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Zero Tolerance for Workplace Violence

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How do you respond to verbal threats of physical violence? Or, to Orders of Protection or other court orders intended to protect individuals?

In the wake of the tragedy of the Virginia Beach shooting, we want to extend our heartfelt sympathies to the employees of the City of Virginia Beach, the families of the victims, the Virginia Beach community and to all public servants.  Twelve individuals, 11 employees and a contractor lost their lives on May 31, working to provide the essential services of local government. Following this tragedy, many local governments around the country paused and met with colleagues, talked about safety, empowered employees to take action in an active shooter situation and reviewed their policies.  

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Workplace Violence Program states “[t]here is often no reasonable rationale for this type of conduct and, despite everything we know or do, violent situations happen. No employer is immune from workplace violence and no employer can totally prevent it. …Remember — violence or threats of violence in all forms is unacceptable workplace behavior. It will not be tolerated, and it will be dealt with appropriately.”

Do you have a zero-tolerance violence in the workplace policy? A policy that clearly outlines your commitment to providing a safe work environment?  Perhaps you have several disparate policies: Weapons in the workplace, safety, harassment, threat management. A “weapons in the workplace” policy likely prohibits possession of a deadly weapon.

Perhaps your organization has a threat management policy, addressing not just the presence of weapons, but also the use of language or conduct that is or may be perceived to be threatening to an individual’s safety. Such a policy may cover any threat, whether verbal or physical, or any behavior that has the effect of creating an intimidating work environment. A safety policy may focus on workplace injuries and reporting. But the events of just a few weeks ago are bringing to light the need for zero tolerance workplace violence policies.  

Waukesha County, Wis. has a Zero Tolerance Workplace Violence Policy and Procedure.  Waukesha County Risk Manager Laura Stauffer explains, “While we can’t guarantee the protection of employees against acts of violence, we do have the ability to regulate and direct the conduct of our employees in an effort to prevent or minimize the severity of violent incidents. That is the heart of our zero-tolerance workplace violence policy. We defined what is not tolerated and require all employees to report any workplace violence which they have witnessed, experienced, or have knowledge of so that appropriate action can be taken for the safety of our employees.”

The policy has both emergency and non-emergency information, telling employees to “become aware of escape routes,” “seek safety by leaving area if possible” and “do not attempt to control a violent individual.”  The policy defines workplace violence as “[a]ny act of written, verbal or physical aggression that occurs in the workplace intended to physically harm an individual or could cause a reasonable person to be in fear of imminent physical harm.”  

How do you respond to verbal threats of physical violence?  Or, to Orders of Protection or other court orders intended to protect individuals?  Does your policy include language that clearly demonstrates the policy applies to not only employees, but also contractors, customers and citizens? Does your policy express a goal of education, training, early detection and resolution? If you are seeking to strengthen or consolidate your multiple policies, below are some items you may want to include:

  •  Consider creating one centralized Workplace Violence Policy.
  •  Start with language outlining the purpose of the policy, for example, to create an environment which is safe and free from threats or to provide a safe workplace in an organization that places the highest priority on safety.
  • Outline any statutes or laws that are relevant.
  • Define terms and prohibited activities including “weapon,” “threat,” “workplace” and “workplace violence.”
  • Be clear that the policy applies to all individuals, including vendors, contractors, temporary employee, interns, customers and citizens.
  • Clearly outline a reporting process, including a Threat Management Team if you have one.
  • Consider addressing all types of safety in the policy: physical safety, psychological safety, safety hazards, bullying, threats, harassment, weapons, drugs and alcohol.
  • Include language that violence in the workplace will not be tolerated and all reports of workplace violence will be taken seriously.
  • Include language that empowers employees to take action to ensure their own personal safety in a dangerous or active shooter situation.
  • Include consequences of violating the policy.

Address support and assistance for any individual impacted by an incident of workplace violence including employee assistance programs, debriefings and counseling.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.  It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors. Acts of violence and other injuries is currently the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States.”

Your policies cannot protect against every situation, but they can open lines of communication so employees feel empowered to take action in a violent situation. Discussion can help employees to recognize or diffuse situations. Training can help employees feel less anxious when talking about workplace violence or participating in drills.

We are inspired by the actions of Virginia Beach shooting survivors who say training saved their lives. We are inspired by the heroes who helped others find safety and to the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene. We remember those whose lives were cut short.  Thank you for your service to your community.

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