Violence in the workplace is a major concern for all businesses. In our last post, we talked about OSHA with regards to physical safety in the workplace. OSHA is also concerned with workplace violence in all its forms—physical aggression, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, and related concerns. Administrative service organizations and professional employment organizations are well-equipped to offer advice in preventing workplace violence.
Types of Workplace Violence
There are four recognized categories of workplace violence. They are each dealt with in a different way. They include both physical and “relational” types of aggression. (Relational aggression refers to psychological or emotional attacks; it can also refer to attacks on a company’s image.) To describe these four types of aggression:
The first type is criminal intent. The perpetrator may or may not be an employee—the target may be company property or employees. If an aggressive act normally considered to be a different type is severe enough, it will be placed in this category (such as rape or murder).
The second type is customer/client. This is usually “relational” aggression where a customer or client threatens to sue you or uses various bullying tactics. It can also be physical, where a customer hits you or one of your employees or smashes company property.
The third type is worker-on-worker. Again, this can take both physical and relational forms. One of the most common—and talked about—forms of this type of aggression is sexual harassment. Other forms of harassment are not uncommon, such as when a boss uses his position to convince a subordinate to wash his car for him or buy him coffee in bulk. Violence from ex-employees also fits this category. In one example, an ex-employee walked into his former place of work and opened fire with an assault rifle. In an equally disturbing example, another former employee cooked anthrax into cookies and sent them to her former boss.
The fourth type is personal relationships. This refers to aggressive acts between family members on company property. Usually, one of the people involved is an employee, but not always. Since it happens on company property, the company can be held liable for damages to either party. In a recent example, an employee of a prominent retail chain hit his wife while on the job and the incident made national news (in part because of the rather poor reaction of the retail chain). Be aware that this type of workplace violence is much more common than you might think.
Protecting Your Business
All four of the above types of workplace violence can present your business with significant costs. Both physical and relational acts of aggression open you up to litigation on behalf of one or more of the parties involved. Many employees either skip out on work or are put on probation for awhile after an episode of violence (whether they are the perpetrator or the victim). Some estimates place the annual loss of workdays due to violence at over a million! This estimate would put the cost of workplace violence at nearly $55 million per year in lost wages. In addition, property damage not only requires payment for repairs, but it often means higher insurance premiums. Clearly, prevention of workplace violence is a crucial part of controlling your costs, keeping your image clean, and satisfying OSHA requirements.
Some of the same measures used to discourage theft and vandalism will also discourage workplace violence. For example, many retail stores now have cameras conspicuously scattered throughout the store. Their obvious presence can sometimes discourage violence. Clear policies about workplace violence can help employees remain cool under pressure. Training meetings on how to deal with irate customers are particularly helpful. Also, firing employees in a dignified and careful manner may help to prevent violent retaliation from ex-employees.
Venues of Violence
Not all violence occurs in the open—or even in the back rooms of your business. Online aggression has become more and more common. Recently, we have seen several politicians and other notable people toppled by sexting. Sexting between two employees is sexual harassment, and your business must get involved whether it’s done using company phones or not. Likewise, sexual harassment now takes place on social media sites. If it involves two of your employees, you are liable and must act. Other types of intimidation or bullying between your employees outside of the workplace must also be dealt with.
Of course, you can only deal with these situations if they are reported, so there is no need to become a Big Brother to your employees (which would get you in trouble with privacy laws). However, your company must provide a safe environment for employees of all levels and backgrounds to report harassment in. If you cannot demonstrate before a court that you have such an environment, you may be fined even if you could not reasonably have known that such harassment was going on.
Establishing a Safe Environment
Employees will only report harassment if they feel completely safe while doing so. Such an environment can be established in more than one way, but all successful methods grant employees at least two people to talk to. Businesses must ensure that every employee can go to someone besides a direct supervisor to report harassment complaints. The second person cannot be the supervisor’s supervisor—it needs to be someone who is only indirectly connected to the supervisor. This is because a lot of workplace harassment takes place between employees and immediate supervisors.
Moreover, it is important to enable employees to make a harassment complaint at any time. If they have to schedule an appointment to voice their complaint, they probably won’t bother. If the complain process involves filing paperwork for “later” review, employees will probably distrust the system. In either of these scenarios, they may go straight to legal recourse—and courts will likely fine the company for not having a “safer” environment.
The best way to handle employee complaints is to have an “open door policy,” where employees can simply walk in and talk to their designated contact for harassment complaints. They can describe the event, fill out some brief paperwork, and get an immediate reassurance that the matter will be looked into. This will usually prevent any costly litigation, and it will also give a business the chance to hear both sides of a story. In many cases, a company can resolve the situation without firing anybody if they can hear both sides of the story and help the employees to better understand each other.
By taking steps to protect your business from violence and establish a safe environment for reporting harassment, you can reduce the large costs that come from workplace violence. You will then be better able to profit from your business while keeping customers, investors, and employees satisfied.