Preventing Workplace Violence: Early Identification and Intervention Go a Long Way

Here are four things that organizations can consider to build or enhance a workplace violence prevention program.
Published: January 4, 2023

As workplaces are emerging from pandemic restrictions and returning to near-normal operations, corporate security and human resources professionals are facing some complex challenges. Many studies have shown workplaces are facing an increased volume of threats, including threats from those internal or otherwise known to the organization (e.g., employees, vendors) and those external to the organization (e.g. anonymous social media threat to the CEO, domestic violence threat to an employee at work).

Second, high-profile acts of gun violence and mass casualty events across the U.S. have increased fears over workplace violence generally and across industries. For example, earlier this year, a man shot four co-workers at Columbia Machine, Inc., a manufacturing facility in Maryland. At a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., 10 people were killed and three injured in a racist, hate-based shooting. Just four weeks later, five people were murdered at a Tulsa medical building.

Third, two years of pandemic conditions and all of the related stress, including financial, employment, health, and mental health-related stress, continue to impact at least some employees, including managers and C-suite personnel. Operating under prolonged stress, even when the source of stress starts to abate, can lead to hostile, threatening, and even violent behavior in the workplace. There are some industries that face an even greater risk of violence in the workplace. For example, the healthcare and social service industries experience the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence and are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury than workers overall.

The good news is that every organization in every industry, no matter where they are located, can take steps to prepare for and try to mitigate potential violent acts from occurring in or around the workplace. Efforts to identify concerns early, and take intervention where possible, can help enhance safety and reduce employee fear.

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Investing in workplace violence prevention efforts also makes good financial sense, as the costs of workplace violence continue to increase. According to a report by the National Security Council, NIOSH estimates the annual economic cost of workplace violence incidents to be $121 billion. The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence estimates employee productivity can decrease up to 50% in the six to 18 weeks following a violent incident, while turnover can increase to upwards of 30% to 40%.

Prevention is Possible

But can we actually prevent violence in the workplace? The short answer is: Yes. We know, from numerous studies conducted by the FBI, and U.S. Secret Service, and analyses of mass shooting databases from the Violence Project, Mother Jones, and others, that perpetrators of workplace shootings and other acts of target violence do not simply “snap.” There is often a long period of troubling behaviors that are observed by co-workers, supervisors, and others that occur leading up to the attack. In some cases, disgruntled employees share their specific plans for violence or warn colleagues they like. These studies have also shown that those who carry out violence against a workplace — or a particular person in that workplace — are often suicidal or despondent. We can prevent such violence by helping those who are despondent or suicidal and considering violence as a “way out” or a way to provoke a suicide-by-cop scenario.

What Can Organizations Do?

Returning to more normal business operations provides organizations with a great opportunity to review and enhance their workplace violence prevention programs — or to start one. Here are four things that organizations can consider to build or enhance a workplace violence prevention program:

  1. First, organizations should look to see what standards or best-practice procedures should guide their efforts. For example, for many workplaces, the ASIS International Standard for Workplace Violence and Active Assailant – Prevention, Intervention, and Response, would be an appropriate benchmark. However, for hospitals and healthcare facilities, the appropriate benchmark would be the new requirements for workplace violence prevention issued by The Joint Commission, which took effect in January 2022.
  2. Provide de-escalation training to all employees — or at least to those employees in any public-facing positions (e.g. front desk of a hotel; cashier in a retail establishment, etc.). Learning how to defuse an interaction that is becoming increasingly hostile will provide employees with vital skills that they can use both within the workplace and outside of work as well.
  3. Create a multidisciplinary team and provide them with training on how to handle threatening behavior in the workplace. A common misconception is that it is up to Security or HR to handle threatening employees on their own. In reality, it should be a team effort. Creating and training a threat assessment team or threat management in your organization is one of the most effective ways to prevent workplace violence.
  4. Encourage all employees to report threatening or troubling behavior that makes them feel unsafe. An organization’s threat assessment or management team can work most effectively when it receives reports of threats or other troubling behavior as soon as possible.

Forward-Looking Rather Than Reactive

Many organizations remain reactive and don’t address potentially dangerous situations until it’s too late. Sixty-three percent of respondents in the 2022 Mid-Year Outlook State of Protective Intelligence Report said that their company downplays risk to emulate a safe environment, and more than half (54%) said their organizations do not have a mechanism in place that allows employees to anonymously report issues. One-third said their organizations believe workplace violence training may actually create a culture of fear.

There is still work to do for organizations that take a more reactive approach. For preventing workplace violence, collaborative, consistent threat assessment programs and training can help create an environment of preparedness and safety.

Dr. Marisa Randazzo served with the U.S. Secret Service for a decade, most recently as the agency’s chief research psychologist assigned to the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC). Randazzo co-directed the landmark Safe School Initiative conducted jointly by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education.

Founder of Sigma Threat Management Associates, she is an author, scholar, and protective intelligence expert who has trained thousands in schools, mental health, law enforcement, and the intelligence community. Randazzo is the Executive Director of Threat Management at Ontic.

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