How to protect your employees from workplace violence Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

Although one-sixth of all violent crime in the U.S. occurs in the workplace, many companies remain poorly prepared to deal with these violent acts.

“There is a mentality that people just don’t believe it’s going to happen to them,” says Jonathan Theders, CPIA, president and risk architect at Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc.

Theders says there are several triggers within a business that can cause violent reactions, such as layoffs, firings, a poor performance review, or a disagreement with a coworker. External factors, such as a divorce, a domestic dispute, alcohol abuse, or financial problems can also be triggers.

Smart Business spoke with Theders about how to recognize those potential triggers and prevent workplace issues from escalating into violence.

What can businesses do to minimize the risk of violence in the workplace?

Watch for things that could push somebody over the edge. A lot of the warning signs that precede an act of violence are often overlooked or ignored. Often, after a violent crime occurs in the workplace, people say, ‘It’s so clear how it happened.’ People always see the good in other people, so we brush these things off.

Rather than wait for something to happen, employers need to be proactive, and one way to do that is to create a zero tolerance policy. That policy should state, ‘No type of violent behavior, including intimidation, threats or violent acts will be tolerated. Anything that leads to these things will lead to discipline, including termination.’

In almost every workplace violence scenario, there were signs beforehand. If a recently laid-off employee talks about payback, people brush it off as anger. But you can’t do that. If you draw a line in the sand and create a zero tolerance policy, you’re going to defuse a lot of issues ahead of time.

What signs should employers watch for?

In our sample policy, there are three stages of behavior. Stage one shows early potential for violence, name-calling, dehumanizing of people, challenging authority, regularly being argumentative and unusual behavior. Those things need to be brought to management’s attention and addressed at the forefront.

Stage two is the escalated potential for violence: ignoring company policies and procedures, stealing from the company, making threats verbally or in writing, blaming others for problems and destruction of property.

Stage one encompasses the warning signs; in stage two, you’d better brace yourself. In stage three, the potential for violence is realized. That’s when they come in punching, kicking, or waving a gun.

Is it possible to prepare for workplace violence scenarios?

Absolutely. Everyone needs to have response procedures in place. You need to know how to respond to either a perceived or actual threat of violence. Who should employees report concerns to? Who is going to assess the situation? Every employee should know where to go when they hear things.

The workplace walkthrough is next. Identify key areas that might be hotspots for violent crimes to occur, such as warehouse entries or access points. Train employees near entrances to recognize former employees recently let go and alert people.

Training and education are important to ensure that your employees understand what to do. Your written policy and procedure doesn’t do anything if it is just sitting on a shelf. You have to communicate it and make sure every manager, supervisor and employee understands it.

What are the risks of failing to prevent workplace violence?

One of the real challenges is how these acts can affect the company’s bottom line. It can be very destructive.

You have management and employees distracted, reacting to something they never should have had to react to and taking those energies out of the business and on to something else. Morale is absolutely tanked. The emotional aspect on those affected is enormous, whether or not they have been victim themselves. It affects them not only that day, but for months afterward. You don’t even have to have been there to be affected. If you were off that day, just knowing that something occurred can make you emotionally distraught.

Then there’s the reputation risk. Your vendors and customers don’t know if it’s safe to visit your business. That can be very detrimental because you have to beef up your security to help them feel secure.

The morale destruction and reputation issues require a lot of PR to repair. These things can and have put companies out of business.

How can businesses protect themselves against these risks?

Most companies are poorly prepared for sudden acts of violence. You can buy workplace violence expense insurance to protect the company, directors and officers, employees, volunteers and any guests on the company’s premise. Workers’ compensation only covers the workers.

Workplace violence expense insurance usually includes three months of business income coverage, which helps when you’ve lost production because people are unfocused or you’ve had to temporarily shut down. The coverage will help support lost revenue while the company is getting back on its feet.

There is usually a small life insurance benefit for any employee who dies on the premises, $25,000 or less that goes toward funeral expenses to help the family.

Some insurance companies will partner with a crisis management firm to help the insured company through the PR aspect of the incident. Those professionals can go into a company and help make things better as quickly as possible.

Jonathan Theders, CPIA, is president and risk architect at Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or