When the news first broke of the mass shooting on a crowded street in front of the Empire State Building last month, the first thought that went through most people’s heads was that another act of terror had occurred in Manhattan. Turns out though, it was an incident of workplace violence: Jeffrey Johnson, 58, who had been laid off by Hazan Imports, fatally shot an executive at Hazan, Steve Ercolino, against whom Johnson had earlier filed a harassment complaint. (Eleven bystanders were wounded by police gunfire when two officers shot Johnson, who reportedly turned and pointed his gun at them.)
It was the latest spasm of work-related violence in a country that all too often sees workplace disputes end in gunfire.
Actually, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall work-related homicides declined 50% between 1994 and 2010. But workplace violence nonetheless remains among the top four causes of on-the-job fatalities when suicide is included. (At the same time, robberies are the No. 1 cause of homicides in the workplace by an overwhelming margin.)
Ed Foulke, a partner in the Atlanta-based law firm Fisher & Phillips who also served as head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the George W. Bush administration, says he has seen workplace violence rising recently and attributes this to the continuing economic slump.
“In the past, when people got laid off, they just went out and got another job,” says Foulke, pictured above. “Now it’s not that easy to do.” The tight job market can also mean people stay on in a bad situation—for example, when they are being harassed by another employee or a supervisor—until they “snap,” he says.
Add to that the fact that financially strapped companies may not have the resources to provide as much in the way of support services and severance benefits for employees who are let go, and the stage is set for problems.
Philip Deming, an HR security consultant and principal of Philip Deming & Associates in King of Prussia, Pa., agrees that the risk of workplace violence may be on the rise again and says companies need to be proactive to avoid trouble.
“The key is to make sure you have all the components in place both to prevent violence, and to respond when a threat occurs,” Deming says. “That means you need HR, your legal team, security and communications people, as well as your top executives, all on board and prepared with an emergency action plan when there’s a threat.”
Foulke goes further, arguing that preventing and preparing for workplace violence incidents requires a full program. His recommendations:
1) Establish a zero-tolerance policy for threats, harassment and acts of violence.
2) Update interview processes to include background investigations, checking for a history of violent behavior.
3) Prepare and use release forms for new hires, and then get records from past employers, training programs, etc.
4) Update the employee handbook to explain the company’s zero-tolerance policy.
5) Review what temp agencies are doing to check out the record of the workers they provide. “If they’re not screening their people, you have to do it,” Foulke warns.
6) Conduct an audit and risk assessment of your workplace that includes asking employees if they have been harassed or threatened. Look at security at the workplace. Are there places where someone could hide out until late at night to attack a target?
7) Have a crisis management plan for any act of workplace violence, just as you would have for a fire or a tornado.
8) Select and train management officials in crisis management and conflict resolution. “If an executive is terminating an employee and he pulls a knife or a gun, that executive needs to have the skill to try and defuse the situation,” Foulke says.
9) Instruct managers on how to spot and deal with early warning signs: Are people saying they hear voices? Do they have a have a fascination with guns? Did someone’s performance suddenly drop dramatically?
10) Publicize employee assistance programs, whether offered by the employer or outside agencies.
11) Investigate immediately all harassment and threats of violence.
12) Review and publicize the company’s policy of dealing with problems, and encourage employees who feel threatened or harassed to go to a supervisor, HR or elsewhere to report it.
Foulke warns that OSHA has begun to take action against employers where there are incidents of workplace violence. He says the best defense against those actions is to have a policy to prevent violence and protect employees against it, to show it is being implemented, and to show that employees and managers know about it.
For more on this topic, see Workplace Homicides Drop Steadily Since Mid-’90s and Understanding and Managing the Potential Risks of Workplace Violence.