Planning and preparing for potential workplace altercations

By |  March 24, 2020
Planning and preparing for potential workplace altercations is a necessary and proactive step for any business or organization. Photo: MicroStockHub/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Planning and preparing for potential workplace altercations is a necessary and proactive step for any business or organization. Photo: MicroStockHub/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

It’s a nightmare scenario that haunts every business owner: A troubled employee’s simmering anger finally boils over into an act of workplace violence. Too often, the results are human injury, traumatized employees and a damaged business reputation.

“A violent event leading to injuries and loss of life can be devastating to a business,” says Wayne Maxey, executive consultant for Workplace Guardians, a San Diego-based consulting firm. “Some organizations never recover because of the impact on their surviving employees and on their brand.”

Not to be overlooked is the financial cost when injured employees bring costly lawsuits.

“While theories of negligence vary by state, very often employers can be sued for negligent hiring, negligent supervision and negligent retention of employees,” says Kathleen Bonczyk, founder of the Workplace Violence Prevention Institute in Orlando, Florida.

The resulting financial damages can be crippling for organizations lacking costly legal talent.

“Small businesses are at higher risk of financial devastation because they possess limited resources to implement comprehensive preventive approaches,” says Felix Nater, president of Nater Associates, a security consulting firm operating out of New York and Charlotte, North Carolina. “Yet they’re no better than large organizations at predicting when disgruntled employees will transition into violent action.”

Viable threats

Some companies never recover from workplace altercations because of the effects on workers. Photo: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Some companies never recover from workplace altercations because of the effects on workers. Photo: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Every employer must take steps to prepare for an unexpected act of workplace violence. Experts say that an effective policy starts with understanding the various manifestations of violence – including less extreme behaviors that too often grow into something worse.

“Most employers think of violence in terms of physical assault or homicide,” Nater says. “However, it can also take the form of threatening behavior, verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment.”

According to Nater, threatening behavior can mean the shaking of fists, confrontation with or threatening of a victim with objects, and blocking another person’s movement. Even non-physical actions can qualify.

“Violence can take the form of words, gestures, intimidation and bullying, and inappropriate conduct such as swearing, insults and condescending language,” Nater says.

Many such acts, Nater says, can rise to the level of harassment, which is activity that attempts to “demean, embarrass, humiliate, annoy or cause alarm.”

Any viable threat to cause bodily harm is an act of violence, and constitutes a crime under most state laws. Here are some examples in the form of statements made by one employee to another:

  • “I’m going to beat you up after work.”
  • “Employees who kill their supervisors have the right idea.”
  • “I’m afraid I’m going to lose control, and I have guns.”

All of these statements are serious matters.

“You need to take action right away in response to any workplace threat,” says John White, president of Protection Management, a consulting firm in Canton, Ohio. “If you ignore it, other employees will believe that making threats is okay. Then, eventually, someone may well carry out their threat.”

Gray areas

Some employee actions fall into the category of disruptive activity rather than workplace violence.

For example, maybe an employee tosses a pile of papers on the floor and begins to scream about how lousy they feel the company is. The correct response to such an event is to counsel the employee, come to a better understanding of the cause of their anger, and enlist their aid in improving the workplace environment.

On the other hand, if employees were to knock a laptop off the desk in anger, they might be disciplined for destruction of company property.

Still, other actions fall into a gray zone between harmless and harmful.

What should you do, for example, when humor contains a violent element? Suppose one employee tells another in a joking tone of voice, “I’m going to knock your block off after work.” In such cases, experts advise taking the individual aside and counseling that you realized they were joking, but that such behavior is still not acceptable. More troubling are statements for which a humorous intent is unclear.

“Sometimes it can be hard to tell,” White says. “It all depends on tone of voice, the environment and the body language. But the investigation process should try to come to a conclusion.”

In such cases, White suggests starting to watch the employee’s behavior more closely. Does the employee have attendance problems? Is he or she violating other organizational policies? Does he or she have health or financial problems?

“Try to observe the employee without being too invasive,” White says.

A final even category is the statement that is obviously not a joke, but is so veiled as to call into question its violent intent.

For example, suppose an employee tells their supervisor, “You had better not treat me like this.”

Their voice has a warning tone and their demeanor is dark, but is the statement a threat to commit violence or just a threat to quit and go work for a competitor?

The answer is elusive, but the best response is to take the employee aside and counsel them on what caused them to make their statement and what they had in mind.

Act early

An employee’s outburst, while perhaps innocent of violent intent, may also provide an early warning sign of more severe trouble down the road. Identifying such warning signs, and addressing them promptly, is the best way to obviate extreme behavior.

“Supervisors should be alert for employees who start to behave in strange ways, such as barricading themselves in their cubicles, or making statements such as their supervisors are poisoning their food,” Maxey says.

Be alert for those employees who are constantly unable to get along with others, who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, who are quick to anger, or who respond in inappropriate and exaggerated ways when given minor directives. All can be early signs of greater issues down the road.

Zero tolerance

An effective workplace policy starts with understanding the manifestations of violence –including less extreme behaviors that can grow into something worse. Photo: kali9/E+/Getty Images

An effective workplace policy starts with understanding the manifestations of violence –including less extreme behaviors that can grow into something worse. Photo: kali9/E+/Getty Images

Experts on workplace violence suggest that every employer establish a “zero tolerance” workplace violence policy that mandates termination for acts of violence, or threats of such acts. For less extreme behavior, an employer should mandate a system of progressive discipline that may include administrative leave and mandatory psychological evaluation and counseling.

A workplace policy should also address the subject of weapons.

“No weapons should be allowed in the workplace or in the business parking lot,” Bonczyk says. “You would be surprised what people put in their purses and backpacks. Those things include knives and guns.”

A caveat is that some state laws allow authorized firearm owners to keep guns in the trunks of their cars, so it’s best to consult with an attorney to learn if your business is located in a so-called “guns in trunks” state.

Once you’ve written a workplace violence policy, make it available to all employees.

“I can’t tell you how many places I go into and no one has read the policy in years,” White says.

Tread carefully

So your workplace violence policy is written, communicated and posted. How should you approach the employee whose behavior violates its terms? Bonczyk advises pulling the person aside and holding a meeting behind closed doors.

“Do not approach the troubled employee in public,” Bonczyk says. “That can be devastating and embarrassing, and can lead to more aggressive acts.”
Bonczyk advises attempting to put the individual at ease.

“Break the ice and give the employee an opportunity to calm down by offering a glass of water or a cup of coffee,” Bonczyk says.

Once the individual seems calm and collected, move on to a description of the behavior you have witnessed. Bonczyk suggests describing behaviors that you have actually witnessed rather than trying to interpret emotions or causes.

“Focus on what you have seen,” Bonczyk says.

Suggesting that the individual is troubled, resentful or envious of an employee’s success will only cause the person to deny the charge and become more upset. As your conversation proceeds, take steps to calm any emotional outbursts.

“If the employee starts to scream and to become aggressive, don’t try to interrupt or become aggressive yourself,” Bonczyk says. “Instead, lower your own voice and try to defuse the situation by repeating your desire to understand and to help.”

The focus of the conversation should not be on placing blame for behavior, but on offering assistance to help the employee behave better.

“Be sincere about your desire to assist the troubled employee,” Bonczyk says. “People can tell when you’re not.”

Once the employee explains what is troubling him, Bonczyk suggests offering whatever assistance is appropriate. Make a note on your calendar for a follow-up meeting and find out if the employee has made gains in solving his or her problem and if there is anything else your organization can do to help.

So, what happens if, despite your best efforts, the employee makes no progress and the angry or antisocial behavior continues?

“If the employee is resistant to change, you will need to look at termination,” Bonczyk says.

Still, before firing the individual, consult with an attorney to make sure you comply with all federal and state laws. The act of firing a troubled employee can itself lead to an act of violence, so it is prudent to take steps to reduce the risk of injury.

“Put the employee on notice and document everything,” Bonczyk says. “Such documentation will be needed later if the employee sues for wrongful discharge. Have a member of law enforcement on hand if you feel the employee may become violent during the termination.”

Prevent tragedy

Taking quick action to deal with unsettling behavior is important, but so is doing whatever you can to obviate such situations. One of the most effective steps is exercising care when taking on new staff members.

“Conduct adequate background screening when hiring a new worker,” Bonczyk says. “It is very difficult to coach or counsel a troubled individual once that person has joined your organization.”

Experts on workplace violence suggest that every employer establish a “zero tolerance” workplace violence policy that mandates termination for acts of violence, or threats of such acts. Photo: JRLPhotographer/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Experts on workplace violence suggest that every employer establish a “zero tolerance” workplace violence policy that mandates termination for acts of violence, or threats of such acts. Photo: JRLPhotographer/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Document your vetting activity and record the steps you took to uncover any previous history of workplace violence. That will provide important evidence in defending your organization against lawsuits by injured parties.

“Plaintiffs’ counsels will ask for personnel files to see if employers performed due diligence during the hiring process,” Bonczyk says.

Another effective preventive measure involves employee training.

“All employees need to know how to recognize at-risk behaviors,” Maxey says. “Urge them to report what they observe to supervisors.”

Employees often hold back from reporting what they see because they think they might get someone in trouble unnecessarily, or that they might be retaliated against by the person being reported or even by the company.

“It is important to communicate that you will support individuals who step forward,” Maxey says. “State explicitly that an employee making a report in good faith will not be retaliated against. And establish multiple channels of reporting, including anonymously. That can encourage people to speak up.”

Multiple paths

Experts on workplace violence emphasize that prevention is a continuing effort.

“Employers must engage in an ongoing process involving multiple prevention strategies from hiring to retiring,” Nater says.

The key to a successful workplace policy is preparation.

“Don’t assume that a violent incident is not going to happen at your workplace,” Maxey says. “Establish a workable policy, communicate it to all of the employees, and make sure everyone knows how to call and report what they see.”


Phillip M. Perry is an award-winning journalist who is published widely in the fields of business management, workplace psychology and employment law.


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