As a corporate employee relations manager for a Fortune 100 company, I was part of the company’s threat assessment team. Threats of violence made against employees by their spouses or significant others were reported to human resources.
A first blush, you would think that most workplace violence stems from employees who resent taking direction from supervisors, or employees who are being laid off or terminated. While these are all scenarios which can and have resulted in assaults and even murder, an overwhelming number of cases spill over from the home. More than 95% of the threat cases I handled in the course of any given year started with an angry spouse or significant other.
When you think about it, this really isn’t that surprising. The time when battered women (and most victims are women) hid their humiliation and injuries is quickly passing. More and more women are speaking out and with the support of public and private groups, leaving abusive relationships. While this openness is a positive step, the fact that a woman leaves a relationship doesn’t mean the violence will end.
When a woman leaves an abusive relationship, one of her greatest concerns is often financial security. Now, more than ever, she needs her job. She may go to a shelter or the home of a friend or relative, but the one place she will continue to go is her place of employment. An abusive spouse or significant other knows this and that’s when the problem can escalate.
Before an employer can take steps to protect an employee, the employer needs to identify who needs protection. There is still a reluctance to come forward and admit you’re being abused. We all want to put on our best face at work; we don’t want to air our dirty laundry to people we don’t know well. Many abused women won’t even disclose their situation to their own families, much less their supervisor.
A company that’s concerned with workplace violence can actually foster an atmosphere in which employees feel comfortable asking for help. While there’s no guarantee that violence won’t occur in your company, here are some concrete steps you can take to reduce the risks.
Organize or Hire an Employee Assistance Program
A company may want to hire professionals to staff an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Or they may prefer to outsource this function and hire a company that provides EAP assistance. It is crucial to the success of either an inhouse or outsourced plan that:
1. It be staffed by mental health professionals. This means psychiatrists, psychologists, or experienced social workers (MSW’s); preferably there will be at least one licensed psychologist or psychiatrist to lead the group.
2. The EAP should have an answering service operating 24/7, staffed by well-trained people who can triage calls. By triage, I mean they can sort out which calls require immediate assistance and which ones can be handled during normal business hours. If a woman calls at 2 am and says her face is bleeding because her husband punched her, she cannot wait until 8 am for someone to get her help.
3. At least one trained mental health professional must be on call 24/7 to handle emergency calls.
4. The EAP must be well publicized throughout the company and this publicity must be repeated frequently. It does no good to have an EAP if no one knows about it. Every supervisor should have the EAP number ready at hand. Every employee should be given information about the EAP, what it does, how it can help, how to reach the EAP, and that communications with the EAP are confidential.
Train Supervisors To Be Alert And Promptly Report Issues Involving Violence
Supervisors need training to recognize the signs of domestic violence since many victims feel too humiliated to admit their problems. Training should be conducted by either EAP staff or human resources management who are thoroughly experienced in dealing with domestic violence.
The importance of proper training cannot be overemphasized. I will never forget the morning I arrived at work in my office in California and checked my voicemail. A supervisor on the east coast had left me a message that one of her employees was “in trouble” and I needed to call. I immediately called the supervisor who informed me that she had the employee in her office. The two of them had been there for over an hour. The supervisor was certain the employee had been battered by her boyfriend because she had a black eye. The employee could be heard sobbing in the background. Apparently the employee did not want to talk about the incident. When I finally coaxed the employee to calm down, she told me that her superviser had practically dragged her out of the common work area, after shouting in front of coworkers, “Did that jerk hit you again?”
It took at least a half hour for me to calm the employee down, after which I was able to elicit information that led me to believe the woman’s boyfriend might come to the workplace; that he had a drug problem; he was unemployed, and he owned a gun.
Not only had valuable time been lost by the supervisor’s mishandling of the situation, but the employee had been thoroughly humiliated in front of her coworkers and was reluctant to cooperate to help herself. Eventually, we were successful in getting the employee assistance from EAP and securing the workplace, alerting security and the local police department.
However, both the employee and her coworkers were badly shaken. After coworkers saw how this woman was treated, they admitted they would be reluctant to seek help. To rehabilitate the situation, we trained the supervisor and then had her apologize for her insensitivity during a staff meeting. The supervisor then took the opportunity to let employees know about the EAP and that they could call them in confidence at any time of the day or night.
Although there had been management training on the EAP program and how to handle threats of violence and/or employees who appeared to be victims of violence, the training had been a one-time-only event. It became apparent after this incident that. like sexual harassment training, there’s no such thing as too much. Many experts suggest sexual harassment training should take place every six months. It’s not a bad idea to include workplace violence training at the same time.
Get Information Necessary to Protect The Workplace
When an act of violence is threatened, immediate action is crucial. Having people and policies in place ahead of time makes a successful resolution more likely. My company (and a former employer) had provided me with formal threat assessment training so that I was able to quickly and accurately assess the situation. It’s vital to get as much information as possible about the person making the threats.
1. Has he been violent before?
2. Has he ever been arrested?
3. Does he have a drinking or drug abuse problem?
4. Does he have a job? (If he’s unemployed he may feel he has nothing to lose.)
5. Does he have a family (parents, sisters, brothers) or other support system?
6. Does he have guns or other weapons?
7. Does he have access to weapons?
8. Do you have a photograph of him that we can have for security? What kind of car does he drive (make, model, license plate)?
Whenever I received a call involving workplace threats or potential violence, I immediately made certain the employee was put in touch with, or at least given the opportunity to be put in touch with, the EAP. My very next call was to the head of facilities at the site where the employee worked. Depending on the degree of potential violence involved, extra security could be hired. In some cases, armed guards were retained. If you believe that armed guards are required, it is highly recommended that these guards be highly trained and experienced; former police officers are preferable.
In cases where the threat is severe, you might want to consider having the employee stay away from the workplace for several days or a week. At the company where I worked, we actually gave paid leave to certain employees if we felt it was safer for them to be away from the office.
If the employee’s phone line is called by the abuser, you may want someone to inform him that she no longer works there.
Security should be given information about the person making the threats. A photograph is preferred but if no photo is available, at least height, weight, hair color and make, model, color and license plate of his car.
If the employee is going to remain in the workplace, she should be given a parking place as close to the building as possible. Security should escort the employee to and from her vehicle until the threat of violence has passed.
The issue of restraining orders is open to debate. On the one hand, having a restraining order in place gives law enforcement the ability to make arrests based on violation of the order. On the other hand, a restraining order is only a piece of paper. Some people, served with a restraining order become enraged and their threats may escalate to action. If an employee decides to obtain a restraining order, copies should be distributed as follows:
1. The employee should carry one with her at all times
2. The police department in the area where the workplace is located should receive a copy
3. The police department where the employee lives should receive a copy
4. The employee’s supervisor should have a copy so he/she can call police if the person making the threats shows up
5. Security should have a copy of the restraining order so they can call the police if the person making the threats shows up at the workplace
6. Human resources should retain a copy
Promote An Atmosphere Of Security Awareness
The constant barrage of violence to which we are exposed, from street crime to terrorism, leaves many of us feeling powerless. But companies can empower employees so that everyone feels more secure in the workplace. Every employee should be reminded to wear their ID badges at all times. Don’t allow access to someone behind them when they scan their badge to open a door. Insist the next person use their own badge to open the door. If they say they forgot their badge, tell them to call security. Report suspicious behavior to their supervisor. If they feel at all uncomfortable about talking to their supervisor, have them call security or human resources.
Workplace security is a group effort. It starts with management but employee involvement is an integral part of the plan. When management and employees work together to keep the workplace free from violence, everyone wins.