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Connecticut School Shootings Focus Conversation on Workplace Violence Prevention 
 

12/17/2012  By Roy Maurer 
 
 
 

The tragic murders of students and teachers Dec. 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is a grim reminder of the need for every workplace to have a safety plan and procedures in place, human resource and workplace violence prevention professionals said.

“A workplace tragedy like this makes me want to plead with employers to develop a safety plan and procedures and limit easy access to workplaces,” said Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant who specializes in human resources issues and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management.

“The first statement I heard from Sandy Hook was that ‘I never thought it could happen here,’ ” said W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence.

“Accept the possibility that violence can occur at your workplace. The odds may be against it, but don’t be in denial that it can’t happen,” Nixon told SHRM Online.

Dealing with the impact of tragedy on your workplace is another important function for which HR is responsible, Heathfield said.

“Whether tragedy strikes close to home or nationally, people depend on their employer to mitigate the sorrow and the impact of it. And employers can do this. We play such an important role in the lives of our employees,” she told SHRM Online.

Implementing a Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

There is no single prescription for reducing violence in the workplace. The event at Sandy Hook Elementary, where the alleged perpetrator was not an employee, “is the most challenging and complex type of incident to try to anticipate and prevent,” said Nixon.

“It is highly unlikely that we could have prevented this. The only potential for prevention in this case it seems, would have been if somebody who knew the shooter suspected that he had problems that could lead to this and got him help,” he said. 

“The reality is that extreme cases of violence are still relatively rare, even if it doesn’t feel that way,” said Hector Alvarez, founder of Alvarez Associates, a firm specializing in workplace violence prevention.  “While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are ways to help prevent violence from occurring at your organization.”

Employers need to have a comprehensive workplace violence prevention policy in place, but more importantly, the policy needs to be made up of processes that are implemented, said Nixon.

“Having a policy in place that you don’t do anything with is not enough,” he stressed.

The policy should include processes that document violent incidents in the workplace, assess threats specific to the workplace, implement environmental and administrative controls, and provide companywide employee training on crisis response to a violent event, Nixon said. The program should include emergency procedures in the event of a violent incident in the workplace. It should state explicitly how the response team is to be assembled and who is responsible for immediate care of the victims, re-establishing work areas and processes, and organizing and carrying out stress-debriefing sessions with victims, their co-workers and perhaps the families of victims and co-workers. 

Creating Threat Assessment Teams

Just as workplaces have developed mechanisms for reporting and dealing with sexual harassment, a written workplace violence prevention policy should indicate clearly zero tolerance of violence at work. Employers must develop threat management teams to which threats and violent incidents can be reported, said Nixon. These cross-functional teams should include representatives from human resources, security, legal and employee assistance professionals, with the charge to assess the threats of violence and to determine what steps are necessary to prevent workplace violence from being carried out. This team should be chartered and responsible to a C-suite executive, Nixon said.

“Developing an organization that is resilient to acts of violence starts with a commitment from senior management, and sustaining the prevention efforts requires active participation on their part,” Alvarez said. 

The starting place for a threat management team is conducting a risk and vulnerability assessment specific to each organization to identify problem areas and coordinate emergency response procedures.

It’s important to understand the unique challenges that your organization faces, Alvarez said. The type of work, facility, neighborhood, customers, existing security measures, and policies and procedures are some of the things that should be reviewed. “At the most basic level, simply ask yourself, ‘how or why would somebody be able to commit an act of violence here?’ ”

HR’s Role in Preventing Violence in the Workplace

Human resources is often an organization’s first line of defense for the prevention of workplace violence, Heathfield said. “So, take responsibility, working with IT, administration and safety staff, to limit access to your facilities and train employees in procedures to cover any potential act of violence in your workplace. If you haven’t already established and trained employees in violence prevention plans, you need to do so, now,” she said.

HR can address the potential threat of workplace violence in many ways, including providing job counseling for employees who have been laid off or fired, training employees to be aware of and recognize employees at risk, and intervening with employees who are at risk. Provide training to your staff on how to recognize the warning signs for people who may be heading down a path toward violence, Alvarez said. Make sure they know how to report their concerns and that their concerns will be taken seriously, he added.

HR can also take charge of training supervisors and employees on conflict resolution, developing an effective harassment policy, establishing procedures for handling grievances, conducting employee background screening, and providing safety education training and drills in the case of a workplace violence event.

Nixon also recommended facilitating access to an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP provides employees with a free, easily accessible and confidential resource for addressing family, marital, financial and personal issues. “EAPs serve as a stress release valve. We need to recognize that employees bring their issues and problems to work,” he said.

Environmental, Administrative Controls

Environmental design safeguards and administrative controls to consider include:

*Physical separation of employees from customers, clients and the general public through the use of barriers or enclosures.

*Making high-risk areas visible to more people and installing good external lighting.

*Access to and exits from the workplace. The number of entrances and exits, the ease with which nonworkers can gain access to work areas because doors are unlocked, and the number of areas where potential attackers can hide are issues that should be addressed.

*Numerous security devices may reduce the risk for assaults against employees and facilitate the identification and apprehension of perpetrators. These include closed-circuit cameras, alarms, two-way mirrors, electronic control access systems, and panic-bar doors that lock from the outside.

*Staffing plans and work practices such as prohibiting unsupervised movement, increasing the number of staff on duty at retail or late-night establishments, and utilizing security guards or receptionists to screen people entering the workplace and to control access to actual work areas.

Dealing with the Aftermath of Workplace Tragedy

When a tragedy strikes a workplace, it affects the whole team. Organizations will most likely be overwhelmed after a workplace violence event. Dealing appropriately with tragedy in the workplace brings your team together on an emotional level and helps keep productivity stable.

“HR will be placed in the spotlight,” said Alvarez. In addition to payroll issues, insurance, family notifications and general staff support, they will have to deal with a lot other items, such as regulatory investigations, offers of assistance from the public, and trauma counseling, he said. 

“Reassure your employees that you understand and share their sorrow,” said Heathfield. “In your workplace, you need to allow time for reflection, places for employees to gather to talk, access to the news in a shared setting, time off for funerals with bereavement policies and unpaid leaves of absence when necessary, and understanding of the lack of focus on work for a period of time.”  

Other HR considerations include:

*Coordinating a response. The response should be managed by a team with one person in charge. This is to make sure that both internal and external messages and response efforts are consistent, said Alvarez. 

*Communicating with staff. Staff will undoubtedly be concerned. “While it is not possible or advised to provide specific details, you should be prepared to give enough details so they understand how the company is responding and what their role in the response and recovery will involve,” said Alvarez.

*Monitoring the workplace environment. It is not uncommon for additional threat concerns to be raised, Alvarez said. “Employees will likely bring forward every concern they have ever had. Be prepared to respond to their questions. Temporarily increasing security should be something you consider.”

*Providing guidance on interacting with media. Designate who will be the “face of the incident” and that all questions should be directed to that person.

*Monitoring social media. “We have witnessed in recent responses to workplace shootings that some employees took pictures of the violence and posted them online while the incident was still unfolding. You may not be able to control social media interaction, but at least you can be prepared to respond,” Alvarez said.

*Providing support. Everybody responds differently to acts of violence. Watch for signs of post-traumatic stress in others and yourself. Include grief training as part of your response program, Heathfield said. When tragedy strikes, people are uncertain about what to do, she said.

“Teach your staff members about grief, the stages of grief, how to deal with grief in self and co-workers, how to tell children about a tragedy, and more. It will support your workplace morale, build employee self-confidence, and lessen the long term impacts of tragedy.

“I know people across the country, who didn’t know victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings who cried all day and were deeply affected by the murders,” Heathfield said. “Employers cannot expect business as usual when local or national tragedies occur. Your employees will remember and appreciate your response. Kindness, one-on-ones with the employee’s manager and the encouragement of places to gather to share feelings are critical,” she said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

Related Articles:

Recent Shooting Sprees Raise Awareness Among Employers, SHRM Online Safety & Security, August 2012

Avoid Violent Terminations with a Show of Respect, SHRM Online Safety & Security, August 2011

Attorneys Advise Action to Prevent Bullying, Workplace Violence, SHRM Online Safety & Security, September 2010

Related Resources:

OSHA’s Workplace Violence Resources

SHRM and ASIS International’s Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention: American National Standard (PDF)

SHRM Workplace Violence Survey

National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence Factsheet

Susan Heathfield's Human Resources Site

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