About 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence annually, and the U.S. Department of Justice has called the workplace the most dangerous place in America. There are an estimated 1.5 million simple assaults annually in the workplace and nearly 1,000 homicides. The recent ABA program “Assessing Security and Avoiding Violence in the Workplace” detailed best practices for employers to minimize potential violence.
The cost of workplace violence has been pegged at more than $36 billion a year, considering factors from poor morale to court awards and legal fees. Typically, workplace violence is instigated by either individuals criminals not connected to the workplace, customers or others on the premises for legitimate purposes, current or former employees, or someone who has an outside relationship with an employee.
One of the most serious workplace threats occurs after the termination of an employee who might be considered unstable. Panelist Harley V. Stock, a clinical forensic psychologist and managing partner of IMG GlobalSecur Inc. of Miami, said companies should “recognize somebody who is on a pathway of aggression.”
“If it is a high-risk termination, there has to be an amount of planning,” he said.
Edwin G. Foulke Jr., who served as head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President George W. Bush, said companies must address problems directly or face consequences. To ignore or neglect threatening behavior, he said, will “escalate the problem rather than defuse the problem.”
Foulke, a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP and co-chair of the firm’s workplace safety and catastrophe management practice group, said companies should have a post-incident plan for workplace violence that includes securing the premises, safeguarding evidence, cooperating with authorities and completing necessary paperwork or reports. A media plan is also extremely important, he said, cautioning to avoid a simple “no comment.”
Nicole M. Walthour, chief counsel of staff human resources and global policy compliance for International Paper Co. in Memphis, Tenn., agreed that ignoring violent behavior can lead to problems. She said several departments, including headquarters, human resources, legal and corporate security, should be part of planning a response to workplace incidents.
“We need to understand when we are dealing with difficult cases,” she said, adding that a company has “to be very flexible” in many of these situations.
She also sounded a warning that companies might not understand the extent of problems because of reluctance by employees to report incidents. A study by Northwestern National Life Insurance, for instance, found that 58 percent of those employees harassed, 43 percent of those threatened and 24 percent of those physically attacked did not inform anyone of authority.
The program’s moderator, Mark Bracken, an associate with Martin & Bonnett PLLC in Phoenix, said companies showing flexibility and carrying out their workplace protocols and policies must “make sure they do this in a non-discriminatory way.”