This year has seen its share of violence, including rioting, looting and violence over perceived racial injustice. Add passions stirred up by the election and Covid-19 restrictions, and it is not surprising that some fear violence will grow in the workplace.
Attorneys Russell Jones and Michelle M. Holmes of the the Littler Mendelson law firm note that federal law requires employers to provide a safe workplace, free from recognized hazards that could cause serious physical harm.
As defined by OSHA, workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening or disruptive behavior that occurs at a work site. This includes verbal threats as well as physical acts, and can involve employees, customers, vendors and visitors.
The lawyers say a safe workplace means employees are free not to be drawn into provocative discussions. “Employers should make employees aware that they have the right to avoid engaging in workplace conversations and communications concerning controversial topics that are unrelated to the terms and conditions of their employment.”
Employers with workers who interact with the public also should take steps to ensure that they are not subjected to offensive comments or violent behavior from customers or other third parties in the workplace, such as confrontations over mask-wearing requirements, Jones and Holmes add.
A key strategy is to adopt and communicate written policies that expressly prohibit workplace threats, harassment, intimidation and violence. Encourage employees to report behavior and communications that could lead to violence and assure them that management will act on those reports.
“Zero tolerance” policies also may cite your commitment to maintaining a safe environment, definitions and examples of workplace violence, and descriptions of prohibited weapons. Also inform employees that violations may result in disciplinary action – up to and including firing.
Encourage employees to report suspicious or threatening behavior. This can cover threats by co-workers, customers or vendors (whether made in-person, electronically or over social media), significant changes in a co-worker’s personality, awareness that a co-worker is contemplating suicide, or knowledge that a co-worker is a victim of domestic violence (which has been known to spill into the workplace).
Reassure employees that their concerns will be investigated promptly, without retaliation and in as confidential a manner as possible, and that appropriate action will be taken. Take such concerns seriously and conduct prompt and thorough investigations, Jones and. Holmes advise.
Consider training focusing on safety and security protocols, warning signs of potential violence, and the appropriate ways to respond if they experience or observe such signs. Employers also can offer employees access to an employee assistance program (EAP) that may provide an array of counseling services, including mental health and suicide prevention counseling.
Review safety and security features of each workplace location and shore up any vulnerabilities, the attorneys say. Measures may include updating facility access controls, installing security cameras, reviewing job descriptions to make sure that duties and responsibilities for workplace safety and security are defined clearly, and establishing response protocols in the event of a violent incident.
Also consider forming a safety and security management team that will be charged with creating workplace safety and security plans, they suggest.
“Such a team can assist the employer with assessing and implementing the employer’s preventive policies and procedures and can establish a comprehensive plan for doing so.” This should include establishing a liaison with local law enforcement to establish lines of communications, and agreeing upon ways to report and to respond to any acts of violence swiftly and effectively.