Safe Harbor

Keeping The Peace

Here's how to reduce the chances of workplace violence:

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy. Along with your policy against harassment, include a policy against weapons and violence. Showing off a new pistol or yelling and slamming doors would be immediate grounds for termination. Also, state that any employee who feels threatened or harassed must inform a supervisor.

Screen carefully. When hiring new employees, do a criminal background check and call references. While you can't always predict who might turn violent, at least you'll have done what you can in case you have to defend your decision later.

Train supervisors to recognize personality changes and warning signs. "You need to train people to recognize potential violence," says attorney Philip Berkowitz, head of the employment law department at Salans law firm in New York City. "People don't just snap without warning signs."

Defusing disputes. The U.S. Postal Service, taking action on the cliché "going postal," has established a mediation program for employment disputes. To gain access, the employee has to claim harassment or discrimination. "When you go below the surface, they feel they've been disrespected or not heard," says Barbara Swartz, a professor at Touro Law School in Huntington, New York, who has mediated over 70 USPS disputes in New York or New Jersey in the past three years. "Resentment builds up-and mediation is an effort to stop this." Small businesses can engage private mediation services to defuse disputes that could turn deadly.

Check and double-check security. Check for locks on back doors, adequate lighting and internal communications. Could an angry spouse or boyfriend charge in with a gun?

Terminate with care. Have someone with you if you have to terminate a tinderbox employee, and consider engaging backup security in plain clothes. Treat the employee with dignity, and allow a way to depart without shame. Then change the locks.

For more information on preventing employee violence, check out these Web sites: "Dealing With Workplace Violence-a Guide for Agency Planners." Although this report was written for government agencies, the principles apply to all businesses. "Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments." "Model Injury & Illness Prevention Program for Workplace Security." Reviews the hazards of workplace violence.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

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This article was originally published in the April 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Safe Harbor.

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