Workplace violence: what to watch out for

An angry office worker crushes a coffee cup. Stock photo by Getty Images
Stock photo by Getty Images

It's the one headline no workplace wants to be a part of: “Two shot and killed by disgruntled former employee.” But that was the tragic circumstance at a TV station in Virginia when two journalists were fatally shot this August, during a live broadcast.

The two were shot by a former colleague at the station, Vester Lee Flanagan, who broadcast under the name Bryce Williams, according to the Guardian. He took his own life shortly after the shooting. 

Flanagan had a history of office disputes and complaints of racism and mistreatment — his employment was terminated in 2013.

Every workplace has some degree of conflict. The challenge for employers is determining when an employee’s behaviour is more or less harmless, and when it could present a potential risk, said Glenn French, president and CEO of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence in Toronto.

“The dilemma for employers is if you have somebody who’s made threats, it’s a little clearer on what you can do… (but) how do you establish whether or not you should be looking deeper on individuals who haven’t quite crossed that line yet, but are behaving in a way — or making veiled kind of comments — that it causes you concern?” 

Policy as a starting point

When we think about workplace threats or risks, very often we think about mechanical risks or external risks. It’s a bit more uncomfortable to consider employees themselves as potential risks. But the best starting point is creating a solid, clear policy, said David Hyde, security expert at David Hyde and Associates in Toronto.

“When it comes to inside threats, obviously one of the first things we want to do is… have a culture where this kind of behaviour isn’t condoned. There are very clear policies in place, very clear training and guidelines, and all the employees know that certain types of behaviour that cross certain lines are strictly prohibited.” 

The policy needs to be very clear and straightforward about what types of behaviour are unacceptable, and employees and managers all need to be trained on how to identify unacceptable behaviours, said Hyde. 

And the rules don’t only apply when employees are at the office.

“The workplace, of course, extends beyond bricks and mortar to the field, to business trips, to other work-related activities as well,” he said. “That’s very important to set the right geographical context to that. Sometimes, people can feel a little bit more prone to act up when they’re away from the actual bricks and mortar workplace — but the rules still apply.”

Identifying a threat

When there’s no subtlety — the employee is acting violently or making straightforward threats — it’s very clear what the employer response must be, said Hyde. 

“If threats have been made, that’s a criminal offence. There’s a certain line where we have to involve police, we have to involve professionals that can actually assess this threat.” 

But where it becomes more difficult to assess is when the employee is less direct. 

“If it’s just unusual behaviour, if it’s just things that are making people feel uneasy but it’s not direct threats of violence, discussions about weapons — when that line’s crossed, we need to immediately bring in professionals and the authorities. But before that line’s crossed, HR is going to do that triage. They’re going to look at the behaviour, look at the incident and do an assessment. And that’s very important, and HR needs to be training in workplace violence risk screening or threat screening,” he said. 

Some things to look out for? A fixation on guns or weapons is one, as is being unusually angry or frustrated, said Hyde. 

“But it wouldn’t just be a couple of comments, it would be something that would be unusual. It would start to build up over time.”

Read the full article at Canadian HR Reporter
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