HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Preventing Workplace Violence Through Situational Awareness

“What can we do?”

This is among the most common questions I get after a major incident of violence. It’s not uncommon for there to be a heightened interest for a while, then things go back to “normal.” However, things feel different this time.

As I’m writing this article, the news playing in the background is sharing details of yet another workplace shooting that occurred in rural Maryland. This can be added to the list of recent tragedies from Texas, Buffalo, San Diego, Iowa, and more.

According to the research group Gun Violence Archive, there have been over 250 mass shootings this year alone. This does not include lower levels of workplace violence such as assaults, bullying, sabotage, and vandalism.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming. Adding to the complexity of emotions is the realization that, in most incidents of workplace violence, we tend to find out after the fact that very clear warning signs were missed, overlooked, or even ignored.  

What Is Workplace Violence?

Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. It is generally accepted among researchers and practitioners that workplace violence falls into four specific categories. Understanding these categories can be helpful to organizations trying to evaluate their exposure to potential violence.   

Type 1 – Criminal intent: These crimes include robbery, trespassing, shoplifting, and terrorism. The people committing the crime have no relationship with the business or its employees.

Type 2 – Customer/client: A customer or client becomes violent while interacting with the business. Employees in the healthcare industry are at the highest risk for this type of interaction.

Type 3 – Coworker on coworker: This type of workplace violence is perpetrated by an employee or past employee who attacks or threatens another employee (past or present).

Type 4 – Personal relationships: Generally, this perpetrator has a personal relationship with the victim (but not the business). Women are overwhelmingly victims in this category.

Focus on the Basics

According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the Society of Human Resource Management, almost 50% of human resources professionals who responded indicated that their organization had experienced at least one workplace violence incident; violence can happen in any workplace. What is even more frustrating is that researchers and practitioners are generally in agreement on the behavioral indicators of potential violence. Organizations like the Association for Threat Assessment Professionals and ASIS have mature standards and guidelines and provide frequent training opportunities.

Where there seems to be a persistent gap is getting the people who observe concerning behaviors that may indicate a potential for violence to come forward. I have responded to or evaluated thousands of incidents of workplace violence, and there is almost always one common finding: the warning signs and indicators were missed. What tends to be more elusive is identifying and addressing the issues that contribute to people not bringing concerns forward so that they can be evaluated. Common explanations I hear include:

  • “I didn’t know who to tell”
  • “I didn’t want to overreact”
  • “I didn’t think they would do anything”
  • “I was afraid of getting involved”

All these explanations come down to one salient point: they did not feel safe coming forward. It’s important to teach your employees the warnings signs and indicators of violence, have multiple methods for your employees to report concerns, have a team that is ready to evaluate those concerns, and have a supportive leadership team.

However, what I have found even more important is creating an environment that empowers your employees, that makes them feel like they are going to be believed and trust that you are going to take actions. “Thank you for sharing your concerns” can be a powerful phrase. I have always felt that empowerment is not something that is given, it must be taken. It is up to you and your organization to create an environment that allows employees to take that empowerment.  

Situational Awareness 

Situational awareness is the concept of knowing what is going on around us, and it is one of the most basic elements of personal safety. One simple way to explain the usefulness of situational awareness is to think of where you live. Because it’s a place you spend a lot of time and are comfortable with, it’s easy for you to recognize when something is different or out of place. The more you move away from your comfort zone, the more challenging it can be to recognize concerning behavior. This is why it is important to stay aware of your surroundings and the behaviors of those around you.

This same dynamic exists in the workplace. As an example, one of the benefits of having your employees wear ID badges is so that it’s easier to identify individuals who do not belong on campus, especially if they are in an area reserved for employees. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a simple and straightforward methodology for improving the physical security of your workplace. Applying the principles of CPTED helps create an environment where unusual behavior stands out, making it easier to be situationally aware.

Become an Expert of the Basics

I have worked in the field of workplace violence prevention for over 30 years, and while there have been significant advancements in technology, research, training, and tactics, there is one basic element that has not changed much: we need people to come forward. I cannot overstate the importance of creating an environment that supports employees and makes them feel safe enough to come forward with their concerns.

Teach your employees how to recognize the behavioral indicators of potential violence, support them when they come forward, investigate their concerns, and take action to mitigate the threats.

President of Alvarez Associates, Hector Alvarez is a nationally recognized security expert who specializes in violence prevention and is recognized by the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals as a Certified Threat Manager. He is also a certified instructor in Mental Health First Aid by the National Council for Behavioral Health. He holds a BS in Criminal Justice and MS in Forensic Psychology. He has built decades’ worth of threat management, security, domestic terrorism, and crisis management experience serving as a security director protecting one of our nation’s most sensitive critical infrastructures, as well as working as a city police officer and as a professional security consultant.