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Preventing Workplace Violence

Workplace Violence: Stopping It Before It Starts

As a manager, you play an important role in preventing workplace violence and ensuring that threatening or violent behavior receives an appropriate response when it does occur. Most Federal agencies have workplace violence policies and procedures, as well as interdisciplinary workplace violence teams to assist you. However, it is up to you to ensure that your own work area is safe and that your employees know what to do in an emergency.

Within the same agency, different worksites and missions produce different risks and safety factors. Some employees work in highly secure headquarters buildings while others work in storefront offices open to the public. Regardless of how carefully the agency has developed its policies and procedures, it is still important to apply them in a way that makes sense in each individual site. That's where you play a key role with your detailed knowledge of what your employees actually do and under what circumstances they do it.

Risk Factors

Assessing possible risks is an important early step in violence prevention. One way of assessing risks in your workplace is to look at possible sources of violence: strangers, customers, and employees or their associates.

Violence from strangers is the most deadly form of workplace violence. It usually accompanies robbery, and makes night retail work especially dangerous. People planning robberies usually select their targets carefully and bring their weapons with them. While night retail work is not a common Federal occupation, employees who work into the evening can face some of the same risks on their way home.

Preventive strategies include good lighting and various types of perimeter security such as badging, visitor screening, and controlled access to buildings. Employee training is also important, so that everyone can support the security staff by following procedures and being alert for suspicious people or behaviors. Terrorists, like common criminals, also plan their crimes carefully and are also likely to commit deadly crimes. The same common sense security measures are also helpful against terrorism.

Violence from "customers," such as clients or patients, is usually spontaneous and therefore less likely to be lethal. A hospitalized patient suffering from delirium may strike a nurse, or a frustrated traveler may lash out at the Federal employee who has to confiscate his vacation souvenirs at the airport. Preventive strategies include workplace design and carefully developed procedures, as well as employee training.

Violence from employees or their close associates is the most varied form of workplace violence. It can be mild or severe. It can grow out of workplace disputes or out of personal, emotional issues such as the end of a romantic relationship.

Preventive measures include basic good leadership principles such as fairness, open communication, and respect for employees. Your employees must feel safe to approach you if they feel afraid for any reason. Because these situations are likely to be complex, you need to have ready access to resources such as your agency's workplace violence team. If there isn't a team, you can seek assistance from the organizations usually represented on agency teams, for example the employee assistance program (EAP), security office, and human resources office.

Preventative Measures

As a manager, you should involve your staff in assessing risk factors and needs for additional training, lighting, or whatever is necessary. They may have observed problems you have not noticed. Being part of the assessment and planning process can help them understand that every employee has a role in violence prevention. It is also important to keep employees well informed about helping resources such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), your agency's alternative dispute resolution program, and any other resources that can help them solve problems before violence becomes an issue.

Everyone should know exactly what to do in an emergency. Stickers on telephones can help reinforce the message. Do not leave your employees wondering whether they should call 911, the guard desk in the lobby, or their friend down the hall in the Inspector General's office.

The way you interact with your employees can be a preventive factor. If you earn your employees' trust through fairness and good judgment, they will call your attention to potential problems before they explode. If you are courteous and respectful in your own behavior, you will set a positive example for their behavior.

It is also important to intervene promptly if someone is behaving rudely toward fellow employees, bullying co-workers, or being inappropriate in ways that raise the level of tension in the office. It may just require a conversation; the employee may simply be unaware of the impact of the behavior on others. Still, it is a good idea to check with your employee relations specialist before you talk with the employee.

Warning Signs

Unfortunately, the best prevention strategies cannot always prevent violence, so you need to be aware of warning signs. You do not need to become an expert on violent behavior; instead you need to know when it's time to look into the situation and seek advice. Warning signs tend to fall into two categories:

Someone says or hints that they might harm someone. People contemplating violence sometimes broadcast their intentions. Even if statements seem to be made in jest, employees need to understand that such jokes are not appropriate.

Someone appears to be frightened of someone else. That person feeling fear could be you. You could find yourself anxious about counseling an employee, even though you know that the counseling is appropriate. Or an employee might seem afraid after talking with an irate ex-spouse over the phone. An employee might frighten another employee with inappropriate talk about weapons. A normally dependable employee may make excuses to avoid seeing a particular customer.

These situations should make alarm bells go off in your mind. Even if your own response seems somewhat "gut level" and hard to explain, you should listen to your own feelings. You're not making decisions yet; you are just identifying a situation that needs to be explored. You can follow up on your initial response by observing the situation more closely, gathering additional information, and seeking professional advice.

If your [workplace has a] workplace violence team, that is the natural place to go for help. If not, you may need to assemble your own team, including the offices typically represented on agency teams, such as your EAP, employee relations specialist, and security office. Your own supervisor's experience and knowledge of agency resources can be an important resource for you as well.

Of course, if the situation seems to be immediately dangerous, you need to call the appropriate authorities and take whatever steps are necessary to protect safety. Fortunately, most situations are not immediately explosive, and there is usually time to plan a thorough and thoughtful response.


The response will vary to fit the situation. Essentially there are three major tasks:

    Evaluate the situation more extensively

    Develop and execute a plan for responding to it

    Address safety issues at every stage in the process

    As soon as possible, you and your advisors need to stabilize the situation in a way that preserves safety. This might involve barring a customer or employee from the building temporarily, or moving a threatened employee temporarily to a safer place.

Once the immediate danger has passed, you need to move on to investigate the situation, collect statements and other documentation, and develop a long term plan. The long term plan may involve personnel actions, legal measures, or involvement of law enforcement organizations.

You need to be concerned about employees affected by whatever has happened. Even those not directly involved can find it upsetting to learn there has been an incident in their own workplace. Do they need information, a chance to compare their responses with those of co-workers, or a meeting with the EAP? Earlier chapters of this manual can give you ideas about how to support these employees and help them regain their morale and effectiveness.

This information came from a
US OPM online article.

*** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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