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Workplace violence investigation should focus on systemic issues

Employers should probe entire workplace culture to find possible clues

Companies struck by an incidence of workplace violence need to move past the specifics of occurrence and focus on identifying and remedying systemic issues within their workplace that might have contributed to the incident, experts say.

While an investigation of the stressors acting upon the person responsible for the violence is a necessary first step, it cannot substitute for a more thorough investigation.

“To focus solely on the perpetrator and debriefings in the aftermath of an event is so yesterday,” said Michael Mantell, a clinical psychologist and corporate workplace violence consultant based in San Diego. “The focus should instead be on workplace culture.”

Mr. Mantell said a primary part of this self-investigation is seeking and rooting out any authoritarian or autocratic management styles within the company that may have contributed to the violence.

Additionally, companies should look to hire and promote people-savvy managers who are adept at reading the concerns of employees. “Do your managers know how to manage?” he said. “To manage people, you have to understand them.”

Laurence Miller, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based author, speaker and police psychologist with the West Palm Beach, Fla., Police Department, agreed that having a well-run organization is a necessary precursor to preventing workplace violence.

“Companies that are perceived by their employees to be run fairly and equitably have a much lower incidence of violence,” he said.

One hallmark of a well-run organization is to ensure an open dialogue between employees and management, he noted.

“When employees feel they don't have a voice, that's when you see threats of violence,” Mr. Mantell added.


Accordingly, Mr. Miller said companies need to craft defined channels for employees to report incidents that may foreshadow future violence, such as employees or managers engaging in bullying.

“Often people are aware of problems but they don't have a real venue to report it confidentially,” he said.

John Lane, Los Angeles-based vp of crisis management and resilience consulting at Control Risks Group Holdings Ltd., said written policies and executive endorsement of these programs is vital.

“Companies need to be able to demonstrate the development of a comprehensive policy and procedure for reporting and responding to cases of concern,” he said. “This entails training employees at every level what the policies, philosophies are reporting procedures are.”

Mr. Mantell said he sees progress on this front.

“Organizations are getting better at training managers in recognizing early warning signs and handling worker complaints,” he said.

Richard Plansky, New York-based senior managing director in the business intelligence and investigations practice of security firm Kroll Inc., said that in addition to creating a culture that empowers employees and managers to report incidents of concern, training people on what to look for is also vital.

“Oftentimes incidents of extreme workplace violence are partially the result of mental illness, which can manifest itself in behavioral changes,” he said. “Who better to notice those changes than people that work side-by-side? If people trust management and trust each other, and feel empowered and responsible coming forward, you have a great chance to nip (workplace) violence in the bud.”


Mr. Miller said many problems can be prevented even earlier by instituting rigorous pre-employment screening and hiring not simply for skill but also for attitude, thereby avoiding bringing problems into the workplace in the first place.

“Don't hire trouble,” he said. “Take the employee screening process seriously.”

Mr. Plansky said similar rigor is advisable when terminating employees, noting that best practices surrounding termination have evolved in recent years. In addition to timing dismissals carefully to avoid weekends and holidays, employers are wise to include incentives for fired employees to behave well, such as back-loading severance packages.

“You can leaven the bad news with career counseling, resume coaches and placement,” he said. “You want to show that employee some support so that they don't feel like they have been cast out into a void.”

In addition to building out policies and procedures around hiring and firing practices, Mr. Lane recommends that companies create a vulnerability assessment, complete with a risk matrix that accounts for the peculiarities of a company's given industry and the physical security measures it has in place. He also advises companies to develop a dedicated prevention team to minister and advance a workplace violence preparedness program.

“Taking a proactive approach reduces liability and keeps away incidents that can interfere with you running your business,” he said. “You can't prevent everything, but you can identify issues and take mitigating steps.”

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