General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

Violence in the Workplace

Protecting your law office

BY KAREN J. MATHIS

Karen J. Mathis is the president of Mathis and Marsh, P.C., in Denver, Colorado. She has lectured, written, and counseled on violence in the workplace extensively. Her firsthand experience arises from operation of the Denver Yellow Cab Co-Op for the Colorado courts. During her tenure as receiver for the Co-Op, three taxi drivers were killed in separate violent episodes.

Looking for a law firm or a lawyer's office? It can be easily identified by a dignified sign in the building's directory and outside the office suite's door. Inside, seated behind a desk, a receptionist greets visitors. She asks the guest's business and leaves to get him a cup of coffee. He now has access to all of the firm's attorney and staff offices merely by strolling down the hall. This is not an unusual scenario; it is one you may recognize from your own office, and one that may kill you.

Twenty, ten, five years ago, you might have wondered what this gloomy warning was about. Even today, you may be surprised by this dire prediction. After all, law offices are not exactly hazardous work zones. Law firm worker compensation claims are for computer-related injuries, paper cuts, carpel tunnel syndrome--not machine-related accidents or driving mishaps, the leading causes of on-the-job deaths for men. Even if, like most Americans, you now see the potential for violence in every arena of life, you probably cherish the idea that you are safe at your desk or in your firm's library or conference room. Unfortunately, you are wrong.

More than 40 percent of the women who die at work are murdered. Workplace violence is the number one cause of death or injury on the job for women, and the second or third leading cause of death or injury for men, depending upon the source of your statistics. While most at work murders are committed in decidedly non-law firm type situations, such as convenience stores, the food services industry, and taxis, all employers must be concerned with violence in the workplace. As an employer you may be responsible for the safety of every person in your offices--employees, independent contractors, clients, and members of the public.

A wise employer is aware of the threats that exist to these people's safety, and recognizes that violence at work has costs that directly affect profitability--including medical or disability benefits, psychological counseling for victims and survivors, and repair of property damage. Hidden costs such as lost productivity while employees are laboring under the stress of threats, as well as during and after violent acts, cannot be underestimated. Finally, negligent employers who do not protect these people from injury may find themselves liable for violence that occurs in their offices.

The Changing Face of the American Workplace
Have you opened a magazine or newspaper or tuned in the evening news in the last month without hearing of another bizarre and unexpected random act of violence? The once unusual and easily distanced acts of horror now happen in our own backyards. There is no profile to summarize the types of businesses that experience violence. They include a food court restaurant in downtown Denver; an electronics factory in Santa Fe Springs, California; a Boonville, Missouri, military school cafeteria; a GMAC office in Jacksonville, Florida; a UAW union meeting in Detroit; an airborne Federal Express plane; a pizza parlor in Aurora, Colorado; a fiber optics company in a North Carolina research park; a New England flower nursery; a Wendy's Old Fashioned Restaurant in Tulsa; a Taco Bell in Tennessee; a high school in Olivehurst, California; a San Francisco law firm; and post offices in Edmund, Oklahoma, Dearborn, Michigan, and Dana Point, California. The number of Americans murdered on the job has increased 32 percent over the annual average of the 1980s. The number continues to rise, with more than 1,000 Americans killed last year in workplace brutality.

Sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists agree that the roots of this violence surround us. Downsizing, rightsizing, and restructuring of businesses--including law firms--produce stress and increasingly harsh workplace environments. With a profit crunch hitting many sectors of business, including law, employees are called upon to perform smarter, faster, and longer, while losing their sense of personal security in their jobs. This combination of low work satisfaction, loss of benefits, and static compensation packages is a breeding ground for anger, disenfranchisement, and workplace savagery. There are no sanctuaries from violent chaos in the American workplace.

Estimates of the cost to American business of this surge in violence have been placed between $4.2 and $22 billion per year. There is no way to quantify the cost of business credibility, employee morale, productivity, and turnover of employees from threats and violent assaults.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Violence
Once you recognize that working in a law office is not a guarantee of absolute safety from third parties and employees, you are poised to provide increased protection in your workplace. Recognizing the risks that face your organization is the first step, putting a policy and a plan in place are the next.

According to an OSHA report, one in seven victims of workplace murder was killed by a fellow employee or a personal associate. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety, have issued recommendations intended to reduce the incidence of workplace disruptions and violence. A number of industries particularly prone to violence, such as convenience stores and taxi cab companies, have led the way in formulating plans to reduce the risks their employees encounter. All of these proactive strategies have a common thread--to be effective, an organization cannot ignore the potential for violence from its employees or outsiders. Preparedness cannot eliminate violence, but it can deter or contain it.

Defensive Hiring
The first line of defense against violence is at the firm's front door; not the literal front door but the "hiring front door." The potentially violent worker has been profiled as a person with a history of violence toward women, children, or animals. Statistically, violence-prone employees are more likely to be male and over the age of 34, but remember, gender discrimination in hiring is forbidden by state and federal legislation. A profiled worker may be a loner, own weapons, and have completed military service. Substance abuse problems may exist. The worker may link his self-esteem to his job. Cautious hiring and background checks of new employees are steps all law firms should embrace.

Companies, including law firms, have a duty to exercise reasonable care in the hiring and retention of employees. Screening applicants through a controlled and predetermined employment process is "insurance" in more than one way. Be sure your employment process includes a detailed job description, employment application, background check, reference checks, and an interview. Depending upon the nature of the job, additional investigations such as a criminal check, drug screening, and an investigative credit report may be appropriate. Be certain to review applicable state and federal statutes and regulations regarding these types of checks, and realize that they may not form a carte blanche basis for not hiring an applicant.

Zero Tolerance Policies
Most law firms have written sexual harassment policies that reflect "zero tolerance" for violations. Similar standards for violent behavior and threats of violence by employees are essential. As well as potential liability for negligent hiring, employers are increasingly held liable for negligent retention and negligent supervision of violence-prone employees.

Firm policies must clearly state that inappropriate behavior in the workplace, such as violent or threatening behavior, is a ground for immediate termination. Policies should formalize employee access to management, and employees should be encouraged to report questionable behavior immediately. Performance and behavior standards should discourage violent behavior and provide avenues for treatment or discipline, including immediate termination, of potentially violent employees.

Policies and handbooks alone are insufficient. Take all threats seriously and investigate them immediately. Be aware of events that may trigger aggressive behaviors, whether from employees or third parties. For employees these include restructuring, downsizing, or layoffs; disciplinary action; pay freezes; changes in benefits packages; changing offices, job titles or descriptions; and termination. For third parties, these may be the outcome of a case, motion, or strategic advantage, causing the loss or change of job status; or representing an employer or employee in a matter that affects another adversely.

Develop Programs to Support Employees
Since we know many of the root causes of the violence spree gripping American business, focusing our energy on limiting dissatisfaction and unrest makes good sense. Many law firms do not have either the size or resources to employ a human resources manager, but must still support the idea that employees are an organization's most valuable commodity. Common sense dictates that programs ensuring reasonable sick leave and vacation time, adequate internal training and support, an employee assistance program, fair compensation and promotional practices, and a wellness program that includes stress management will also impact positively on rising workplace fury.

When an Employee Is Terminated
To minimize the risk of harm in your law firm, recognize the warning signs of violence. If a threat of or an actual violent incident is reported, it should raise a red flag. Consider specialized psychological counseling or extra security measures if a person who is about to be terminated exhibits several of these behaviors or characteristics:

  • disgruntlement over a long period of time while employed
  • projection of shortcomings or blaming others for problems
  • intimidation of coworkers and supervisors
  • verbal abuse
  • general dissatisfaction with life and "the system"
  • lack of a support system of friends or family
  • low self-esteem
  • disparagement of other gender, races, religions, or ethnicities
  • feelings of persecution as an individual or a class of individuals
  • concern with other employees' shortcomings, of which he or she may keep records.

Many acts of on-the-job violence are motivated by vengeance. Often the target of the violence is the manager who disciplined or terminated the offender, although it rarely stops there. The manner in which an "at risk" employee perceives the discipline often "triggers" his violent revenge. While employers cannot control perception, they can objectively impact the way terminations are handled.

Consider having employees disciplined and terminated by someone other than their immediate supervisor. Disturbed employees often blame the manager to whom they report for their on-the-job woes. Having that immediate supervisor deliver the bad news is often the last straw, triggering the breakdown of the offender's social control. Training managers in how to effectively terminate an employee is part of an effective violence prevention strategy.

Employers and managers responsible for terminating or disciplining employees should set a professional and focused tone at meetings, which should be held in private. It is important not to strip the employee of his self-esteem while conveying management's message. Be aware of the employee's body language and listen to what he says, but avoid arguing over the merits of the action. Providing outplacement services, severance packages, or educational or training assistance may be appropriate in some or all situations. But remember, it is important that these services be provided off-site, and that terminated employees not be encouraged to return to the office.

Forming a Crisis Safety Plan
You have done everything right--the hiring, the policy, the training for warning signs, and the termination methodology--but the unthinkable happens and your firm is the target of senseless violence. The only thing that will minimize the damage is a crisis safety plan. Since teamwork is the most important aspect in a crisis situation, advance planning is essential to averting disaster. Your team needs designated people to deal with human resources, security, legal issues, and public relations.

To establish a security plan that will protect your organization, its premises, and its employees:

  • Evaluate the "open front door" to your office. Consider having a panic button and emergency telephone numbers available in your reception area.
  • Establish clear lanes of exit from all areas of your office in the event that an avenger is on the loose.
  • Have a plan for your receptionist to implement if a suspicious individual enters the office, including a special code that puts your crisis response team on alert.
  • Whenever an emotionally charged event occurs within or outside of your organization, be certain the entire crisis response team is informed.
  • Consider obtaining restraining orders against dangerous individuals, but recognize their limitations.
  • Notify your building's security supervisor and provide security with pictures of any menacing individuals.
  • Consider temporarily removing your office suite number and firm name from the building's directory.
  • Employ temporary security services for your office, if the situation warrants.
  • Notify your local police department of your concerns. If you, your employees, or your clients are the victims of violence, set up violence-aftermath debriefing services for all affected individuals and their families within 12 hours of the incident. Have sample press releases prepared for the eventuality that violence may strike your organization, since you will have other pressing matters to occupy you after the incident has occurred. Don't forget your clients. Plan ahead how you will communicate with them in the event of an incident. Finally, prepare contingency plans if your organization cannot physically continue in its current location, if only temporarily.

    If these strategies sound like tactics for war, they are. The frequency and escalating nature of the violence that surrounds us necessitates a battle plan to combat it. As society wrestles with the underlying causes of this malaise, the only way to survive its perils is to be prepared.

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