Recent news reports of workplace violence related acts of homicide by disgruntled current and former employees concern me. I wonder how comprehensive workplace violence prevention programs really are. I worry that workplaces don’t prepare for the “when” but the “if”. I worry that most workplaces don’t develop their own workplace violence prevention and violence response capability relying on their local police response. I wonder whether incidents and complaints are being properly assessed and evaluated or deferred. I worry that workplaces acting out of fear instead of critical thinking invest in training for the wrong reasons. I worry about the employee’s view of the organization’s workplace safety and security in general. On a scale from 0 to 10 how would YOU rate your organization’s workplace violence prevention efforts? Will those programs withstand or survive an OSHA Enforcement Inspection? Will the effort be defensible in a civil liability law suit?
Workplace violence prevention programs serve those organizations best when the focus is not only on the employee threat but also the threat posed by former employees, opportunistic criminals, vendors, and the intimate partner spillover into the work place. In short, if you are not viewing your approach to workplace violence from a holistic capability, you just might be operating from within a stovepipe where communications repeat the same old mistakes. It’s important that workplaces stop reacting to surprises and start engaging their workplaces proactively in staying ahead of situations and issues. I consider a workplace active shooter a failed workplace violence prevention effort.
My memories of the Postal Service’s Edmond, Oklahoma Post Office Massacre in August of 1986 as the public information officer and since have helped shape appreciation for the value of multiple intervention strategies. Learning that workplaces are unique settings with their cultures, mindsets and circumstances allows me to engage each with an open mind. It helped that the Postal Service sought corrective measures through aggressive multiple intervention strategies. Back in those days, postal employees most feared the threat from armed postal robbers than the new threat posed by the employees going postal. However, Congress mandated action and we did. Many of the incidents investigated then or now had anything to do with an employee’s predisposition to violence and more about their emotional response to confrontation, misunderstandings or unresolved complaints. Interestingly enough it was not uncommon for victims to eventually became the aggressor in a permissive workplace setting where managers failed to intervene swiftly in establishing boundaries and consequences. Nothing has changed between those years and employees of today’s public and private workforce. Today’s workforce reflects a microcosm of a more complicated situation where a variety of societal, environmental, family and medical factors affecting coping capability and perception are their realities.
Today, though organizations mean well most are ill prepared in their approaches to workplace violence prevention focusing on expediency such as the “going postal threat” rather than investing in employee engagement. Training is conducted prior to conducting a critical assessment of the workplace setting. Many organizations are even afraid to ask employees for feedback out of fear of creating “problems” and “unwanted work”. Return on the investment is missed by not conducting a critical assessment and analysis of workplace settings; areas that would yield gaps in existing violence prevention planning and violence response and situation awareness and deployment of technology. Today’s workplaces are more volatile than years ago. The underlying reasons for misunderstanding: unresolved disputes, conflict and confrontations emanate from “stress” associated with corporate policies, autocratic leadership, insensitive management, permissive environments, perceptions of unfairness and disparate treatment, harassment, verbal abuse and name calling and bullying to mention a few examples. Workplaces will never be devoid of disagreement, conflict, arguments and fights. However, how employee issues are handled and resolved go to the heart of credibility and management commitment and in engendering employee trust and confidence in management’s ability to provide for their safety.
Organizations that react to training as the solution must do by studying the circumstances and identifying the proper training solution in achieving the desired outcome. Consistent with past observations and findings, today there remains employee distrust and lack of credibility in management’s will to resolve employee complaints without discipline, unfairness and disparity. It is not unusual for reporting employees and/or victims to be labeled “trouble makers”. Soon enough these “complainers” were isolated and made to feel like they were the problem causing co-workers to turn against them.
A responsible and accountable workplace culture is a huge step towards building employee credibility, trust and regard for the workplace violence prevention initiative. What we agree on today is that prior violence is not a constant indicator of a predisposed potential threat by a current or former employee. Today we have sufficient examples of incidents where the shooter did not have a prior criminal history of violence or a violent prone past. Employers would enhance their workplace violence prevention initiatives by focusing in on contributing factors, conditions and situations that create workplace stress and lead to potential retaliatory reaction. Supervisors properly trained in how to manage the potential hostile workplace will instill a sense of trust and confidence in management’s commitment. Taking aggressive proactive prevention measures creates a culture of ownership through responsible, accountable supervision and management. Though the focus has been on the employee on employee threat, a comprehensive workplace violence prevention initiative seeks to address the threat of violence under any circumstance. It doesn’t have to be complex just relative.
Even if you are in a state of denial and “believe that a serious homicidal act of workplace violence can’t happen here or that workplace violence isn’t preventable”, please think twice about not doing anything. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Plan for the “when” and not the “if” it happens.