No organization immune from violence (Guest Commentary)

Violence can’t be eliminated but employers can minimize chances for flare-ups
By Colin Finlay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2012

Workplaces are not immune from violence. Too often, we hear stories about workers, customers or students who returned to an organization to kill themselves, others or both.

Yet, too many people regard these incidents as nothing to be concerned about because “it wouldn’t happen here.” Or they dismiss it because the people who committed the acts were “crazy to begin with and would never get hired here.”

But that’s a dangerous path. Employers and HR professionals have to collectively decide what they’re going to do to reduce violence in their organizations.

In most workplaces, often in an effort to comply with legislation, well-crafted policies are created and implemented. These typically stipulate what constitutes violence and that it will not be tolerated. They also outline the consequences should anyone pose a threat to others.

Policies are critical and the fact they — and the legislation — exist might make employees feel safer on the job. But it takes more than just words on paper to protect people.

One of my first experiences with violence in the workplace was when I worked in the food services area of a Winnipeg hotel. I was returning to the kitchen to drop off some dishes and overheard yelling. When I went to see what was going on, I saw staff standing back watching a cook and a waiter arguing in a language I didn’t understand.

It was clear, however, the argument was escalating. Suddenly, the cook reached through the window where he would normally put the food for the dining room and grabbed the waiter. He pulled him right through and stuck his head into the steam table. That is when I ran to get help.

This image has remained burned in my mind for nearly 20 years as a reminder that policies don’t stop violence but they can direct us on how to recognize it and how to respond.

It reminds me of the very real possibility violence can and does occur. It also reminds me of how important it is we learn how to recognize the potential for violence and react before it escalates into a situation where someone is injured.

So, what should employers do? No matter what we do to prepare ourselves, the possibility of violence at the workplace will always exist. We can, however, take steps to reduce the risk.

Here are some suggestions on reducing that risk:

Set a good example: Leaders must be good role models and provide a working environment, to the greatest extent reasonably possible, free of violence. If there is a manager who uses bullying or violence to subjugate staff, this should be addressed immediately.

Set clear policies and procedures: Have a clearly worded policy and procedure regarding violence in the workplace. Although it may not stop someone from being violent, it does provide clarity as to what is considered violence. It also provides direction to others regarding what steps they should take should they witness or experience any violence.

A clear plan of action that includes which outside partners to contact, such as the police, leaves little room for subjective decision-making that is prone to emotional responses or, worse, a lack of response.

Encourage staff to speak up: Encourage employees to communicate openly and appropriately regarding violence in the workplace. If this subject becomes taboo and people feel uncomfortable discussing it, they will feel just as uncomfortable recognizing, reporting and addressing it.

Allowing violence in the workplace to remain undiscovered can lead to an escalation of the violence. Don’t let that happen.

Train all employees: Training should be provided to all staff regarding what constitutes violence and what they should do if they witness or fall victim to threats of violence. Threat-risk assessment training for all front-line supervisors, security, human resources, leadership and any other staff able to recognize the possibility of a threat and how to react to one is advisable.

Threat-risk assessment training provides people with insight into the progressive nature and behavioural changes of individuals who are at risk of becoming violent. This is a proactive measure that may reduce the risk of violence and potentially save lives.

Provide counselling: Counselling is often available through employee assistance programs (EAPs). If there is an incident of violence, an EAP can be useful in reducing or managing its impact on employees.

Know your staff: If the work environment is one where nobody seems to know anyone else, you run the risk of not noticing when someone’s behaviour changes for the worse. If you notice changes that are concerning and out of the ordinary, this is often a good indicator more information should be collected or emergency services should be contacted if the risk is imminent.

Colin Finlay is a Winnipeg-based HR professional. He can be reached at

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