Workplace violence policies and procedures should be standard fare in any employee handbook, according to Peter Kok, attorney and chair of the Labor and Employment section at Miller Johnson.
Kok said that he recommends to all of his clients that they include a handbook provision stressing how employees should treat one another in the workplace and that any threats or inappropriate behavior will be investigated and taken seriously.
Policies should emphasize appropriate behavior in treating colleagues with dignity and respect, and then pointing out conduct that will not be tolerated in the workplace. Employers should also stress any weapons restrictions in their policy.
“We’ve had some problems with that ever since the revisions to the state’s concealed weapons policy came down a few years ago,” Kok said. “Some people who obtained a concealed weapons permit think that permits them to take a weapon onto private property and into a private workplace, and that is not so. Most companies want to make it very plain that employees are not to take any such weapons on the premises.”
Kok said he has worked with clients to craft policies that allow for a hunting weapon that is properly disassembled and contained in a vehicle trunk, but he said, for the most part, companies implement all-out bans on weapons on company premises.
“Obviously, the weapon is something that is used when there have been issues that have gotten out of hand,” Kok said. “The key here, for employers, is to have methods to intervene before disputes reach that kind of level where hard feelings blossom into acts of violence.
“That is why a policy, a statement and an administration that basically informs people that this sort of thing won’t be tolerated and the company will look into situations where there are threats or inappropriate bullying behavior is important. You want to nip it in the bud long before it gets to the question of weapons.”
Ways that a company can best intervene is to create clear codes of conduct, encourage communication of any threats or bullying to a supervisor, and provide an anonymous option so as not to limit these lines of communication.
Additionally, one of the best ways to prevent workplace violence is to do a thorough background check on all new hires.
“When you hire somebody, the most important thing you can do is to check references and make sure you find a way to discuss this person’s performance with somebody that actually had to supervise them at a prior employer.
“There are lots of situations I’ve encountered, in the many years I’ve done this work, where a good solid background check would have revealed that a person was, for example, previously fired for knocking out a supervisor. In another case I had, an individual had previously been convicted of a shootout on the courthouse steps. Those kinds of very obvious things can be easily found.”
Domestic violence issues have moved from the home into the workplace, so it’s also important for a company to have at least minimum security in place to prevent outsiders from entering work areas without permission, he said.
“Going back 20 to 30 years, it wouldn’t be unlikely for a spouse to walk right into a manufacturing facility from the outside and drop off a lunch for a spouse inside without anybody questioning it. That typically would not happen today.”
Workplace bullying, which can be a precursor to violence, has been in the spotlight recently. Kok said policies around bullying have evolved to look at less blatant forms.
“I don’t think there is any more of it in the workplace today,” Kok said. “There is probably less of it because, I think, the human resources function has gotten more sophisticated over the years in dealing with this kind of stuff. But I think we are digging down into the kind of bullying that is sometimes a little harder to detect but is just as nasty.”
Currently there are no laws that require workplace violence policies or procedures, and employers would have to be extremely negligent to be held responsible for an act of violence in their workplace.
“There may be some cases where you are going to have some warning signs, but there are obviously situations where things happen completely without warning.”
Kok reiterated that a timely response to small issues is the best way to reduce the risk of escalation or an act of workplace violence.