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No one wants to consider the possibility of violent acts taking place at work, but the fact is, it does happen. In the wake of several high profile incidents both at home and abroad, including the recent massacre of 12 employees at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, many companies are revisiting their workplace violence policies and plans to ensure they are doing everything possible to protect their employees from harm.

While no policy or procedure can ever protect against every possible scenario, the law does require that employers provide a working environment that is free of known dangers. Addressing the issue of workplace violence raises awareness of the potential for problems, and helps provide employees with the tools they need to respond appropriately and more importantly, stay safe or uninjured in the event of a violent incident.

Workplace ViolenceDefining Workplace Violence

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), “Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.” More specifically, workplace violence can come from inside or outside of the organization, and might include anything from an employee yelling at or assaulting another employee, to an act of terror committed by an outside individual; for example, a disgruntled customer or estranged spouse may commit violence in retaliation for a perceived wrong.

Most often, though, the perpetrators of workplace violence are employees. The violence may be precipitated by something happening in the employee’s personal life (such as financial problems or illness), drug or alcohol abuse, or work-related stress or problems, such as being overlooked for a promotion or disciplined for poor performance.

Regardless of the cause of workplace violence, and who actually commits the violent act, the effects on a company are significant. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workplace violence leads to work absences, increased costs for the employer (for property damage, worker’s compensation, personnel costs, and increased security), psychological damage to employees, and in extreme cases, serious or permanent physical harm to employees.

Preventing and Addressing Workplace Violence

In many cases, violent incidents are predictable. Perpetrators often reveal clues to their struggles over time; rarely do people “snap” and commit violent acts on a whim. In some cases, employees may have already gone through the appropriate channels to try to prevent the violence, such as getting a restraining order against a former spouse who has made threats. Random acts of workplace violence are rare, and tend to occur more often when employees directly face the public, such as in the retail industry — but even then, there are usually signs that trouble is brewing.

Workplace ViolenceBecause there are usually clues that workplace violence is a possibility, employers are obligated to train employees in recognizing the signs, and reacting appropriately. There must be channels in place for employees to express concern anonymously over a co-workers behavior, or to report problematic behavior from outside of the organization. Employees should also be trained in what to do in the event of a workplace violence incident, including protocols for notifying authorities, interacting with the perpetrator, and protecting themselves from harm.

Workplace Violence Policies

A growing number of companies are instituting workplace violence policies. These policies are designed to not only build awareness of the issue, but also to remind employees that you have zero tolerance for any type of violence, including harassment, intimidation, and physical violence, in your company. All employees should sign a copy of the policy, acknowledging understanding, and all training should hinge upon the principles covered in the policy.

Workplace violence prevention policies should include several key features:

  • Specifically state that the policy applies to all employees, including full-time, part-time, and contract employees.
  • State the policy applies to work-related violence both in and outside of the workplace.
  • Outline the prohibited conduct.
  • State the requirement to report suspected or witnessed acts of violence, including threats and harassment, and the process for doing so.
  • Requirements for reporting restraining orders.
  • Outline the investigation and enforcement process.
  • Outline the consequences for noncompliance.
  • A statement of non-retaliation against those making reports.

Clearly, signing a policy is not going to stop an employee who is determined to commit violence, but having such a policy in place shows that you take workplace safety seriously, and provides a process for employees who may feel intimidated or frightened and unsure of how to respond.

Guns and the Workplace

One issue that is at the forefront of many Arizonians minds is the prospect of gun violence at work. Arizona law allows individual to carry concealed weapons on their person without a permit, except in prohibited areas such as jails and schools. However, employers may — and often do — prohibit employees from bringing firearms to work. Employees can keep weapons in their personal vehicles in the parking lot (unless otherwise prohibited by the employer or restricted to a certain area) but employers do have the right to ban firearms from the premises, and their policies overrule Arizona law. When crafting your workplace violence prevention policy, do not forget to address firearms, and clearly state your company policy.

Keeping employees safe requires more than removing hazards and requiring ID badges. Acknowledging the possibility of workplace violence and giving employees the tools they need to prevent and address are just as important — and could even save lives.

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