Emergency Preparedness and Response, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Workplace Violence Prevention: Plain Talk and No Emotion are Key to Communication

Most organizations have some form of workplace violence prevention plan in place. However, that is only the first step. EHS, security, or HR personnel may not know how to effectively communicate this plan to employees, or how to appropriately communicate that an actual incident is in progress. According to 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium keynote speaker, Dick Sem, CPP CSC, that’s a big mistake—and how you communicate is just as important as what you communicate.

Safety culture, workplace violence prevention

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Sem asserts that plain, emotion-free speech should be a central facet of an organization’s safety culture when addressing workplace violence. Here are some of his general observations:

  • Badly handled or emotional discipline, refusal of service, or termination often trigger the violence. It’s important to maintain composure when you discipline, terminate, or refuse service.
  • Violence is evolutionary, and it tends to escalate. Most situations exhibit warning signs.
  • Someone is usually aware of a coworker’s, patient’s, or customer’s escalating anger. Too often, that person take action and report what they knew.
  • No two incidents are the same, so—and this is a critical concept—you have to allow some room for a judgment call.

‘Code Silver, Zone 12’

In the event of a violent incident, says Sem, use “plain talk.” It’s important to clearly spread the word to as many people as possible about the situation and what they need to do in that moment. Use e-mail, the PA system, whatever you have, says Sem. And use plain talk. During one incident Sem is familiar with, the PA system announced, “Code Silver, Zone 12.” Unfortunately, because there was no clear, advanced communication from EHS, security, and/or HR regarding the details of the workplace violence prevention policy, employees did not know what the announcement meant, let alone what to do as the incident unfolded.

Foster a Culture of Civility and Respect

Developing a culture of civility and respect is a powerful workplace violence prevention tool, says Sem. Your organization’s culture, in conjunction with policy and practice should always work to preserve dignity, he says. Yes, you must get on with your business, but there’s no need to humiliate the person you are terminating.

One poor practice he still sees is the “perp walk”—the terminated individual gets paraded out past their peers, sometimes by uniformed security officers. For some people, this act strips them of their dignity, and once that is gone, there’s nothing more to lose, Sem says.

Develop a Culture Focused on Preventing Workplace Violence

If your organization lacks a culture of civility and respect, or even a workplace violence prevention plan, now is the time to act. Do you already have communication channels in place to address specific, necessary actions, such as full or partial lockdown vs. shelter in place vs. partial or full evacuation? Sem asks that you dig deeper:

  • Will everyone hear and know what to do?
  • Who makes the decisions?
  • Who will respond?
  • How will smaller, outlying facilities address an incident?
  • What if the incident takes place after hours?

Be proactive: work with local law enforcement now, prior to an incident, to help fine-tune how your organization addresses workplace violence, Sem adds.

2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium

Warning Signs or Indicators of Workplace Violence

Acts of workplace violence are often precipitated by warning signs, and too frequently these indicators are ignored. Developing a security culture that fosters open, private communication between employees in the organization and EHS, security, and/or HR allows people to report any out of the ordinary behavior before it spills over into workplace violence.

Below are some of the early warning signs or indicators of potential workplace violence. Your concern should be heightened when there are multiple signs, says Sem.

  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Mental Illness
  • Not capable of empathy for the problems or concerns of others
  • Blames others for his/her problems or deficiencies
  • Feels entitled to receive good treatment
  • Has few interests outside of work—views work as the core of his/her identity
  • A “loner”—little or no social/family interaction or support—few friends or outside interests
  • Recent family, financial, or personal problems
  • Preoccupation with violent themes or revenge
  • Holds grudges
  • Frequently angry or argumentative
  • History of violent behavior
  • History of bullying or a victim of bullying
  • Commonly intimidates or instills fear in others
  • Past pattern of direct or veiled threats
  • Talks about and/or fantasizes about revenge or violence
  • Preoccupation with weapons
  • Sudden change in personality or attitude
  • Hyper-sensitive to criticism
  • History of sexual or racial harassment or discrimination
  • History of stalking
  • History of throwing objects, hitting, slapping, poking, kicking, pinching, grabbing, pushing, etc.

Precipitating or Triggering Events

Sem also lists some stress-inducing events that could trigger workplace violence, and therefore merit equal attention when planning:

  • Employee or student termination or discipline
  • Refusal of service
  • Refusal of drugs
  • Demand for payment
  • Cancellation or prolonged wait for service, shuffling
  • Conflict with a coworker or supervisor
  • Relationship gone bad
  • Domestic stress, such as separations or divorces
  • Financial stress, such as bankruptcy
  • Other personal crisis or stressful situation

Should Your Facility Have a Safe Room?

Often, workplace violence situations last only minutes, typically just until law enforcement arrives. A safe room works to “buy time” until the threat is gone, Sem says.

A safe room does not need to be an impenetrable bunker. Ideally, a safe room could be/have:

  • Conference room, office, storage room, rest room, etc.
  • Lockable from inside
  • No inside (outside) windows (or blinds)
  • Phone
  • Alternative exit
  • Robust door, frame, and lock

Be sure you’re in the audience when Sem delivers his keynote address, “Culture and Complacency: Overcoming the ‘It Won’t Happen Here’ Mentality on Workplace Violence” at the 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium. Register Now!

2019 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium