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Ticking Bombs: Defuse Violence in the Workplace

Workplace violence appears to be on the rise, as indicated by the increasing reports in the media. In some cases, the events involve workers who have been reprimanded for their job performance, denied promotion or been let go. Other instances arise from conflicts among co-workers. A prominent example is the OC Transpo Case in Ottawa where a worker was teased for stuttering, returned to the work site with a gun and killed four co-workers. There have also been situations where problems outside the workplace, such as domestic or financial stress, resulted in violent acts at work. Perhaps the most disturbing incidents have been the high-profile shootings by students of teachers, staff and other students at schools such as Columbine in Colorado.

David Ray
Grant Thornton
Generally, workplace threats fall into two specific categories those where there is an intent to intimidate and those where the intent is to actually carry out the violence. Bullies usually act out the first type. These are people who have had a great deal of success as children, teenagers, and later as adults, in getting their way through threatening behaviour, but they will usually back down when confronted. The second type is more dangerous because the perpetrator often does not make specific threats before taking action (although in most cases there are red flags that indicate the person is potentially violent).

Although the incidence of violent crimes has dropped in Canada in the last few years it is still nearly twice as high on a per capita basis as it was 25 years ago. Criminologists may blame the court system, the media, and violence on television and in movies, but for whatever reason we are now a more violent society. In the U.S., murder is the number one cause of death in the workplace for females and the number two cause of death for males.

The myth is that nothing can be done about it, that workplace violence is a result of cases where people just snap. The fact is that violent employees communicate multiple things to multiple people before they commit their acts. The violence takes place as a result of the employer failing to recognize red flags or ignoring them. Acts of violence will vary depending on the nature of the workplace. Hospitals will see many more acts of violence than most work sites because of the number of employees, patients and visitors that come through their doors every day. The nature of emergency or psychiatric wards often results in staff dealing with potential violence. Organizations such as banks and convenience stores, where cash is kept on hand, will be susceptible to robberies and other violence against employees. Other factors may also intervene to raise the likelihood of violence downsizing, strikes or a downturn in the economy.

There is a legislative duty on the employer to provide a safe workplace and that duty may be fulfilled where the employer takes action when there are red flags and warns employees of any risk. The employer must also provide countermeasures when there is a risk, conduct appropriate background checks on new employees and provide care for employees that have been victimized. An employer may be liable, not only for negligent hiring, but also for negligent retention or for failure to document and deal with bad behaviour of an employee that may cause harm.

Responding to the Problem

There are some simple steps that employers can take to prevent workplace violence and to ensure an appropriate response when an incident does occur. The first step is to identify the resources within the organization or externally to plan for a response to the problem. This may include H.R., Legal, Security, Occupational Health, Public Affairs, Line Management and Union representation. That group should be proactive in identifying existing risks of violence and making sure workers are aware of them. These may include risks such as dealing with abusive customers or visitors. Many of the regulations require that an employer have a policy on workplace violence and I often suggest that they simply include it in their existing harassment policy so that the policy addresses all forms of workplace harassment including bullying, threats and violence. Most existing harassment policies already have process for reporting, investigating and discipline. The group also has a reactive role in assembling when there is a threat to ensure that it is properly investigated, that appropriate resources are called in, and to conduct a debrief after the event.

Organizations should also ensure that they have a method in place to track incidents of workplace violence. This may be done in conjunction with an existing incident/accident or security loss reporting process. The process should capture incidents that have occurred and identify who was involved and what action was taken. The organization can reduce its liability if it is able to show that it has a process to track incidents and provides procedures for follow up. This is a statutory requirement in most jurisdictions.

Investigations can have a deterrent effect because they send out the message to employees that the organization cares about these events and will react when they occur. They also help to establish the root cause of the event and will reduce the likelihood that the threat will happen again.

The organization should also provide awareness, education and training for staff. For supervisors this will include training on identification of early warning signs and prevention techniques. For all staff it will include the policy and reporting procedures. High-risk staff - such as reception, those that deal with complaints or those that can not be provided with physical security may also require training on dealing with aggressive behavior.

Workplace violence, like any other risk, can be managed and the liability of the organization will depend on the extent of proactive prevention implemented and the planning for an actual threat.

David Ray BA, LL.B. is Senior Practice Leader Security and Investigations with Grant Thornton LLP based in their Calgary office. Grant Thornton is a leading firm of business advisors with offices throughout Canada and an international network of over 600 offices in 100 countries.


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