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Stopping Violence in the Workplace Starts With Acting on Warning Signs

Once upon a time, two supervisors were engaged in a romance at a Sorrento Valley biotech company. Then, one day, the woman broke it off, leaving her spurned suitor to simmer and steam and eventually blow a gasket.

Or, so it seemed.

“He was doing these scary things,” recalled Robert Levy, a partner in the San Diego office of Luce Forward’s labor and employment practice group, who conducts training seminars for managers.

Among the chills: The woman discovered her locked desk drawer had been opened, and the contents strewn about, while another time she was greeted with cut-out letters proclaiming, “I know where you live.” Finally, there was the coup de grace that really freaked her out , going home and discovering the head of her cat deposited on her bedroom pillow.

During a training session at the company, Levy took the opportunity to check the fellow out.

“He had these piercing blue eyes,” he recalled. “I took one look and came running back to my high-rise tower.”

Levy next conferred with an industrial psychologist, who painted a profile of the man. The shrink’s advice: Find an older male vice president in the firm to “reach out” to him.

“I thought, ‘What have you been smoking? This guy is dangerous,’ ” said Levy. “But we agreed to pursue this, and a vice president talked with him, and it all was defused.”

Absent any hard evidence against the former beau, there were few options, said Levy, and the woman finally agreed to let it go.


Creating A Bubble

Balancing the rights of privacy with the health and safety of office workers is a delicate balancing act for businesses, said Levy.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” he said. “We try to do a combined legal, psychological and practical analysis , a three-pronged approach. There are certain laws protecting the privacy rights of employees, and there are limits on restraining orders.”

When faced with a potential threat, it can get dicey, said Levy.

“Someone in the office will say, ‘This guy is creepy. We want you to get a restraining order,’ ” he said. “I tell them, it’s a game of Uzi beats paper. If he is ready to blow, goes home with the restraining order on Friday, and comes back in with an Uzi on Monday, the restraining order is meaningless. It is an illusion, where you are creating a bubble that can burst.”

Levy prefers to “think outside the box” , not crossing legal barriers, while having a free flow of conversation, and thinking practically, too.

“I just don’t go running out and get restraining orders,” he said. “There are violent, crazy people out there, and you want to get them out of the workplace. But, in the vast majority of cases, you have someone in a pressure cooker, pushed to the edge, and they become unstable for a period of time. Then, they get through the storm and get their feet back under them and get on with their life.”

Overall, Levy said, “San Diego is, by and large, a very mentally healthy town. We have a beautiful location, and people are out and about, active. But, there will be a percentage who will get into trouble.”

In his 27 years in the business, Levy said, “No one has ever gone postal anywhere I have guided them through, but we have come very close.”

Elaine Rogers, a shareholder with the San Diego law office of Wertz McDade Wallace Moot & Brower, and head of the firm’s employment law practice, sometimes does go to court to get a temporary restraining order against a terminated employee.

“But, they are only as good as the paper they’re written on,” she said.

The advantage?

“When you get a restraining order, a copy goes on file with the police,” said Rogers. “If you call 911, it rises to the top of the priority list in responding. That helps in getting a faster response. You’ve made known that there is a high-risk situation.”


Who Knew?

Denial.

That’s one reason why disgruntled office workers and disturbed students, among others, manage to wreck havoc, while those left behind often shake their heads and think, “Who knew?”

“By and large, these things can be foreseen,” said Ken Wheatley, senior vice president of corporate security for San Diego-based Sony Electronics Inc.’s domestic and international operations. “It’s rare if you look back on cases, in the last 10 or 15 years, where there are no precursors to the events.”

Chalk it up to human nature, said Wheatley, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who also serves as president of the International Security Management Association.

“People say, ‘He was so nice, I had no idea. This is out of character.’ But, if you do evaluations of the person’s life, history, work relationships, there were warning signs, and, if heeded, they could have been more proactive.”

Human nature is what it is, said Dan Hopwood, risk manager for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, and co-author of “Workplace Safety: A Guide for Small and Midsized Companies,” which covers such topics as how to create safety plans, comply with regulations, and save money on workers’ compensation costs.

“The vast majority of folks are hard working and honest, so it’s an odd duck when they get someone who is not hard working and takes advantage of the system, including working unsafely,” said Hopwood. “I don’t know if most people are burying their heads. They just don’t understand that there are bad guys out there.”

While the tragedy at Virginia Tech is the most recent example of sudden, devastating violence, there have been other instances over the years that have grabbed the headlines, from school shootings to workplace rampages that inspired the catchphrase “going postal.”

How can employers prepare for these onslaughts? It has to be a cooperative effort by both managers and their employees, said Wheatley.

“People don’t want to get someone in trouble, and they don’t necessarily trust their evaluation of what they are hearing,” he explained. “Or, they believe that the person is going through a rough period in his life, and is not indicative of any action plan on his part.”

For supervisors, some will refer a worker to counseling, and “hope that the person will seek assistance on their own,” he said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen.”

Yet, supervisors feel they have done their job, said Wheatley, “instead of taking a more proactive approach and making a mandatory referral.”


Reverse Roller Coaster

When Wheatley does his workplace violence training, he shows his classes what he calls a “reverse roller coaster.” While the ride normally starts out high to gain momentum, with this reversed method, “You have a smaller hump in the beginning,” he said. “A lot of people hope that this will keep going down and disappear, but the momentum is building up, up and up.”

In other words, said Wheatley, sweat the small stuff, before it becomes big stuff.

“It’s human nature,” he said. “People will have issues , divorce, kids, performance issues. If you don’t address the problem early on and hope it goes away, in fact, it will not go away, and will get worse.”

Wheatley likes to quote fabled coach Vince Lombardi’s bit of wisdom: “Those who have invested the most will be the last to surrender.” Translation: The longer a potentially explosive incident is allowed to play out, the harder it is to defuse.

“I was in a store, and there was a disagreement at the cash register,” he recalled. “It was heated, and an audience gathered around. The person is invested in the argument now, and has to play to the crowd, and can’t just back off. In a situation like that, it’s best to disperse the crowd. And, God forbid, you have people cheering him on, which further inflames the situation. Then, you have the pressure for that person to save face. Egos are involved.”

Dirk Broekema III, chief executive officer of On Call Employees Solutions Inc., a San Diego-based staffing service, said that communication is key to reducing workplace incidents.

“Say, Sam Jones starts at company ABC today,” he said. “At the end of the day, we would call and say, ‘How was your first day? Does your experience meet the qualifications to do the job? Do you like the manager, the environment?’ Then, we’ll have a similar conversation with the manager. ‘Is he doing what you expected him to be doing? Getting along with the staff and you?’ We repeat this on a weekly basis.”

On Call also employs a designated safety officer, who will “step up and be a little more proactive,” if the situation warrants intervention.

“It’s about peer-workplace safety,” he said. “Workers’ comp has been on a roller coaster ride, and it’s an expensive component of our business. We want our temps to be working in a safe working environment.”

On a quarterly basis, On Call visits all its client sites and looks at safety issues, said Broekema. When he gets reports of problems involving an employee, On Call takes the following steps: Meets privately with the employee, identifying the behavior or performance issues that are involved; sets limits on acceptable behavior, asks for the employee’s input, and offers assistance; establishes time frames to make changes, and the consequences for not meeting them.

“There is a proactive stance you have to take,” said Broekema. “You can’t sit around and wait and react in the moment.”

Role-playing is a good way to test out likely , or even not-so-likely , scenarios and anticipate workplace catastrophes, possibly preventing them from happening, said Wheatley.

“If you lose people and assets that are critical to the company, you might not survive the event,” he said.


Stretched Thin

But some companies, especially smaller ones, have to mind their bottom lines, and the role of safety coordinator often ends up being an added responsibility for the already overworked human resources department. But, added Wheatley, it’s something that employers should factor into their budgets.

“There is a hidden cost that could have dramatic impact on profitability,” he said. “They need to have that as part of their business plan.”

The plan can be tailored to a business’s individual needs, covering not only workplace safety, but such issues as information technology, intellectual property, embezzlement and fraud, along with “executive protection” , making sure that, in this volatile global marketplace, employees can expect protection if they work abroad.

“Businesses have to determine what it could be that would bring them to their knees,” said Wheatley. “Everyone has a limited budget, and you can’t protect everything. You have to pick your battles.”

Some companies are increasingly turning to high-tech security systems as preventive measures, said Nick Hallett, coordinator for the Security Network. Comprised of a cross section of San Diego business, civic and government leaders, the nonprofit organization promotes the development of security technologies by both public and private sectors worldwide.

“Technology is only as good as the people operating it, said Hallett, a retired chief inspector for the New Scotland Yard, who also serves on the executive board of ASIS International, an organization for security professionals. “You need to have quality and training and professionalism. You can have the best cameras and sensors in the world, but if you don’t have good people operating them, they won’t do any good.”


Assessing Risks

Equally troubling are businesses that don’t understand “where the chinks in their armor are,” said Hopwood.

“If you can understand that, you can mitigate the threat,” he said. “When thinking of security and the larger issues of the workplace, folks tend to focus on the outside. But they have to understand the firm’s mission, its goals and contractual obligations. Otherwise, a threat assessment will be a little weak.”

Once the threat assessment is made, businesses need to craft an emergency action plan, one that will include how they intend to carry on after an unforeseen event, said Steve Thompson, president of San Diego-based Aspen Risk Management Group, founder of the Workers’ Compensation Training Consortium, and co-author, with Hopwood, of “Workplace Safety.”

Depending on the nature of the emergency, that could mean everything from issuing a recall , in the event of tainted goods , investigating the cause of the problem, or even rebranding. For instance, in the case of the Tylenol cyanide scare in 1982, “They issued an immediate recall, changed their bottling, and changed the industry,” said Thompson.

Who is most vulnerable?

Rogers cites three categories for potential threats: high-risk businesses, including liquor stores and taxicab companies, especially for employees on the late-night shift; hospitals, stores and other operations that might attract disgruntled people; and employers that might have potentially dangerous situations brewing within their own ranks.

“If you are the highest risk, perhaps you would have to hire a security guard,” she said. “You might want to have some kind of barriers between customers or employees, or the entrance into the workplace. In any situation, employers should have training for employees to try to think ahead , knowing escape routes or having 911 on the speed dial of your phone. And have a list of those trained in CPR, so, if anything goes awry, people know who they are.”

While Rogers acknowledges that some employees might be reluctant to report others, it’s important for them to “keep their ears and eyes open on what is going on with co-workers.”

“Employers need to create an atmosphere where it is OK to report those things,” she said. “Employers do have a responsibility under California law to have in place an injury, illness and prevention plan.”

But the issue of blame isn’t always clear.

“Liability depends on various things,” said Rogers. “It has to do with foreseeability.”

She recalled one case involving a California shopping center, located in a high-crime area, that didn’t have adequate security.

“By not having that guard, after a string of robberies and criminal activities, the owner was found to be liable,” she said. “It goes to show, you better take action.”


Red Flags

Assessing potentially dangerous situations isn’t an exact science, said Stuart Nakutin, director of safety and claims for Cavignac & Associates, a San Diego-based commercial insurance brokerage firm.

“Risk management, in general, is knowledge, experience, expertise and a crystal ball,” he observed.

But, before you can deal with workplace violence, you need to define it, said Nakutin.

“There are quite a few red flags you should be aware of,” he said. “An employee who holds grudges, talks about weapons quite a bit, believes that people are out to get him or her, threatens or intimidates someone, uses abusive language in person or on the phone. Each one doesn’t mean you have a red flag, but add three or four together, and you do.

“Red flags should be taken seriously,” said Nakutin.

“You should never brush them off as just someone having a bad day,” he said. “Albeit, it can be just a bad day , someone got cut off, ran out of gas, ruined a new suit in the rain, or their dog just died. But it could be signs of workplace violence as an outlet for their bad day.”

In the wake of the Virginia Tech violence, Rogers has noticed a change among her clients’ attitudes toward troublesome workers.

“I am getting employers who call me up more often and say, ‘I am going to have to let them go. They are volatile.’ Usually, it involves performance problems, and discipline brings out that reaction. Sometimes you have people in the workplace that are not getting along with co-workers, and maybe they are abusive.”

Employers who do intend to cut a volatile worker loose should be prepared for fireworks.

“Maybe you should take extra precautions when you terminate , escort that person out, or make sure you keep them from returning. In general, employers should keep their antennas out to watch these things closely.”

Levy knows about red flags. He recalls one fellow back in the ’80s who worked at a now defunct financial institution in San Diego. He resented the fact that he was working for two younger women, and made no secret of it, leaving signs on his desk proclaiming, among other things, “Guns don’t kill people, I do.”

“They called and wanted to take action,” said Levy, who did some checking on the angry fellow. “He played war games, kept weapons in his car, and in his boot. He had been a sheriff and lost his job. His younger sister had been raped, and he was angry at her for not defending herself. He was angry at all women. Every red flag in the world was popping up.”

Finally, Levy concluded that, “He was going to kill somebody. We needed to get him out.”

Security personnel were called in, under the guise of copier repairmen, to monitor the situation, and guards were posted at the women’s homes each night. Eventually, the decision was made to fire the man. He filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging age discrimination, but nothing came of it, and he moved out of town.

Another bullet dodged. For now, anyway.

“I believe that as baby boomers age, and workplace demands increase, with information technology, we will see a steady uptick with workplace-related violence,” said Levy.


Straight Talk

Is the rising awareness of mental-health issues resulting in greater empathy and assistance from corporate America? Cheryl Berman, risk manager for the San Diego-based corporate office of Dixieline Lumber & Home Centers, thinks that it has.

Her own company offers troubled employees mental-health resources to help them deal with their problems.

But, it’s a balancing act, said Berman.

“You have to address it, but you also have to handle it,” she said. “If the person does in fact have violent tendencies, you can’t expose employees to it.”

Whether it’s a bipolar disorder, or simply having a bad day, Berman said, “Everybody is going to have something, and our expectations are quality of work and the ability to work with others.”

Bill Litjen, president of G.S. Levine Insurance Services in Sorrento Valley, keeps it simple.

“A lot has to do with the culture of the workplace, and what senior management does to create the right kind of culture,” he said. “When I’m interviewing someone for employment, I tell them, ‘You have to be nice to people or you can’t work here. It’s not OK to go off on people because you are having a bad day.’ A lot of time, when I say that, their eyes get big, and they ask me what I mean. I make it real easy: ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ ”

He credits a former HR consultant , Don Phin , with summing it all up: “When you yell at people, it’s like throwing up on them. You can wipe it off, but the smell never goes away.”

“That is a culture that we have,” said Litjen. “People know that is how it is going to be. We are not always one big, happy family, and it’s not that we don’t have a little bit of drama here now and then. But, from our CEO on down, no one is more important than the next person.”

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