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Protecting Workplaces From Violence

The May 31 shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center that killed 12 people is a tragic reminder of the threat of workplace violence for cities and towns.

Cities often take steps to secure city hall buildings — police officers; limited, monitored entry points; and panic buttons. Even so, threats can make their way past security precautions. In the case of the Virginia Beach shooting, the man identified by police as the shooter had resigned from the city shortly before the shooting and still had a pass that provided access to employees-only portions of the building.

Homicide, the most extreme form of workplace violence, is a leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. Of the 5,147 fatal workplace injuries in 2017, 458 were caused by intentional injury by another person, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, with another 275 fatalities classified as suicides.

Workers who exchange money with the public and those who work alone or in small groups are at increased risk. Also, service workers, such as water utility employees and law enforcement officers, face higher risks. To protect their employees, cities must anticipate threats with planning and preparation.

What should cities do?

Employees are more likely to be involved in a workplace violence incident than in a fire. “The threat of a workplace shooting is my greatest concern for municipal employees today,” said Venyke Harley, loss control manager for the Municipal Association’s Risk Management Services. “Unfortunately workplace shootings have become a ‘new normal’ in society and cities should be aggressive in mitigating risk.”

Cities should plan step-by-step what would happen if violence threatens the workplace so that everyone knows their roles and how to respond.

There are other measures cities can implement to prevent or identify the potential for workplace violence. From the hiring and onboarding process to the exit interview, managers must examine the entire employment process to identify gaps to prevent an incident from occurring.

  • Develop a zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and address so-called teasing and horseplay so employees understand that off-script behavior is unacceptable. Train employees to recognize threatening conditions and how to verbally deescalate them. Managers should investigate all complaints of bullying and intimidation, and there must be immediate follow-up. Perpetrators often send signals of their violent tendencies through comments, social media posts and notes, so every threat must be taken seriously. People often come forward after the event has occurred because they saw warning signs and did not respond.
  • Properly vet and screen job applicants. Though seen as time consuming, proper background checks are a necessity and can prevent ill-advised hires. Since some employers limit the information they provide to future employers to the basics — hire date, position and termination date — managers must spend ample time reviewing applications and developing tough questions to get to the bottom of employment gaps and questionable applications. Troubled applicants can be identified by thorough vetting, and managers should be trained to spot unusual behavior patterns during the interview process.
  • Plan disciplinary and termination meetings carefully. Performance conversations are confidential and only managers who need to know the information discussed should be included in the discussion. Plan ahead by determining the meeting location and who will attend a termination meeting ahead of time.
  • Always consult with the city’s labor attorney before terminating an employee who displays erratic behavior. In some instances, employees may be suffering from a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even if the employee suffers from the condition, the Act does not protect individuals who violate policy by inciting violence. Law enforcement or security may need to be on scene during the termination meeting in this circumstance.
  • Identify an employee assistance program that can provide counseling resources for employees in stressful situations to prevent employees from becoming violent. Some employers offer these services to employees for free and extend benefits to the employees’ immediate family members. What happens at home comes to work, and emotional triggers often cause outbursts in the workplace.
Training employees on what to expect during a critical incident reduces workplace anxiety and communicates to them the city is aware of potential threats and is working to reduce them. Organizations also deal with the aftermath of workplace violence incidents. Partner with a consultant or local law enforcement to identify hazards, conditions and operational situations that could lead to an incident.​