Jul 08, 2019

Plan, Prevent, Protect

Tools to prevent, prepare for & manage violence in the workplace

Tools to prevent, prepare for & manage violence in the workplace

The first half of 2019 was marked by two deadly and notable instances of gun violence in the water and wastewater industry. The first was the tragic shooting at Henry Pratt Co. Feb. 15 in Aurora, Ill., in which five people were killed and one was hospitalized by a coworker’s act of violence. The second was in Virginia Beach, Va., May 31, when a municipal employee shot and killed 12 people and injured four others, many of whom also were employed by the city. In both instances, emergency protocols were followed—locking down buildings, calling police, etc.—to properly react to the event.

But there are plenty of differences between these two cases. One was in a warehouse and the other was a publicly open building. One involved a disgruntled employee with a history of violence while the other involved a seemingly good-tempered employee, who had no prior history of violence. Gary Martin, the shooter in the Henry Pratt tragedy, was illegally carrying a weapon, and Dwyane Craddock, the shooter at Virginia Beach Municipal Center, was legally allowed to carry.

To declare one factor at fault for either of these tragedies would be misleading and short-sighted. As the idiom goes, hindsight is always 20/20. To think it was so obvious to recognize these events would happen  before they did highlights a common thought and statement made after they occur: “It will never happen here. Not to us.”

W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence, said the first thing he tells all his clients when consulting them on workplace violence—despite how cynical it may sound—is to believe this kind of event can happen in your office.

Principles of Prevention

For Nixon, there are three critical steps to address workplace violence: plan, prevent and protect. The planning stage involves policy and procedure creation. The prevention stage covers detection and reporting. And finally, the protection stage is about addressing an event as it happens.

Plan. The planning stage, he said, starts with creating a comprehensive policy and set of procedures for addressing violence in the workplace. He said this stage often is a trap for many companies, as they will simply make a policy denouncing violence in the workplace and think that is enough.

“I’ve come in to work with clients who have a one-page policy that basically says, ‘We don’t like workplace violence, don’t do it here and it’s unacceptable,’” Nixon said. “I get the intent, but that’s not a good policy.”

Sara Strohschein is the human resources director for MRA, an employer association that provides consulting and educational resources for human resources and management needs. Strohschein echoed Nixon’s sentiment that a policy on its own is not enough to create a framework for preventing workplace violence. She said it is just as important to develop protocols for reporting suspicious behavior and processes to properly respond during an event.

Nixon and Strohschein independently stated employers should create a committee to develop these plans. Selecting the individuals for this is not as difficult as it may seem.

“Include people who are knowledgeable about your operation. Some of that will depend on your physical plant, how spread out are you, all of those different factors,” Strohschein said. “So you may, if you have a large work base, involve people from every area of operation that is there.”

Nixon also stressed that a comprehensive plan is not the same as an active shooter plan.

“The popular thing today for organizations—I call it sexy—is to have an active shooter plan. That’s good; however, the practical reality is that for most organizations that will incur a workplace violence incident, it won’t be an active shooter incident,” Nixon said. From his research, Nixon said that out of approximately 2 million threats annually, 1 million will be assaults. “Those things tend to be overshadowed by the active shooter.”

Prevent. A crucial part of preventing workplace violence is detecting and reporting suspicious behavior. Nixon said a majority of workplace violence incidents are premeditated, calculated or thought out. While this is alarming, Nixon said it provides the first possible response to a violent event in
the workplace.

“The natural thought is that it is a random event and how could you predict that, so how could you prepare for it? The vast majority of incidents are not random events,” Nixon said, adding that this means intervention is possible. Those who commit these acts, he said, can be detected and identified by typical warning signs leading to this kind of aggression (see “The Unlucky 13” sidebar).

Protect. By the time the protection stage has been reached, Nixon said the affected business will be in a reactive mode. This is the point when a crisis management plan comes into play to ensure as many people stay safe during the event as possible.

A common pitfall for companies is failure to regularly review evacuation plans and practice them. Just like with anything, Strohschein said, the best way to be prepared is to “practice, practice, practice.”

“It has to be done, obviously, with the appropriate intent and seriousness,” Strohschein said. “How often do we do things like fire drills and sort of laugh about it and think of it as an inconvenient thing to have to do during our day, but if you’re faced with it, to know where to go and what to do is so important.”

The Aftermath

Despite the ways to prevent violent incidents from happening, they still may occur. How management and the business reacts after a tragedy or workplace violence incident is critical for each individual’s healing process and for getting the company back on track to effectively complete work.

Jeff Gorter is the clinical director of employee assistance relations for R3 Continuum. R3 Continuum is a crisis counseling response company that responded locally to the Henry Pratt Co. and the Virginia Beach shootings. Gorter said he responded to  the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; the Virginia Tech shooting; Hurricane Katrina; an earthquake and tsunami in Japan; and the Vegas shooting.

R3 Continuum, Gorter said, uses a crisis response approach that it calls ACT: acknowledge the event, communicate care and compassion, and transition to a future focus. 

Acknowledge the event. Gorter said it is important that upper management be the first to acknowledge and recognize the tragedy. However, in doing so, managers must only relay information that is known. Relaying incorrect information to employees can do more harm than good.

“Be identified as a source of verifiable information instead of, ‘Well, I just heard something on Twitter,’” Gorter said. “Come out early and say what happened, share with them verifiable information. Share what you know. Say what you don’t know. Don’t make it up. Don’t speculate.”

Communicate care and compassion. Particularly following gun violence in the workplace, Gorter said being compassionate and caring toward each employee is crucial. He also said that those leaders relaying information also need to take a step back to help themselves.

“Often times leaders forget that they’re human too,” Gorter said.

Leading by example, he said, could be as simple as telling employees how to access employee assistance programs, such as trauma consultants, and indicating they will be among the first to use it. Destigmatizing the use of therapists and one-on-one meetings with trauma counselors is not only an important tool in healing the workforce after a tragedy, but it also makes mental healthcare appear more accessible and acceptable. 

Transition to a future focus. Returning the company back to working order—regardless of what that means for the company—is the final step toward recovery. Transitioning to a forward-looking perspective is difficult during this period as some employees may still need more time to return to work mentally and emotionally. However, Gorter said that for many, returning to work provides stability during an otherwise unstable time. Be compassionate about returning to work too early, but also recognize signs that somebody is hurting more than others.

“Research shows that most people do bounce back. Resilience is the normal trajectory,” Gorter said. “But a small percentage of folks may need additional help.”

Finding a way to facilitate this resilience through employee assistance programs to offer the employee the help they need while also returning to work is a difficult balance, but an important one to consider.

In Our Industry

After the Henry Pratt Co. Shooting in February, WWD and its supplement, Storm Water Solutions, and sister publication, Water Quality Products, conducted a survey of their entire combined audience regarding violence in the workplace. A total of 242 people completed the survey. More than half of the respondents (56%) work in an office setting, and approximately 15% work in either water or wastewater treatment plants. The results show that a majority of workplaces in the industry have safeguards in place to deal with workplace violence events. However, 38% of respondents said they did not, and 47% said evacuation plans are not practiced. 

These figures are quite alarming, and encouraged WWD, WQP and SWS editors to consider the safeguards and practices in their own office. 

Like many of the survey respondents, the editors feels uninformed about these policies, and they have started conversations with the human resources department to be better prepared. And the editors encourage their audiences to do the same. None of them want to say, “It wouldn’t happen here.” 

About the author

Bob Crossen is managing editor of WWD. Crossen can be reached at bcrossen@sgcmail.com.