Is Your Organization Doing Enough To Stop Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence expert David Smith joins Danielle Ricci, Vice President of Marketing for AlertFind, to discuss workplace violence and its impact on nearly 2 million people a year.

In our upcoming webinar, he’ll show companies what they can do to identify and stop escalating employee issues before they become a major issue that ends in injuries or death.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Join David Smith and Danielle Ricci as they continue this conversation and answer your questions live on July 26th.

Danielle Ricci: Can you share some background on workplace violence in the U.S?

David Smith: There are about 2 million instances of workplace violence that are reported to the U.S. Department of Justice. We find that the number should be much, much greater than what is reported. Forty-three percent of folks have been threatened on the job and 24% of those have actually had hands put on them. That could include pushing or shoving or something like that - all without saying anything to anybody. And so one of the key goals we have is to get people to report incidents of workplace violence.

Corporate America spends billions a year on this issue. So, what are they spending that money on? Particularly after there's been an incident workplace violence, they work to increase security. There's always building repairs, business interruptions, loss of productivity, etc. There's generally a large amount of turnover that takes place as well after there's been an incident of workplace violence. And then a common thing is increased workers comp, medical claims, and legal expenses. I guarantee, if there is an incident, there'll be attorneys out there looking to address the issue or to assist victims or other employees impacted by it.

Danielle Ricci: What are the different types of perpetrators of workplace violence?

David Smith: First, there’s someone from the outside that really has no business with that organization. That would be the person robs the place or terrorism falls underneath that as well.

The second type is a customer of your business. Somebody that's receiving products or services from the workplace or even a vendor that's coming in from outside.

Type three is employment-related. This is where you'll see employee-on-employee violence. It could be two folks that are just not getting along. They may end up fighting. The other employment-related type is where domestic violence issues come into the workplace. You may have a husband and a wife going through a terrible divorce. She's moved out. He doesn't even know where she's living now. And she always has to go to work so you see the spouse making their way into the workplace.

Danielle Ricci: Why should companies put together a crisis management team?

David Smith: When we help develop a crisis management team within an organization, which is the core of the proactive team, they oversee the workplace violence prevention program.

Each of the team members, and we recommend having team members from different areas of expertise in the organization, have their own role and we help them work through and understand what their role would be as well. In the center is the crisis management team and then they oversee the program and make sure that the different departments are addressing issues. Reporting issues is very, very important in terms of becoming a deterrent.

Danielle Ricci: What should a proactive workplace violence prevention program cover?

David Smith: We want to make sure we help develop a plan that is systematic, that is proactive while we're trying to reduce risk by training and teaching folks, implementing policies and procedures, etc. It also needs to be reactive if there is a threat against an employee.

Here’s something you hear often when there’s a shooting. How do the neighbors describe the shooter? Well, it's usually something like this, "Well, he was just a nice guy. Who would have known it? But he's kind of quiet or he was a loner."

We hear this time and time again. And it gives this impression that violence is just a random event. That it can come out of anywhere. This nice guy could just go and turn into that.

Well, that's a myth. Becoming violent is a process and that involves change over time. We'll look at the escalation process of that change over time. And by allowing individuals or organizations to understand what that change over time looks like, we can intervene at earlier stages before hands are put on anyone.

Danielle Ricci: What are the different stages of workplace violence?

David Smith: At stage one, there are early indicators. You’ll see an individual that's verbally abusive. They're objectifying or dehumanizing other people. The reason that becomes a problem is that this dehumanization makes it much easier to put your hands on something that is not human. We see folks that are noncompliant with policies and procedures and individuals that frequently become argumentative. We don't always get along with everybody all the time but now these folks are in your face.

Other risk factors include:

The potential of suicide - this is a little more vague. You're not sure if somebody is talking about hurting themselves is serious but they will verbalize it more in the workplace.

Instigating or spreading lies and rumors about others - the key here is that it's not some rumor like, "Hey, I saw somebody with somebody else at a movie one night." Now they're spreading lies and rumors that have no basis in fact. The individual is talking about somebody and actually trying to stick it to him or ruin their reputation by spreading lies and rumors that have no basis in fact.

Profanity. Most clients don't like profanity in the workplace, but people are going to swear. Somebody might drop something and say, "Damn it," or something like that. But now it's inappropriately used and directed toward an individual.

The same with sexually explicit language or any kind of over-the-top angry outbursts.

Danielle Ricci: What do you see in stage 2?

David Smith: If things aren't put in check in stage one, they can escalate to stage two. Now the person is arguing more frequently, more intensely. And they're blatantly disregarding organizational policies and procedure. They're actually doing things to harm someone else.

We've seen all kinds of different traps set by one employee for another. Whether it’s to trap them and make them look bad or actually to do something that could be harmful. It doesn’t have to be big-ticket items - it can just be small items that make it inconvenient for other people.

One of very important elements of stage two is making verbal threats. And that's one of the things we really try to drive home is that we need to take all threats seriously.

The average person out there will not make verbal threats against another human being. This act escalates it up to stage two.

Now you have somebody that's conveying unwanted sexual attention or violent intentions by letter, voicemail or email. This has now moved up to stage two. If you remember at stage one, it was verbal. Now at stage two they are actually documenting this. It can actually come back to them and now they're risking their own jobs or livelihood by doing this. At stage two, this is persistent nonmutual displays of affection. This is where sexual harassment comes in. The individual is not understanding that somebody may be saying, "No. I'm not interested," and they still persist and continue on.

Then one of the most important elements in stage two is the blamer. Cho, the shooter in the Virginia Tech active shooter event, was a blamer. He was out there telling everybody that, "It's your fault. You've made me do this.”

The problem with a blamer is that they're telling you it's your fault or it's somebody else's fault and they're not taking responsibility for themselves. In their mind, they're doing all these things to them. So when they act out, they see it as some sort of self-defense.

Danielle Ricci: What do you see in stage 3?

David Smith: This is where we work with the clients, the individuals in the classes, and the individuals we're working with in terms of becoming a harder target. Part of becoming a harder target is to think about what we would do if we're confronted with a violent person.

Mental rehearsal is a key component of proactive training. So we walk them through what they would do if they were pulled into a physical confrontation. Suddenly you're in the middle of somebody committing an assault, sexual assault, homicide, arson or suicide.

We walk through strategies of how they could respond and ensure they’re thinking about all this in advance. Our goal is not to have people walk around being paranoid. We want you to know how you would handle a situation so you’re much better prepared when it happens.

Danielle Ricci: What are some common warning signs of violent behavior?

David Smith: Let’s start with a fascination with weapons. There are millions of good gun owners in the United States that use safe gun handling skills. They may like to hunt, they might want them for self protection or something like that. There's a difference between the person that's fascinated with the weapon and the person that's obsessed with the power they get from being armed.

Next, there’s substance abuse. There's a significant correlation between substance abuse and hands-on violence. We are talking about individuals that are acting out that are either under the influence or have chronically abused drugs and alcohol.

Then there’s severe stress. Stress does not cause violence but it can be a triggering event. If somebody has a violent history and they’ve used violence in the past, it can resurface again if things aren't going their way.

Then we look at severe changes in psychological functioning. This is where you might have somebody who is quiet and kept themselves and suddenly they are in your face or vice versa. You can also have changes in job productivity or an increase in absences.

Other factors include:

Social isolation and poor peer relationships. This is the idea of the loner that people stay away from.

Poor personal hygiene can be an indicator that something is going on. You might have somebody that isn’t the best dresser in the world but now they're showing up with the same mustard stains down their shirt since Monday. That could be an indicator that something is moving or going on in their life.

Emotionally erratic behavior, including drastic changes in a personality, high-highs to low-lows. Most of us have highs and lows but we stay pretty much in the middle most of the time. This person is going way high, then way low and exhibiting general hostile behavior. Most of us try to treat others with dignity and respect and this person is not doing that.

Romantically obsessed behavior and stalking. Particularly when someone says, "No" and the person won’t listen. Instead they escalate their behaviors.

Depression and other mental illness issues. The fact that somebody has some mental illness issues does not make them inherently dangerous. Actually, they're less dangerous than most. However, when we start to see individuals where their hold on reality is being lost and they're starting to feel threatened and react negatively.

Danielle Ricci: What are some reasons that people don’t want to report issues of workplace violence?

David Smith: There's a lot of pushback that you hear. People will say, "Well, I didn't want to say anything. He has a family and he might get fired. He won't be able to support his family." And there's all kinds of different excuses you hear of why folks don't report issues.

We explain to them that we're trying to make sure that we maintain a safe and secure workplace. We want to make sure that everybody in the workplace goes home safely every day. And we stress that this also applies to schools and other situations, as well.

Danielle Ricci: Do you recommend that companies set up an anonymous reporting process to help people feel more comfortable reporting issues?

David Smith: You can't promise it's going to be anonymous because once a person poses a risk it will no longer be anonymous. It immediately becomes an issue where you need to let other people know what's going on.

It’s better to stay away from an anonymous tip line. There are folks that do but you're not going to have as effective a program. The key here is that employees feel comfortable contacting someone to report the issue.

To do this, we give them choices. You can go to your immediate supervisor. Then the supervisor, understanding there is a risk there, will get in touch with HR or legal or security. Or if you're not feeling comfortable with your managing supervisor or if the threat is coming from them, you can go to HR.

Often HR can get overburdened, so the best practice is to set up a group that can react quickly to an issue. When we develop teams, we have a core person and a secondary person. Then there’s always somebody on site that can address the issue.

Join David and Danielle as they discuss how companies can proactively address workplace violence in our new webinar, “Preventing Workplace Violence: 3 Actions To Take Now,” at 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, July 26.

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