Today’s headlines are full of workplace violence incidents. Staff and students fleeing school buildings, employees escaping through emergency exits, communities left rattled. Life is never the same for victims or their families. News coverage leaves many of us wondering what we would have done in that situation. Employers shouldn’t wait until a workplace incident happens to prepare their employees for the possibility.
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with William Flynn, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at The Power of Preparedness. He has over 30 years of experience in domestic and international counterterrorism efforts, the military and public safety. He now helps businesses train their employees in how to prepare for – and prevent – potential incidents.
First, we’ll talk about how the response to workplace violence has changed over the years. Then, we’ll discuss what employers can do to prepare and prevent incidents. Finally, we’ll talk about how warning signs can point to threats on the horizon – and be used to stop them.
The evolution of workplace violence
Workplace violence – and the response to it – has changed over the years. Most people remember the first incident they saw on the news. Columbine. The September 11 attacks. Sandy Hook. All of these incidents have impacted Flynn’s approach to preparedness and safety.
Before Columbine, law enforcement had a specific approach to active shooter situations. First, they set up a perimeter. Then, they called in a hostage negotiator. But they no longer follow this plan. The attack on Sand Hook Elementary School in 2012 changed the nationwide approach to active shooters.
Now, the goal is to stop the incident and create a safe environment as soon as possible. “They don’t wait for the specialized units to respond,” Flynn explained. Every officer has the training to respond, whether they are first or last on the scene.
Time: The difference between life and death
In a workplace violence incident, time plays a critical role. There are pockets of time between the start of the incident, a 911 call and police response. What someone does in those moments matters. “Those minutes can mean the difference between who lives and survives this event,” Flynn shared. The number one way to avoid uncertainty is to plan ahead. How will you communicate with staff if there’s a situation? Where are the closest exits in the workplace? The right planning and training can minimize casualties – and even limit potential incidents.
Workplace violence: Know your risk
“Every business needs to undertake a risk assessment,” Flynn instructs business owners. Each one needs to know what threats they may encounter, and plan accordingly. Does your business operate in a crowded place, like a grocery store or mall? Do people come and go often, like at a high school or university campus? Are employees the only ones in the workplace, or do customers shop there too? He encourages employers to prepare for workplace violence incidents in three ways:
- Get to know local law enforcement. Don’t meet your local first responders on the day of an incident. Get to know them in safe circumstances. Learn what their response to an incident might look like.
- Create a preparedness plan. What should employees do in the event of a workplace violence incident? Locate emergency exits, evacuation routes and decide on code words ahead of time. Make sure that any Human Resources and security departments are aligned. If there’s a potential threat, then both need to partner on preparation and prevention.
- Train employees in response. First, educate your employees on the plan. Online training is an option that can be customized to your business. Then, schedule regular drills. Plans work best when employees have a chance to practice them.
The importance of de-escalation
Employees can be trained to play an important role. People often mirror the emotions of others. For example, an angry customer can cause an employee to get angry, or vice versa. “Reasoning with an angry person is not possible,” Flynn shared. But employees can be taught to reduce agitation so that a conversation becomes possible. “You don’t want that agitation to evolve into aggression.”
Noticing the warning signs
It may seem like workplace violence strikes without warning. However, Flynn disagrees. “People don’t just snap,” he said. “They are on a pathway to violence.” That violence is often the result of emotional issues: anxiety, depression, even stress. These emotions may be accompanied by behavioral changes. Further, those changes can be a warning sign that violence might be ahead.
“We need to be training people in the realities of workplace violence,” he shared. And the reality is, it may start closer to home, with a bullied coworker or unhappy manager. Verbal or cyber abuse can also be triggers. Encourage employees to speak up when they notice unusual changes in their coworkers. They are often the first to spot them. Train them to speak to a team leader, or send an email to Human Resources. Explain that it isn’t a betrayal, but a way to help the employee – and potentially the entire workplace.
Workplace violence training: High return on a low investment
For Flynn, preparing for workplace violence is just as important as today’s essential trainings – sexual harassment, diversity, cybersecurity. Over $16 billion in wages and 800,000 workdays are lost as a result of workplace violence. Connecting with local law enforcement can help employers assess their risk and understand workplace violence response. Planning and training require an investment of time more than money. Every effort that employers put in to preparing for – and preventing – workplace violence has the potential to save a life.
For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn how to keep employee trauma in mind as you build a better workplace in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.