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Managing workplace violence requires crisis communication

Managing workplace violence requires crisis communication

The degree to which a mid-market company effectively manages internal and external communications may greatly affect its ability to recover physically and financially from a violent incident in the workplace, several security and risk management experts say.

Mapping out the multiple lines of communication, internal responsibilities and messaging protocols that will be called upon in the event of a violent incident can minimize confusion and anxiety among employees, stem the spread of false or misleading information in the media, and reduce conflicts with first responders and investigators, experts said.

Failing to do so could leave mid-market firms with gaping—and costly—exposures to reputational harm; civil and regulatory liabilities such as workplace safety or employment practices compliance; protracted facility downtime; and, in some cases, property damage and secondary injuries to employees. And while those exposures exist for companies of all sizes, the financial damage they might inflict would be proportionally greater for small and midsize firms, where emergency cash reserves are typically much lower than those of large corporations.

“The idea is to anticipate impacts and consequences, to recognize an event not just for the basic fact of it, but for its broader implications it might have for the organization,” said Tracy Knippenburg Gillis, the New York-based global reputational risk and crisis management practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

Any emergency communications program, including one tailored to address workplace violence, should begin with internal assignments of key responsibilities employees and executives will handle during and immediately following an event, experts said. Of primary importance is establishing an emergency chain of command, one that spells out clearly for employees which staff members will instruct the rest of them during and after an incident.


Drafting a chain of command for emergency communications ahead of time gives employers the chance to consider which employees can best guide the rest of the workforce in a calm and safe way during a crisis.

For example, anyone on staff with emergency response experience would be useful as a group leader.

Not only do those preparations reduce the risk of injury during an incident, they also can significantly reduce trauma or emotional strain that can linger long after an event is over.

“The biggest mistake employers make when dealing with a workplace violence situation is that they don't know who to go to or what to say, and they're usually reacting in a very emotional manner rather than carrying out a prepared and well-understood script for what to do in an emergency,” said Tina Downey, a senior vp at Norristown, Pa.-based Procura Management Inc. “As a result, they reach out to employees that they really shouldn't because they can escalate or compound the problems.”

This can be especially crucial at large worksites with multiple facilities, where a lack of leadership can cause confusion or even disputes among workers.

“One of the worst things that you can do as an employer is leave open the opportunity for conflict in leadership, where you have multiple people trying to take over control of an event,” said Sean Ahrens, Aon Global Risk Consulting's Chicago-based security consulting practice leader. “Those multiple leaders might all want essentially the same thing—to get the company through the incident and back to a normal state of operation—but (having multiple people trying to take charge) can work against you in the long run.”


Mismanagement of external communications during and after a violent on-site incident typically results in bad publicity, which can strain relationships with customers or business partners for years after the actual event, experts said. Damage to a mid-market company's reputation or brand can be particularly devastating, especially if it is unprepared for the heightened scrutiny that typically accompanies workplace violence.

As such, media and community relations are vital roles that mid-market firms must assign well before a crisis occurs (see related story).

“You have to identify ahead of time who will be your spokespeople and make sure that they know how to stay on point when talking to the media,” said Nancy Hamlet, vp of marketing at Duluth, Ga.-based Healthcare Solutions.

With the right media and community relations representatives in place, experts said employers can work internally or with crisis communications experts to develop and deploy messaging protocols that emphasize concern for the victims of an incident, cooperation with investigators and other officials, and ongoing internal steps to prevent future incidents, experts said.

Those preparations will better position a company to provide effective early responses to investigator and media inquiries.

“You can't wait, because if you don't begin communicating immediately about an event, people are going to start drawing their own conclusions,” Mr. Ahrens said, noting that the ubiquity of text messaging and other smartphone technology has made containment of information particularly challenging.

The best remedy, he said, is for firms to get as far ahead of unfiltered information as possible.


“There needs to be a more simultaneous approach to getting information to your staff for their safety while incorporating the PR side of things,” Mr. Ahrens said. “That gives you the opportunity to present the story that you want to present, rather than having people getting incomplete information via text message or whatever other medium is out there, and having a different view of the event.”

And while much of the initial scrutiny during and immediately after an incident will be at the hands of investigators and members of the media, mid-market firms should be especially careful not to overlook the needs of the community in which their facility is located.

“These kinds of incidents have a very real likelihood of impacting the community immediately surrounding the organization's site,” said Kevin Wilkes, a Pittsburgh-based vp and security practice leader at Willis North America. “It's important for organizations to reassure their community that they intend to thoroughly investigate the event and take every step they can to prevent it from happening again.”

Mid-market firms also need to incorporate local law enforcement and any relevant state or federal regulators—such as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration—into their communication models during and after an incident, experts said. Employers that provide law enforcement agencies with key emergency contacts, security programs and emergency codes can greatly reduce the chances that an employee is harmed during a police response, while providing first responders with building schematics can lower the risk of damaged property or other physical assets.

“With that kind of model, you have the opportunity to bring together all of these collaborative resources that, really, are all working toward the same goal, and that's managing and recovering from the event in the best way possible,” Mr. Ahrens said.