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Tactics for Preventing Workplace Violence
Richard King

Over the last decade, the definition of workplace violence has expanded to include not only physical violence such as hitting or threats of physical violence but also psychological harassment and cyberbullying. This issue is not only on the radar but is rising in both relevance and importance.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety describes psychological harassment, which is mental and emotional abuse, as acts or verbal comments that hurt or isolate a person in the workplace. While physical violence is easier to identify, psychological harassment can show itself in microaggressions or be hidden in emails. Cyberbullying, the latest addition to workplace violence, is defined by HLWIKI Canada, the most consulted medical librarian in the world, as an “incivility in the electronic environment” that is “characterized by posting misinformation, gossiping and/or publishing materials that are meant to defame and humiliate others.”

According to Statistics Canada, one in five violent incidents in Canada occur in the workplace. The Nova Scotia Health and Safety website says since 2002 there have been 1,768 Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) claims with a cause of injury as an “act of violence.” The total costs for the claims were over $2 million. On average, the site says, there are 412 claims per year costing over $4 hundred thousand per year.

As leaders, there is a responsibility to protect employees. Ensuring employees are protected requires proactively addressing workplace violence risks and implementing preventative measures. Here are tactics to minimize the risk of workplace violence.

Know provincial frameworks

Most provinces have provincial frameworks for preventing workplace violence. It’s wise to draw from these as they adhere to the law. Provinces also align their frameworks with The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

According to the Workers Compensation Board of PEI Guide to Prevention of Workplace Violence, the top three most at-risk workers are those who:

  • Work with the public

  • Handle money, valuables, or prescription drugs

  • Carry out inspections or enforcement

  • The list has 16 occupations considered high risk. Other areas include the service industry and healthcare professionals. Consider reviewing the list to see if your employees are at risk.

    There are some specific measures and tactics for preventing workplace violence. The tactics below come from national and provincial frameworks and can be used in a preventative or prepared manner.

    How to prevent physical abuse: Scenario

    One of your longtime employees physically assaults a new employee. The longtime employee was angry the new employee made a mistake. The new employee apologized but the longtime employee shoves the new employee into a wall. A teammate saw the incident and reported it. How could you have prevented this experience?

    Conflict resolution training
    Train and educate your employees and managers on conflict resolution tactics.

    Have clear policies and educate employees on the policies. Policies should have specific sections defining physical violence and the consequences.

    Five warning signs to watch for at work

    Understand the Five Warning Signs of Escalating Behavior and train workers to notice them to minimize any violent risk.

    The Five Warning Signs of Escalating Behaviour and Possible Responses, published in the Workers Compensation Board of PEI Guide to Prevention of Workplace Violence are:

    If you find an employee feeling confused, listen to their concerns, ask questions to clarify and use facts to guide the conversation.

    If an employee is feeling frustrated, remove them from the situation and find a quiet place to discuss their frustration. Reassure the employee and make a sincere attempt to clarify.

    If an employee starts blaming, disengage from the conversation and bring in a mediator, such as another manager. Work from a team approach, bring the conversation back to the facts and ask questions to clarify.

    If an employee becomes angry, try to use venting techniques but do not offer solutions. Avoid arguments and prepare to leave if needed. Contact another manager right away to discuss the experience.

    If an employee becomes hostile, disengage and attempt to isolate the person if you can do so safely. If the hostility escalates, leave the situation immediately and contact another manager or call authorities.

    How to prevent psychological harassment: Scenario

    An employee tells you another co-worker has been leaving harassing comments on their personal Facebook. The comments range from sarcastic remarks about their looks to mocking their work responsibilities. The incidents are happening outside the office, but the comments are seen by other teammates and have become company gossip. How could you have prevented this experience?

    Harassment is a complex matter. What one considers proper behaviour another may perceive as harassment. Many times lines are not clearly defined. Solutions to create clear lines, and offer the opportunity to proactively correct any potentially harassing behavior, include:

    Train and educate
    Train and educate your company on what harassment is and explain the process for how harassment is dealt with while encouraging employees to speak up if it happens.

    Clear policies
    Develop clear policies and educate employees on the policies. Policies should have specific sections defining psychological harassment and consequences. Most companies also have respected social media guidelines for employees, encouraging them to be discerning about the company and their co-workers on social media.

    Open communication
    Create an open communication flow where problems are discussed and addressed privately and publicly if needed.

    How to prevent indirect acts of workplace violence: Scenario

    It’s the holiday shopping season. One of your employees is closing the store as a person comes in. The person picks an item and brings it to the cash. The employee goes to the cash. During checkout, the person becomes aggressive, claiming they have a weapon and demanding cash from the register. The employee hands over the cash and the person flees. How could you have prepared for or prevented this experience?

    Handling violent clients is a primary form of indirect workplace violence. The violence is indirect as it happens from outside the boundaries of company control. Here are tactics from The Alberta Employment and Immigration Bulletin, Preventing Violence and Harassment at the Workplace and the Workers Compensation Board of PEI Guide to Prevention of Workplace Violence:

    Assess risk
    The PEI guide suggests a three-step process for a risk assessment. First, review any previous experience of violence. Second, look at similar workplaces to see if they identified risks. Third, consider location and type of work. Once the risk assessment is completed, managers should determine which employees are most at-risk.

    Create procedures
    Procedures should be put in place after risks are identified. Procedures can include workplace design such as the floor plan, and administrative and work practices such as payment systems and closing routine.

    Inform workers of potential risks
    Workers have the ‘right to know’ if their job comes with a risk of violence. In cases where physical violence could be a potential risk, employees must be trained for any experience.

    Training workers
    Train workers on conflict resolution, best safety practices, and your procedures to minimize the risk of indirect workplace violence.

    Workplace violence has severe consequences for all involved. The consequences can range from emotional trauma to physical injury for victims, families, co-workers, and hinder business operations. While workplace violence isn’t always avoidable, leaders can do their best to minimize risks by working with their teams and implementing the preventive tactics mentioned above.

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