The best way to handle violence in the workplace is to prevent it. To curtail violence among employees in your business, take the following steps:
- Accept the possibility that workplace violence can occur in your workplace.
- Review your recruiting and hiring procedures—institute criminal background checks and carefully check all references and former employers.
- Check external and internal security. Where appropriate, use a screening system. Determine if more stringent security measures are necessary.
- Provide external security to prohibit uncontrolled access by outsiders throughout the company. Identify those members of your staff (such as yourself) who may be likely targets and establish procedures to control access to them. Take every known threat seriously. Follow up and investigate completely.
- Know the warning signs of a troubled employee.
- Prohibit the possession of all weapons, either inside the workplace or transported in an employee's vehicle on company property.
- Make sure all employees know how to reach your local police, ambulance, and security company if you have one.
- Attempt to develop a workplace environment that fosters trust among existing employees and management.
- Develop policies against all forms of violence including harassment and enforce them consistently and universally.
- Establish grievance procedures. If you need to fire an employee, do so with sensitivity, in a way that preserves the employee's dignity.
- Establish exit interview procedures that collect company keys, identification, etc., and alert you to any potential problems.
- Install routine security procedures when employees are fired.
- Emphasize humane and respectful treatment of all employees and pay particular attention to those who are terminated.
- Know how to prevent and handle workplace fighting.
- Know how to handle a violent incident, if one should occur.
Warning Signs of a Violent Employee
In many cases, there are early warning signs of a potentially violent employee that are not communicated to the people who could take action or that are not taken as seriously as they should be. Generally speaking, employee behaviors that may be warnings include:
- Depressed behavior
- Paranoid behavior
- Recent acquisition of a weapon
- Talking about or posting a clipping of a violent incident in another workplace
Practices that occur in the workplace that are believed to lead to higher incidents of violence include:
- Poor grievance procedures
- Poor employer-employee relations
- Harassment, threats, and intimidation
- High levels of stress
One of the perceived barriers in screening out individuals who may be violent in the workplace is the protection guaranteed by the ADA. The following illustration shows how an employer can hire intelligently while not violating the ADA.
Jane Smith applies for a position with the ABC Company. Her interview goes well and she appears qualified, but near the end of her interview Jane discloses that she has a mental illness known as paranoid schizophrenia. The condition, Jane says, is reasonably controllable with medication. Can ABC Company refuse to consider Jane on the basis of her condition and its potential impact on the safety of other workers?
A medical exam can be conducted after an offer of employment, if t is required of all applicants. An alternative would be to send a letter to Jane's doctor outlining the essential job functions and asking the doctor if she can perform them without a significant risk of injury to herself or others and what can be done to reduce any risk. The employer should be able to inquire into her history of taking medication. This action documents that the employer desired to accommodate Jane and that it did not act in a negligent manner.
Suppose Jane was hired and has a mediocre work history. She's been in arguments with coworkers and supervisors and her attitude has been described as "belligerent." She's been disciplined for poor work performance. She has been granted leave twice while confined to institutions of psychiatric care. A third hospitalization resulted after Jane attempted to enter the governor's office with a concealed weapon. When released as stabilized, Jane seeks to return to her position. What can the employer do now? The employer has a basis for its own doctor's exam to get medical evidence of whether or not Jane is a threat. Documentation of reasonable accommodation efforts is necessary—a last-chance agreement may be considered. If independent medical support is forthcoming confirming that Jane cannot perform the essential job functions, then the employer may terminate, assuming this is consistent with its policies. Nothing will guarantee that Jane will not file a lawsuit; however, the employer has a strong defense consistent with the law.