With a disturbing degree of frequency, we are confronted with one story after another having to do with violent acts such as drive-by shootings or shootings at schools or workplaces. In light of this situation, many organizations are investigating policies and procedures for dealing with violent employees or those they feel have the potential to be violent. In this article, I will share some information and suggestions for those organizations that want to minimize the chances of a violent act occurring. The United States Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) define workplace violence as “any act of or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site” (U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA, 2018). Whether or not we want to believe it, the facts tell us that our society is a violent one. Consider, for a moment, these statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2017):
- Nearly two million American workers report having been the victims of workplace violence each year.
- 500 U.S. workers were workplace homicide victims in 2016.
- 16,890 U.S. workers in the private sector experienced trauma from non-fatal workplace violence in 2016.
- Homicide is the third leading cause of death from occupational injury among males and the second leading cause of death from occupational injury among females.
Risk factors for workplace violence include doing working involving the exchanging of money and working with volatile or unstable people. Particularly high risk occupations include delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, public service workers, customer service agents, law enforcement personnel, and those who work alone or in small groups (U.S. Department of Labor/OSHA, 2018). The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 has a general duty clause that tasks employers with ensuring the health and safety of employees, as follows: “Each employer shall furnish to each of its employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” The logical extension of this clause is that employers should protect employees from the violent acts of their colleagues. Clearly, employers need to do what they can to ensure that the workplace is free from violent acts.
At a general level, what should employers do to make sure they are minimizing the threat of workplace violence? Here are some suggestions:
- Establish a policy against workplace violence Having a specific policy that is well communicated lets everyone know that violence is not to be tolerated at this company.
- Form a Threat Assessment Team (TAT). Typically, this is an interdisciplinary group of people from across the organization whose responsibilities include receiving reports of troubling behavior and determining whether an employee poses a risk of harm or is in need of additional assistance.
- Make screening for violence potential part of the employee selection process. Consider making use of criminal background checks. Make use of reference checks to get as much information as possible. For some fields (e.g., police and other public safety employees, physicians and health care workers, military personnel), psychological evaluations are fairly routine (e.g., up to 98% of police departments utilize psychological assessments). However, consistent with the guidelines established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, medical examinations, including assessing mental or emotional impairment, cannot be done unless a conditional offer of employment is extended. Therefore, psychological evaluations must be conducted post-offer. Psychologists, employers, and other interested parties who want to explore this issue in some detail are encouraged to review the American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Professional Practice Guidelines for Occupationally Mandated Psychological Evaluations (APA, 2017).
- Take all threats seriously. The wise course of action is to take all threats seriously. Prepare managers and employees to practice the policies that have been established.
- Make use of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAPs are third-party agencies that offer counseling and related services to employees who are having difficulties of various kinds.
At a more specific level, here are some suggestions for dealing with employees believed to be dangerous or potentially dangerous:
- Do what needs to be done, to keep everyone safe. For instance, if an employee is being stalked, adjusting his/her work schedule, providing an escort to/from work, etc. are prudent steps.
- If a potentially violent employee must be disciplined, make sure two people are involved, one from human resources and one with managerial authority (i.e., the person’s boss, or the boss’s boss if the employee and his/her boss have a strained relationship). If possible, try to involve someone whom the employee respects or with whom he/she has had a friendly relationship. Stick to the facts of the situation and focus on the behavior that is problematic (e.g., “You made a threatening statement to Linda at the staff meeting on Tuesday. As you know, according to our company policy, we do not tolerate that here. Please do not say things like that again. If this continues, further disciplinary action (specify) will be taken.).”
- Refer the employee to the EAP. As I mentioned above, an EAP referral can very helpful. You might say something like, “I don’t know if you know it, but we have a resource that is really good at helping people through stressful times. It’s called the employee assistance program. Here’s how you can access it (specify).”
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows employers to make referrals for fitnessfor-duty (FFD) psychological evaluations when there is an “objective and reasonable” basis for concerns about the employee’s effectiveness or safety, derived not just from speculation about the employee’s state of mind, but from direct observations, credible third-party reporting, or other reliable evidence (DOJ/Civil Rights Division, 1990). So, if there are significant concerns about an employee’s emotional and psychological stability, as a condition of continued employment, employers can require the individual to complete a FFD psychological evaluation.
- If the employee appears to be an immediate dangerous to himself or others, employers should use whatever communication means that they are able in order to contact the proper authorities (e.g., police department).
- If the person is making suicidal or homicidal threats, he/she can be committed involuntarily for treatment. A psychologist or other qualified mental health professional should be contacted under these circumstances.
In the final analysis, while these kinds of situations are relatively rare, we must recognize that violent acts do occur. Ignorance and indifference are simply not viable options. Rather, we must be proactive. I encourage all organizations to establish a workplace violence policy, train employees in implementing it, and support leaders and managers in enforcing it. Over time, as experience accumulates, the policy can be refined. On this issue, a vigilant stance is the only way to go.
References American Psychological Association. (2017). Professional Practice Guidelines for Occupationally Mandated Psychological Evaluations. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/practice/ guidelines/psychological-evaluations.aspx Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1970).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act of 1970. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/oshact/ toc. United States Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2016. Retrieved from htts://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/ cfoi.pdf. United States Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017).
2016 United States Fatal Occupational Injuries by Worker Characteristics and Event of Exposure. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm. United States Department of Labor/Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2018). Overview of Workplace.
Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence.United States Department of Justice/Civil Rights Division. (1990). The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Retrieved from https://www.ada.gov.
Written by: Dr. Daniel Schroeder of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. a provider of Fitness-For-Duty Evaluations in a number of settings.
Additional information can be found on our website:
www.OD-Consultants.com or at www.wipsychology.org