Glenn French wanted to know the truth. After hearing countless employers saying, “We don’t have that problem here,” he decided to canvass every trade union and labour organization in Canada. He wanted to know if violence in the workplace was an issue. In the mid 1990s, he mailed surveys to hundreds of unions, from the fishermen in the west to the loggers in the east, and he was overwhelmed with responses.
“I was inundated with the answers to the questions that I sent, but people began to send me information that I didn’t request, such as security reports, occupational heath and safety statistics, near misses, their opinions, their surveys and it was quite impressive,” says French. “Clearly it was an issue of some concern.”
Shortly after, French decided to close his private clinical counselling practice and start the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, a Toronto consultancy that studies trends in workplace conduct within Canada.
French has seen the definition of “workplace violence” change considerably over the years. While it started out as physical acts — hitting, punching, slapping — and threats to commit those acts, it has evolved to include psychological injury, such as harassment.
But French cautions against casting the net too wide.
“Now people are focusing in on chronic incivility and I think we need to be a little cautious there because when does your bad day or week become an issue of occupational safety?” he asks.
More and more governments are making changes to further protect victims of domestic violence, such as introducing specific workplace leaves. It’s important for health and safety professionals to understand that domestic violence can be a workplace violence issue. If an individual is experiencing violence at home, there is a plethora of ways that this can trickle into the workplace, such as the perpetrator stalking the victim, sending hate mail or issuing threats to the reception desk.
If an employer knows that a worker is a victim of domestic violence, French says it has a responsibility to do something about that, which may include:
• designating a parking spot so the worker doesn’t need to walk across the parking lot
• escorting the worker to his or her car at the end of the shift
• providing the worker with time off to go to court to get a protection order
• moving the worker’s desk to a more private area
• reinforcing building entry safeguards, such as not letting anyone trail employees into the office
• changing the worker’s phone number
• having someone screen the worker’s mail.
In the event that the worker fails to show up for work, there should be a pre-arranged contact protocol in place to ensure she is safe.
If an employer has reason to believe that a worker is a victim of workplace violence but doesn’t know for certain, it still has a legislative responsibility to act, French adds.
“If you see things a reasonable person would assume to be indicative of some kind of risk, such as you are seeing fighting among two people in the front lobby or someone is coming in with injuries that are a concern to you and there’s no reasonable explanation for it… then it does trigger a responsibility to have a discussion with that person who may be the intended target.”
To prevent workplace violence of all kinds, employers must have a written policy. It should clearly state what constitutes workplace violence, the organization’s zero tolerance stance, the responsibilities of all stakeholders, the reporting process, investigation procedures and subsequent consequences for policy violations.
Employers should conduct a risk assessment so they know the nature and the extent of violence in their workplace. French encourages health and safety professionals to go beyond the number of incidents and solicit information that can gauge the degree of concern amongst employees regarding violence in their workplace. Information can be gathered through employee surveys, focus groups and corporate incident reports. When, where and why incidents happen should be tracked.
Procedures should be developed to properly investigate reported incidents of workplace violence, keeping in mind fairness, confidentiality and safety, French says. All individuals in the investigation process must be well trained and possess a skill set appropriate to their responsibility.
“It’s no longer satisfactory to simply say, ‘Well Joe is a nice person in HR and he gets along with people really well, so he should do the investigation,’” says French. “He should be trained.”
It’s also important to ensure there are follow-up procedures in place.
“Violence should be considered an occupational risk like any other occupational risk and as a result of that, you do an incident followup for any incident, any close call,” French says.
All employees need to be trained in the workplace violence policy. Employees at all levels must be fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. Arbitrators and courts want some proof that employees are understanding the training.
“The days of doing a lunch ‘n learn — you know, you come in for an hour and someone babbles at you at the front of the room and that’s it — are over,” French says. “Now you need to demonstrate there’s a transfer of knowledge to people who are actually learning something and that means a test or some kind of quiz.”
The training needs to be reviewed on a regular basis.
All workplace violence plans must include critical incident management: What to do if there is a serious act of violence, such as an active shooter. While most companies and their employees know what to do if there is a fire in the building, few know how to react if someone enters the premises wielding a gun. The more you can plan, the better, says French, so incident management procedures should clearly outline what to do in various emergency scenarios. Although highly unpleasant, there needs to be protocols for the more grisly situations.
“Who cleans up the workplace? How quickly does that happen? Is that a crime scene? What do you need to do? Who is your law enforcement provider? You may be on the cusp of two jurisdictions, so you’re calling the wrong people,” says French. “You don’t think of these things when you need them and every minute counts.”
After a serious incident, such as a death caused by an active shooter, the employer needs to show genuine concern.
“Employees will look to the employer to see what they do, to see how sensitive or not they are. For example, one of the things that always comes up is how quickly the flag goes to half-mast,” says French. “The employer forgets that that’s a sign to everybody of respect.”
The workplace will likely be in shock after a serious act of violence, so allowing people to come back to work whey they are ready — not forcing them — is the best approach.
French often meets with individuals that companies have reason to believe may be dangerous. He asks them questions and listens to their side of the story. At the end of the assessment, he provides a management plan that considers a variety of scenarios and contingencies.
In one instance, an individual was having outbursts at work and the company was concerned he could become violent. French met with him and conducted an assessment, which revealed the individual had difficulty reading, but was too ashamed to admit it.
“Here’s a guy who has a disability, not someone who is going to be violent. And when the employer knew that, they were able to accommodate him,” French says.
If an individual has been the perpetrator of workplace violence, behaviour coaching may be required. The intervention should be tailored to the specific circumstance, including unacceptable behaviours, and should be done in conjunction with a mental health practitioner, French says.
“Think of it as coaching — not therapy — but coaching for somebody to perform differently in particular situations in the workplace that have been troublesome for them,” he says.
In his 30 years of experience, French has learned that what you see might not be what you get. He has countless examples of people overreacting and saying someone is going to be violent when they’re not, as well as under-reacting and not reporting something they should have. So, he cautions employers to be very careful when drawing conclusions.
“It’s a very diverse workplace now with all kinds of different ways of behaving. Some people don’t make eye contact; some will not shake your hand. These don’t necessarily mean this person is hostile and menacing,” French says. “And people with a mental health challenge or diagnosis are not any more violent than the rest of us…. It’s such an incredibly complex area with so many pieces to it.”
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of COS.