Consultant urges system to stem workplace violence

Response plans and more employee support are key to addressing situations.
73

In the wake of multiple mass shootings this summer, employers caught in the movement to return to the workplace after months of remote work are dealing with a new dilemma — how to keep employees safe from workplace violence and comfortable again in an office.

The questions of how to maintain workplace safety, how to help employees through the psychological effects of violence and ways to prevent and recover from workplace violence are the focus of forensic psychologist Dr. George Vergolias and his team at R3 Continuum, a national health consulting company headquartered in Grand Rapids.

R3 Continuum (Ready, Respond, Recover) offers solutions for a range of workplaces, from hospitals to trucking companies, acting as a behavioral health consultation resource for employers. R3 helps workplaces manage disruption and violence and offers behavioral health support for employees who may be struggling.

Dr. George Vergolias

In the wake of shootings in Philadelphia, Uvalde, Highland Park, Buffalo and more, Vergolias is urging employers to consider creating and implementing response plans in the event of a violent situation, as well as looking for ways to connect with and support employees.

According to Vergolias, the combination of stress and anxiety from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, returning to work after long absences and the struggle of reintegrating to a face-to-face environment and the polarization of social and political topics have created a unique tension in today’s workplace. Those issues, combined with the heightened fear of increasing mass shooting events, have made employee safety and trust more important than ever.

“All of these things are facing leaders right now,” Vergolias said, “and a lot of it is they’re struggling with, ‘How do I construct my messaging? How do I move forward on a path so that my people feel heard and understood, and how do I support them? How do I support their mental health?’

“Just a few short years ago, we used to think of crisis management, whether it was business continuity or threat management or just emotional crisis management, as a series of singular events. Now for workplaces, it’s more of a rolling wave. As soon as you absorb one wave, another wave comes. There’s something else.

“That’s what leaders and managers are struggling with, this is kind of new territory. How do we help people tap into resilience, continue to thrive at work, but also be supportive of what their needs are and do this in a way that the business stays viable? Because if the business goes away, that’s another stressor. People lose their jobs.”

Vergolias also mentioned the need for businesses to be attentive to employee safety and mindset is more important than ever, as not only are disgruntled employees more likely to retaliate against inattentive management, they also are more likely to leave the workplace for other jobs that will meet their needs.

To maintain safety and meet employees’ needs, Vergolias recommended creating clear plans to implement in the case of a violent event.

“You definitely want to have clear security protocols that make sense, and that work for your workplace,” he said, “The other thing you need is to train your people on what those protocols are and create a culture in which people really will come forward if they see or hear about a concerning issue. It’s cliche, but ‘see something say something’ really does work.

Employees often become aware of potentially dangerous situations or other employees in need of help through leakage, a situation where an employee discloses to another that they are thinking of committing violent acts, and that employee then brings the information to leadership. This can only happen when businesses create a work environment where employees feel safe speaking out.

“If you’re a leader and you’re not engaging with your team, your employees, if you don’t have a culture where employees feel comfortable coming forward, you’re losing out,” Vergolias said. “It’s critical that you build cultures.”

Whether employees are dealing with behavioral issues or an overload of stress, creating an open environment where they can speak with leadership and their peers and receive help before escalating to potentially dangerous levels is essential.

When threats to a company’s safety are internal, Vergolias said it is important to investigate them equitably and fairly. As maintaining loyalty and mutual respect in a team is important, businesses need to make sure that employees can disclose potentially sensitive information about others to ensure they are being cared for. Businesses can do this through implementing anonymous systems where employees can report threats or concerns without fear of repercussions or of damaging workplace relationships.

Vergolias also said no-tolerance policies often can put leadership in difficult positions, and can sometimes keep employees from feeling comfortable with open communication. Since no-tolerance regulations can create situations where employees who need support or discipline are fired in situations where that may not be necessary, employees may be less likely to speak up when they see a coworker struggling, for fear that those struggles will cause them to lose their job. Those in need of help or support from leadership also can be less likely to reach out for the same reasons.

“No-tolerance regulations put HR and leadership into a corner,” Vergolias said. “If you’re going to have no-tolerance policies, be very clear on what those are and be very careful how they’re written so that they don’t corner people.”

In cases of threats or attacks stemming from outside the workplace, however, Vergolias recommended creating a clear safety plan and educating employees on what to do in dangerous situations.

“It is hard to stop what we call an anonymized attacker, somebody that’s not connected to your workplace. And in those cases, it goes back to having good security protocols, good awareness, not letting people come into the workplace that don’t belong there.”

As businesses continue to encourage workers to return to in-person work environments, Vergolias anticipated workplace violence policies will become a more common-place part of orientation. He also said he believes creating a culture of safety and communication will become a more collaborative effort.

“Preventing violence is everyone’s job, from the CEO to the janitor,” he said. “Everyone has to have a stake in it, everyone has to be involved at some level. We have to redefine workplace safety as an entire company’s role. Leadership has to guide it and direct it, but everyone has to have a stake in that game.”

Facebook Comments