention is recommended because a violent outcome is a possibility.
The popular use of mobile technologies poses some new risks. Through threatening emails, texts or messages on social networking sites, workplace violence can continue even after you have left for the day. The Internet has created new workplace harassment dangers that didn’t exist a decade or so ago. According to an article in USA Today, “Ten percent of U.S. employers have been subpoenaed to produce employee emails in lawsuits.” One of the reasons that email and text messages play such a pivotal role in harassment cases is their immediate and seemingly informal nature.
What Employers Should Do
What does this mean for security leaders and managers? There are a growing number of lawsuits and employee complaints that include offensive text messages as evidence of the inappropriate behavior. Employers should work with their security teams to revise company policies to inform employees that harassing text messages to coworkers will be considered violations of the company’s harassment policy. If an employer issues cell phones to employees, consider whether text messaging will be allowed on those phones. If text messaging is accommodated, employees using the phones need to understand that they have no right to privacy and that all text messages are subject to search and can be obtained by the employer at any time.
Social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have continued to open the door for more online bullying. Any time a new method of communication is created, it’s inevitable that a certain segment of employees will use that medium to convey inappropriate messages that have the potential for getting themselves—and their employers—in hot water. The same precautions should be used for these sites. Security professionals need to guide their employers in developing new social media policies.
An employee handbook should offer an up-to-date workplace violence policy. Employers should educate their employees so they clearly understand that the policy is part of their responsibility for safety. Employees should understand what to look for, be vigilant and have a means to communicate potential problems.
If something happens in your workplace, it is important for you to act immediately. First, you must focus on defusing the simmering crisis. Early de-escalation behaviors include: remaining calm, listening attentively, always treating the person with respect and dignity, isolating the situation, setting clear enforceable limits, and if necessary, using backup resources. Realize that control issues are most likely at the root of this confrontation. You may need to relocate the disruptive individual to another building or department, or in more severe cases, recommend termination.
Using a mediator can be helpful, as he or she is a neutral party who can listen to both sides and facilitate conversation. To avoid additional disruption, it may be best to separate the parties involved, which also decreases the risk of any unnecessary confrontation.
Consider hiring a security company if you do not have a security program in place. If you do already have security, make sure they are aware of a potential threat and take appropriate measures. An estimated 50 percent of employers report that workplace violence crimes or threats are never reported to police or security. Whether an employee is feeling physically or verbally threatened, they should always contact a security source. iBi
Mimi Lanfranchi is Senior Vice President, National Accounts and Specialized Services, for AlliedBarton Security Services. She can be reached at [email protected].