Is One of Your Employees a Ticking Time Bomb?

Last Updated Aug 9, 2010 3:40 PM EDT

Companies that have experienced tragic workplace violence, like the recent shooting at Hartford Distributors in Manchester, CT that resulted in nine deaths, have at least one thing in common: no one saw it coming. But in many cases, the warning signs were there all along. In recessionary times, workplace tension can run especially high, so it's more important than ever to put policies and procedures in place to keep your employees safe. BNET asked several workplace safety experts for their best advice on preventing workplace violence. Here it is:
Screen all new hires. Demand references and then check them thoroughly; you might also consider doing background screenings. And during the interview process, ask questions that will help reveal behavior patterns. Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resources Solutions in Northampton, MA says "the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." To determine a potential employee's propensity for volatility, she suggests asking questions such as "describe for me a time when you had to deal with a co-worker whose values did not align with yours? How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome?" Does the candidate blame others, or take some responsibility? Does he/she appear agitated when answering the question?

Create a culture of recognition and respect. Employees who feel vested in their companies and who know they are an integral part of a team are less likely to lash out at co-workers. "Set clear expectations and provide regular and frequent performance feedback aimed at developmental improvements," suggests Jeffrey Saltzman, CEO of OrgVitality in Pleasantville, NY. Recognize and celebrate achievements, preferably in a group setting. Set up a system of regular staff or team meetings where all employees are encouraged to contribute to brainstorming and problem solving.

Take a no-tolerance approach to workplace bullying. Carol Stewart, an adjunct professor of management at Southern CT State University, says that companies need to take bullying as seriously as sexual harassment. She suggests creating a formal no-tolerance policy on bullying combined with mandatory training on bully prevention and employee education programs on conflict resolution. "The most effective way to reduce bullying and workplace violence is by taking a "community" approach - it has to include everyone at all levels," she says.

Provide employees with access to an employee assistance program (EAP). "This is a place where employees can confidentially discuss issues that are weighing them down, before they reach the end of their rope," says Roberta Matuson. Most EAPs cover stress related illness, substance abuse, depression, family issues, mental illness, etc. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that employers generally save from $5 to $16 for every dollar spent on an EAP.

Recognize warning signs (and teach your employees to do the same). "Probably the most obvious warning sign an employer can look for is stress," says Leslie Sexer, director of clinical outreach services at Family Centers, a provider of human services and counseling programs in Fairfield County, CT. "This is not to say that a stressed employee is prone to violence, but it should be addressed by the employer to see if any assistance or counseling can be provided." Early signs that something is not quite right include tardiness/absenteeism, social withdrawal, decreased productivity, unkempt appearance and irritability. More serious warning signs that require immediate attention include confrontations with supervisors and staff, comments that indicate the employee sees him or herself as a victim, vague threats, fascination with workplace violence events and with weapons. "During difficult economic times employers need to be in tune with how employees are managing their stress in all domains of their lives, especially if layoffs are imminent," says Sexer.

Handle terminations with care. "Plan all terminations, including who will do and say what," suggests Greg Szymanski, Director of Human Resources for Geonerco Management, a Seattle, WA real estate development firm. "Do not do them at the spur of the moment." Szymanski also suggests having at least two higher-level employees present during all disciplinary actions or terminations. "Employers are often thrown under the bus for watching people pack up their personal effects or escorting the person from the premises," he says. But while these policies may seem heartless, they may also save lives.

Have a plan in place. Of course, everyone hopes they'll never need to execute a workplace violence plan, but you should create one nonetheless, says Gary Bahadur, CEO of KRAA Security in Miami. "Have a written plan that all employees are aware of," he says. You need to train your employees on how to respond during the incident and, says Bahadur, "have a recovery plan that encompasses employees, visitors and media. Incident management can break a company's reputation if it is done incorrectly or even lead to legal action."

What does your company do to keep employees safe from workplace violence?

Nonviolence image by Flickr user Cyb3rbl@ck, CC 2.0