If someone walked into your business this afternoon with a gun what would your employees do? Should your employees hide under their desks, head to a staircase, lock themselves in their offices? Do your employees have their own guns, and should they start a shootout?
No employer ever says "well today is the day we'll have ourselves a crisis." But in this day and age bad things happen. Even the best company can have an employee with a troubled relationship that spills over into the workplace. Every employer needs to have some plan - some procedure that tells employees how to respond in an emergency. Don't be the employer on the evening news that says "We never thought it would happen to us."
Consult Security Experts
An employer cannot have a one-size-fits-all plan for workplace emergencies. Your company's response to a violent incident requires different considerations from any other type of workplace accident or emergency. Consider bringing in security experts to guide the creation of your company's plan. An experienced security professional can look at the layout of your office and make recommendations for enhancing employee safety in the event of a violent act.
A friend of mine served on the advance team protecting the British royal family. His job was to enter any building that was to host a protectee and look for hidden dangers. His job was to ensure that the protection team had a defensible position in the event of an incident. Experts like this spend their careers thinking about the logistics of workplace violence - spotting vulnerabilities that others never see and mitigate those risks.
He noticed that Americans don't like to sit with their backs to the door. So if an HR Manager at an American office must terminate someone, they will often enter the conference room first, and choose the seat facing the door. The employee they are firing must then take the seat across from them. So if things go badly, and the situation escalates to violence, the angry person being fired is between the HR Manager and the door. A safer posture would be to always seat the person being terminated on the wall side and the HR Manager with the door behind him, able to escape if the situation turns violent. A trained security expert may be able to propose similarly simple solutions for use in your office.
Workplace Violence Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures directed at workplace violence situations must be thorough and specific to situational dangers. For instance, an evacuation because of a shooting must be handled differently than a fire evacuation. After a fire you want your people to gather so you can see who is missing and tell the arriving firefighters. But instructing your employees to gather across the street in a shooting evacuation makes them vulnerable to the gunman. This is only one example of how employers must carefully consider the legalities and liabilities that are specific to a violent incident-before, during, and afterwards. How you will account for everyone after they have exited? What will you say when the police ask who is still in the building? What happens when employees want to re-enter the building to get their personal belongings? The short answer is that they cannot - and you need to be ready to answer the questions that will follow: "Do I come to work tomorrow?" "Will I get paid for tomorrow?" "Can I work remotely?" It is not hard to predict the questions that arise in the aftermath of a crisis - but it is hard to answer them amidst chaos.
Workplace Violence Prevention Begins with Awareness
Though the annual number of workplace violence incidents is "only" about 500 in the United States, approximately 400 people are murdered each year in American workplaces and 1 out of every 6 fatal workplace injuries is a homicide. Employers who think that they are safe because they do not operate the kind of business that tends to get robbed should note that only about one-third of workplace homicides are related to a robbery. Beyond homicides, assaults and sexual assaults are all too common in the American workplace. Those numbers tend to be under-reported but one study found that in one five year period the number of sexual assaults in the American workplace was 36,000. Workplace violence may be unthinkable, but today employers must plan for the unthinkable.
About the Author: Stephen B. Williamson is a principal attorney with The Van Winkle Law Firm. Employment and workplace law is one of the primary focus areas of his practice. His past experience as a police officer, as well as extensive investigative training, informs his approach to developing workplace violence prevention and response plans for employers. He has experience developing and implementing workplace violence policies, procedures and courses of training for employers from a variety of industries, including a Fortune 500 company that operates approximately 7,000 retail outlets.