workplace violence

Workplace Violence: How to Prepare for the Unimaginable

YouTube is only the latest workplace to experience violence. What are you doing to protect your workers?
Workplace Violence: How to Prepare for the Unimaginable
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The entire country is on edge. The shootings at YouTube headquarters happened just this week.

Related: YouTube Shooting Suspect Had Been Angry Over Filtering and Demonetization

Places that used to feel safe -- from schools and churches to concert venues and workplaces -- now feel anything but. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 500 workplace homicides in the United States in 2016, making violence the second-most-common cause of death in the workplace.

Because April is Workplace Violence Awareness Month, there’s no better time than now for leaders to revisit how to handle and prevent dangerous situations. While no one can predict when a violent incident will occur at work, having the right precautions in place can help keep employees safe.

Vet potential employees.

The first step to avoiding workplace violence is keeping offenders out of your company. Perform thorough background checks to see if candidates have committed crimes in the past. If there are red flags or signs of violent tendencies, these people shouldn’t be hired.

If a person has had (or has, while working for you) an isolated incident, leaders must make a judgment call. For example, you could require the individual to undergo anger management therapy so he or she can be a productive, rather than potentially violent, employee.

Related: 12 Ways to Spot a Potentially Violent Person in the Workplace

Also, use the job interview as a way to assess a job candidate’s personality. Ask questions about previous terminations or gaps in employment and see how the person reacts. If innocuous questions make a person uncomfortable, he or she probably isn't the best hiring choice.

Have a clear plan, and consequences.

“Even the best safety plans are only effective if they are put into practice,” Bob Folster, director of loss control services at small-business insurance company Employers in Sacramento, told me in an email.  

To feel safe, employees need to know what policies are in place to protect them. This means conducting drills, no matter how unlikely an event might seem. Have employees practice where they’d go or how they would react to scenarios like a robbery or shooting. After each drill, leave time for questions so employees can discuss any concerns they might have.

Also, make it clear what consequences employees face if they act violently. While most companies have zero-tolerance policies about workplace violence, gray areas still exist.

For example, if an enraged employee throws a stapler, but doesn’t hit anyone, is that a fireable offense? No matter how unlikely a situation may seem, make sure everyone knows what will happen as a result. That way, employees will see there are no loopholes that excuse violent behavior.

Know (and share) the warning signs.

After a violent incident, people often say, “I should have seen the warning signs.” While leaders aren’t expected to be violence experts, they do need to know what behaviors signal an employee who’s struggling with anger.

Some warning signs, like suddenly being late for work on multiple occasions, may seem harmless. But a change like this can show an employee is struggling. Taking the time to speak with this individual can potentially keep the situation from progressing to violence.

Asa Sherwood, president of Chicago-based property management company FirstService Residential Illinois, said he likes to take an “it takes a village” approach. “We encourage colleagues to keep an eye out for each other and not be afraid to say something if they see something, so that, as employers, we can address concerns before they reach a tipping point,” Sherwood said via email. 

Educate employees about possible warning signs so they can help keep the workplace safe. In her book, Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace, Lynne McClure lists the following changes as precursors to violent behavior:

  • Not taking responsibility for one's mistakes

  • Distancing oneself socially

  • Acting out of character

  • Lying or partaking in risky behavior

  • Refusing to try new things

Help employees speak up.

Leaders can’t be everywhere all the time. This is why employees need to feel safe coming forward if they feel threatened. They need to know there’s a way they can report incidents without fear of retribution.

Jay Starkman, CEO of Hollywood, Fla.-based HR solutions company Engage PEO, said he believes this should be a part of employee training. In short: Everyone needs to know what the procedure will be after a violent workplace incident. “Violent behavior is common and must be dealt with promptly, uniformly and in such a way that employees feel comfortable in their ability to work, without the threat of violence or bullying,” Starkman said in an email.

Related: Managing Conflict Is Essential to Success

If your employees are worried about coming forward, create a company email address where employees can anonymously report incidents that have made them feel uncomfortable. Knowing about these situations can allow you as a leader to address issues before the violence escalates.

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