Companies need to re-engineer their cultural thinking about workplace violence (Guest Commentary)

Believing ‘We couldn’t have anticipated this’ could land executives in jail

In a recent poll of 139 corporate leaders, sponsored by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, most company leaders said the responsibility for workplace violence largely rests with the culprit. Essentially, bad behaviour is to be expected and their duty is to manage the aftermath, executives noted in the survey, Violence and Aggression in the Workplace, conducted by Compas last November.

This belief is blatantly wrong and could land some executives in prison or saddle them with hefty fines and litigation costs.

People who are trained on who and what to look for can see workplace violence coming from a mile away. Aside from a lone gunman who suddenly snaps, an extremely rare breed, workplace violence perpetrators often fit a certain profile and display warning signs months and sometimes years in advance of a tragedy. Unfortunately, there have been many recent examples, including the following:

St. Thomas, Ont. — A psychiatric nurse was confronted in the hospital parking lot by an outpatient with a gun. The nurse, who escaped unharmed, stated that she had been harassed for two years by the man and had formally notified her supervisors of the problem.

Chatham, Ont. — A Sears employee was shot to death in the store where she had worked for 25 years. Theresa Vince was shot by her store manager, who then turned the gun on himself. Vince had previously filed a sexual harassment complaint against the manager and had notified Sears management of continued harassment and escalation of bullying.

Ottawa — Six transit system employees were attacked while working at a bus garage. Four were killed and two injured by a colleague who returned to work with a gun after his shift. Investigators suspect that incessant taunting by his co-workers for his stutter was the cause.

Vancouver — A Starbucks Coffee employee’s estranged husband enters the coffee shop early on a Sunday. The manager steps in between them to protect her and the assailant stabs the manager multiple times. After falling to the ground wounded, the manager instructs her to run across the street to call police. The manager died from his injuries.

The Workers Compensation Board of Alberta said last year that compensation claims stemming from workplace violence are on the rise. It also warned employers in the province that they are legally bound to protect employees.

On March 30, 2004, federal Bill C-45 went into effect. The new law represents the most sweeping change in corporate responsibility in history. It establishes criminal liability for corporations and their executives for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent workplace accidents and violence.

Penalties depend on the severity of the offence. In the case of a worker fatality, the maximum penalty for criminal negligence is life imprisonment. To prove criminal negligence, the Crown needs to show that the employer could have taken reasonable steps to prevent violence from erupting and resulting in a tragedy.

While Bill C-45 stemmed from the Westray mine disaster in Nova Scotia that killed 26 workers in 1992, viewing workplace violence as being outside the intended purview of the legislation is shortsighted. Workplace violence, particularly when it is domestic violence that spills over into the workplace, is a real danger not only to the intended victim, but to innocent co-workers as well. Whether or not those drafting the law had workplace violence in mind will be of little matter to anyone charged under the law for ignoring the threat of violence.

Research shows that perpetrators possess a number of consistent characteristics. They are predominately male, aged 25 to 40, bad at handling stress, manipulative and chronic complainers. Since a large number of people who pose no threat at all could meet some of these criteria, the list should be viewed along with other “red flag” factors, such as a tendency to make verbal threats, explode in physical or verbal outbursts, harbour grudges, or brandish weapons to gain attention.

Parallel to the offender, domestic violence victims will also display common signs. They show up with bruises, get into argumentative phone calls, slide in work performance, report to work late and stay late, etc. Companies are ethically and legally obligated to train employees on these overt warning signs and institute policies and procedures that enable employees to report them discreetly. In addition, to prove all reasonable steps were taken, companies need to embrace the following measures:

•To screen out potentially violent employees, implement a valid and reliable pre-employment management system including background checks.

•Craft a comprehensive policy clearly defining the various tenets of workplace violence including domestic violence. Issues such as access control, visitor escort procedures, domestic violence protocols, and threat mitigation procedures should be included in this document.

•Train all employees to recognize and report on co-workers showing signs of violent behaviour or distress. This allows the security department an opportunity to act before a financially and emotionally costly incident occurs.

•Conduct a holistic vulnerability assessment to determine the likelihood of violence.

•Ensure premise security standards meet best practices.

Aside from the litany of ethical and legal reasons for preventing workplace violence, there is also an overwhelming financial justification for taking a proactive approach. The average annual cost of workplace violence in Canada is $7.6 billion on the conservative side. Costs can include medical and psychiatric care, worker’s compensation and disability, higher insurance rates, repair and clean up, business interruption and negative public relations, decrease in shareholder value, consultant fees, additional security measures and lower morale and productivity.

The bottom line is that companies need to re-engineer their cultural thinking about workplace violence and start taking a proactive approach to protecting their employees from the legal, emotional and financial devastation that it causes.

Paul Viollis and Chris Mathers are with Risk Control Strategies, a threat management and risk assessment security consulting firm specializing in workplace violence prevention and response. For more information contact Paul Viollis at [email protected].

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