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Dealing with dangerous employees: security must play an active role in reducing workplace violence.

Most companies are aware of the recent violent workplace deaths in places like McDonalds in a San Diego suburb, post offices in Michigan and Oklahoma, and a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. It is, however, difficult for corporate executives to believe it can happen in their own organization. Security managers must awaken companies to the risks of employee violence and take the initiative in formulating preventive programs.

Establishing a policy. A three-point company policy should be implemented to reduce outbreaks of employee violence. First, criminal, education, and employment background checks on potential employees are essential. Many factors, such as legal constraints and the willingness of former employers and references to cooperate with background requests, will determine the extent of the information gathered.

The potentially troublesome employee is most likely to be identified through an examination of his or her work history. Unfortunately, work history is usually the most difficult field in which to obtain worthwhile information.

A drug testing policy is essential. Illegal drug use by workers has a negative impact on job performance and company profits. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that the typical employee abusing drugs was five times more likely to file a claim for workers' compensation, was involved in accidents almost four times more often than other employees, took sick leave twice as often as others, and was late to work three times more than employees who were not abusing drugs. Emphasis on the potential cost savings related to these issues may be helpful in getting an employer to adopt a drug-free workplace policy. The relationship between drug and alcohol abuse and acts of violence is clear. Studies of violence in the workplace indicate that substance abuse has been involved in the majority of incidents.(1) In addition to preemployment drug tests, testing for cause and random testing policies can contribute to the elimination of a work atmosphere conducive to potentially violent individuals.

A recent publication of The Bureau of Justice Assistance titled Combating Workplace Drug Crimes: Guidelines for Businesses, Law Enforcement, and Prosecutors suggested the following elements as part of a drug-free workplace program: drug-free workplace policy, substance abuse awareness efforts, drug-abuse training for supervisors, and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Drug testing law enforcement groups, community action groups, and private substance abuse education companies can provide help in the development of a program.

Finally, the establishment of a firm nonharassment policy is a must. Most of those who have committed acts of violence in the workplace have been described by co-workers and supervisors as intimidators. A zero-tolerance policy stating that threats, intimidation, harassment, or acts of violence will not be tolerated by the company must be communicated to all employees. New and current employees should be required to read and sign an acknowledgment of this policy. This procedure puts all employees on notice and makes administrative actions against violators much less difficult for management.

All incidents should be documented and studied. Appropriate strategies should be developed and implemented. The importance of implementing a nonharassment policy becomes even more evident when a company understands its potential liability in the absence of such a policy.

Human resource personnel, with input from security management and legal counsel, should develop guidelines to help prepare and conduct investigations of policy violations. Management must specify when security personnel should become involved in an investigation. Most investigations of policy violations will be handled by human resources. When indications of potential personal harm are present, security must become involved. Obviously, for the protection of all, investigative inquiries into these matters must be handled discreetly.

Predicting violence. Two points must be kept in mind when predicting who will commit an act of violence. First, no litmus test exists that can accurately predict potential incidents of violence. No psychological, physical, cognitive, or other tests can be used to predict which employee will carry out an act of vengeance. Studies by psychologists and psychiatrists on the accuracy of predictability of violence consistently conclude that such predictions are unreliable.(2) Their research shows that psychiatrists and psychologists have been vastly overrated as predictors of violence even in the best of circumstances. Nevertheless, EAPs and the services of psychologists and psychiatrists can provide valuable and needed support in cases involving problem employees and should be used.

Second, it is important to know employees. Open lines of communications should be encouraged. When it comes to predicting who will commit an act of violence, management should listen to its employees, especially the ones who work with and know the potential offender. When a disgruntled employee goes off the deep end, it rarely comes as a surprise to his or her co-workers. Their predictions can be more accurate than those of professionals. Consider the following examples:

* When an employee entered the facility where he worked in Louisville, Kentucky, on September, 14, 1989, and killed several employees with an automatic weapon, the shooting was heard by other employees who speculated on what the sounds were. One stated, "It's probably Crazy Joe coming back to shoot employees."(3)

* One individual had been an employee at a post office in Dana Point, California. Soon after his termination he entered the post office and killed several people on May 6, 1993. Those who knew him said all the signs were there. On the day of the shootings at the post office, he was wearing a T-shirt that had "Psycho" written on the front.4

Warning signs are almost always present. These signs are seen by those around the potentially violent person. The problem is that for every person who is accurately predicted to commit an act of violence, there may be hundreds who display the same warning signs yet never attempt such acts.

Training employees. To reduce the potential for workplace violence, employee training programs should incorporate issues, such as stress management, how to handle confrontations, and drug abuse awareness.

When someone is acting strange, management must be advised. To increase the chances that such incidents will be reported, the staff should be made aware of the potentially violent consequences of unreported situations. The company should also recognize that the reporting employee may be concerned about personal safety or job security when reporting a co-worker's behavior. The company must have a reporting procedure in place that provides appropriate support to the individual making the report.

Many warming signs of potential violence precede an event. Warning sign recognition should be included in a company's employee training program. Among the most consistent warning signs are personality characteristics. The potentially violent individual is usually depressed, a loner who intimidates those around him or her, and abuses drugs or alcohol. This person is often paranoid, a constant complainer, with a history of violence, or someone whose only source of self-worth seems to be his or her job.

Violent acts in the workplace may be a direct result of problems in the home. Consideration should be given to voluntary training and education of employees and perhaps families in identifying and handling spousal abuse, child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and other emotional problems. Companies should be well aware of their vulnerability in domestic problems where stalking or other obsessive acts may take place.

Preemployment background checks, a drug testing policy, and a nonharassment policy are three major efforts management can take to help reduce potential violence by problem employees. Awareness training, additional supervisory training, physical security surveys, and liaison with law enforcement can also help reduce the chances of violent acts on company property.

One should not overlook the importance of physical security surveys in this matter. Much can be accomplished at little cost. Limiting and controlling access, rearranging offices and furniture, security awareness briefings and training, and security hardware can all contribute to reducing employee vulnerability to angry co-workers.

The company should not make it easy for someone to come off the street and confront any of its employees. Special consideration should be given to areas in a facility providing accessibility to employees who are in positions that may be obvious targets of disgruntled persons.

Although most companies are equally vulnerable, it is difficult to justify preventive measures to management in economic terms. This should not discourage security professionals from taking the initiative in policy implementation. If a violent incident takes place on company property and inquiries show an absence of reasonable preventive efforts, the explanation process will be much more difficult.

Traditionally, security and human resource managers have reacted to such incidents, rather than developing policies to prevent them. Management must become prevention oriented, and the security manager must take the initiative. Security professionals must ensure that the company is taking active measures to provide a safe and healthy workplace for its employees, customers, vendors, and visitors.

Nothing can be done to guarantee a violent incident will not take place on company property, but much can be done to reduce the chances of it happening. The security manager should play an active and major role in reducing these possibilities.

(1) Dennis Clarke, "Group Charges Murder by Prescription Drug," The Sentinel-News, Shelbyville, KY, (January 15, 1990). (2) Stephen Heidel, "Slayings Inspire Tighter Job Screening," The Los Angeles Times, (February 5, 1992): B1 (3) The Washington Times, (July 31, 1991): E1. (4) The San Diego Union Tribune, (May 7, 1993): A1.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Walton, J Branch
Publication:Security Management
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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