If you're like most small business owners, you probably think the chance of your laboratory being the site of a violent act is pretty slim. Perhaps that's because those words—workplace violence—conjure sensational images of an armed, disgruntled employee coming back to "settle the score."
But shooting rampages like the ones we hear about in the media aren't the only violent threat to your staff. According to the Workplace Violence Research Institute, workplace violence is any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically. This includes physical or verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation and harassment.
How prevalent is this type of violence in American workplaces? Every day, an estimated 16,400 threats are made, 723 workers are attacked and 43,800 are harassed, according to the Institute. As a business owner, it's your responsibility to guard employees against these risks. And, although providing a safe working environment should be your primary concern, also keep in mind that you could be legally liable should a serious incident occur (see What are your legal liabilities?) below.
It can be impossible to predict when someone is going to act out violently; however, after analyzing past incidents, the FBI has come up with the following list of behavioral indicators. Of course, an employee who exhibits one or two of these behaviors is not necessarily one who is prone to violence but, at the very least, they are typical of a troubled employee and should be addressed. You may also want to refer the employee to counseling.
- Direct or veiled threats of harm.
- Intimidating, belligerent, harassing or other aggressive behavior.
- Numerous conflicts with supervisors or other employees.
- Bringing a weapon to the workplace, or expressing an unusual fascination with firearms.
- Statements indicating a fascination with workplace violence or an identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides.
- Desperation over personal problems.
- Substance abuse.
- Extreme changes in behavior, such as increased aggression or withdrawal; previously productive, dependable employees not showing up for work or exhibiting a serious, prolonged drop in productivity.
The first step you can take is to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy, making it clear that threats or aggression are not tolerated. Detailing unacceptable behaviors in writing creates an awareness of potential problems, and employees may be more apt to report a concern.
While at a meeting with the Texas Workforce Commission, laboratory manager Matthew Kendrick was astonished to learn the prevalence of workplace violence and decided to add a violence policy to his employee manual. "Although I'm not fearful of anyone in my laboratory, putting a policy in place seemed to be a good precautionary measure," says Kendrick, general manager of ADL, Inc., a 12-person laboratory in Garland, Texas. In his manual, employees are advised that the following actions are intolerable:
- Physically aggressive, violent or threatening behavior, such as attempts to instill fear in others or intimidation.
- Threats of any sort.
- Any other behavior that suggests a tendency toward violence, such as excessive arguing, profanity, threats to sabotage laboratory property, belligerent speech or a demonstrated pattern of insubordination and refusal to follow policies and procedures.
- Causing physical damage to facilities or defacing company property.
- Bringing firearms or weapons type onto the premises or parking lots, or while conducting business on behalf of the lab.
Also spell out the consequences of violating the policy, which can range from warnings or probation to unpaid suspension or termination. Once employees have read the policy, have them sign it. "If you are ever in a position where you need to terminate someone for violating the rules, it's important to show that he was aware of the policy and understood the consequences," says Kendrick.
Workplace violence experts also suggest that managers examine their hiring and firing practices. When filling a position, here are the strategies they suggest to identify candidates with a propensity to violence:
- Verify applicants' education, job positions and titles and employment dates; if someone lies to you at the start, he's obviously trying to hide something.
- Check references, although more and more employers are giving little or no meaningful information to prospective employees to protect themselves from civil litigation.
- Have at least two interviews per candidate, even for entry level positions. Don't underestimate the power of a "gut" feeling.
- During the interview, ask a variety of open-ended questions to get the applicant to elaborate about his work history. Try, for example, "tell me about the best and worst boss you've ever had." It should give you pause if he says he's never had a good boss.
- Require drug testing.
- Some companies conduct a criminal background or motor vehicle check, where legal.
Firing should be handled even more delicately, since the single biggest trigger of rampage-type attacks by employees is termination. Have a witness, for instance another manager when possible, and calmly state the reasons for the termination to the employee. Answer his or her questions, but don't get into a debate; it will only heighten the tension.
It's important to note that acts of workplace violence are not limited to disgruntled employees; they could also be caused by clients, domestic partners of employees, or can even be a totally random act. Therefore, it's important to assess the potential risks in and around your facility and put necessary safeguards in place, such as installing an intrusion alarm or additional lighting in the parking lot.
For example, when Breaux Dental Lab moved to its new facility in Beaumont, Texas, owner Joey Breaux noticed that the fencing around the back parking lot had been torn up, presumably by intruders, so he had it fixed and even added razor wire. "My employees thought it was a little extreme at first, but now they all park back there," he says.
Also, since there is nobody posted at the front door and Breaux and his five employees work at the back of the large laboratory space, he realized that an intruder could enter and have access to the whole front half of the facility without anyone even realizing he came in. Now chimes are activated when someone enters the door and a camera at the front entrance displays the image on four monitors throughout the lab.
In addition to looking at your physical facility, think about the general climate in your laboratory: do you acknowledge and try to dissipate the stress your technicians are under? Are employees encouraged to discuss grievances with you? Is there an emphasis on common goals or is there an "us versus them" mentality between management and the rest of the staff? Above all, are employees treated with dignity and respect? Although there are no guarantees, managing your laboratory in such a way to ensure trust and open communication can help you from falling victim to the unthinkable.
What are Your Legal Liabilities?
Should an incident of violence occur at your lab, you could be held legally liable. the average out-of-court settlement is $500,000 and the average jury award is $3 million. In legal action following workplace violence, issues often involve:
- Negligent hiring: failing to screen employees, resulting in the hiring of someone who had a history of violent and criminal acts.
- Negligent retention: keeping an employee after becoming aware of his propensity to violence.
- Negligent supervision: failing to monitor employees effectively.
- Inadequate security: not providing necessary security measures to safeguard employees.
Source: Workplace Violence: An Employers Guide, The Workplace Violence Research Institute