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Workplace violence: How to deal with it

Recovering from a violent incident or disaster in the workplace can take months, but having a plan and sources of help prior to the event can make the process smoother.

Employees’ emotional reactions to a violent event in the workplace begin within the first few minutes after the event, said experts from AlliedBarton security services during an April 2012 webinar, “Regaining Your Ground: Resilience After a Workplace Violence Event.”

“Workplace violence events impact everyone, not just the primary victim or victims,” said Brent O’Bryan, vice president of learning and development for AlliedBarton. “People lose the feeling of safety.”

Immediately after the event occurs, employees begin to feel disbelief, denial and shock, O’Bryan said. In the days and weeks following, they will experience anger and rage and might withdraw from social events—even if they weren’t directly physically harmed in the event. The final stage of processing the event occurs when employees begin to make sense and understand the impact of what happened, O’Bryan said.

“One of the challenges in recovering [as an organization] is making sure everyone gets through to the final stage,” he said.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can be invaluable in helping organizations recover, O’Bryan said. While the leadership team is focused on getting the business back up and running, the EAP assists employees and advises management on how to help employees cope.

In the days following the event, organizations should provide multiple sources of communication, O’Bryan said: hotlines for them to call with questions or concerns and intranets with updates on investigations or changes to building security and meetings.

“Recognize that employees need to know as much as you can tell them. Keeping employees [up to date] on communications will speed the recovery process,” O’Bryan said.

Soon after the event, the EAP should conduct a debriefing session for employees to talk about how they are feeling and how they can expect to feel over the next several days. It will help them understand that their reactions are normal and that they can get information on obtaining individual counseling if they want it.

Two weeks after the event, hold a critiquing session, O’Bryan advised. Managers and supervisors can review the event and how the event was managed and can discuss how reactions could have been improved.

“If employees believe that the company has tried to learn from the incident, that will help in the recovery process,” O’Bryan said.

 

Communications

Keeping workers and stakeholders informed is “key to business continuity,” said Blair Meeks, communication strategist with the Jackson Spalding public relations firm.

Make sure there’s a designated individual to speak to the media and that everyone in the organization knows that only that person should speak to the media, Meeks advised.

“The spokesperson … should have a simple message and be clear [and] consistent and deliver substantive information. Speak to what people want to know. Be correct, above all,” he said.

Different audiences -- employees and their families, customers, vendors, suppliers, investors, board members and the news media -- should be addressed at different times, via different outlets, depending on the crisis, Meeks said. Companies can get their messages out quickly by planning statements that can be released and updated later. Try to plan what you would say under different scenarios so that you’re not crafting a full media statement in the minutes just following a crisis.

The formula his firm uses to create message templates is “emotion + situation + action = message,” Meeks said. Talk about what is happening emotionally (“We are devastated that one of our employees was injured today when a person with a gun entered our lobby and began shooting”); then discuss the situation, what you know to be factual at that point (“Police officers have a suspect in custody and are interviewing the employees who were in the lobby at the time”) and then finish with the action to be taken (“We will cooperate with the police in their investigation and support the injured employee and their family during this difficult time”).

Other tips Meeks offered:

• If you share office space or a building with other companies, let them know what happened.

• Social media has intensified the speed and reach at which news spreads. Make sure your employees know what your company believes is appropriate for them to tweet or post about during a crisis event. Utilize social media to inform your customers and stakeholders after an event occurs, and monitor conversations about the event so that you can correct information and take part in the discussion.

• Take control of the timetable. Media outlets will want regular updates. By holding news conferences, you take control of when and how you release information. Plan to update media contacts periodically so that they won’t continuously hound you for updates.

 

Review and Adjust

Once or twice a year -- and certainly after a crisis -- companies should take some time to look at their plans to see if improvements can be made, said Julie Havel, safety program manager for AlliedBarton. Ask:

• What was done well?

• What can be improved?

• How was the plan executed?

• Are there additional measures we could have taken?

• Did people have and use emergency contact numbers, floor plans and maps?

• Did response teams -- fire and medical -- work well together?

Following a workplace violence event, in particular, employees might feel unsafe about returning to work. Companies might want to institute measures such as requiring visitors to sign a registration book, installing alarm systems, erecting physical barriers that make it difficult to see into common work areas, improving lighting, providing security, and screening and redirecting phone calls.

Practice these processes with employees and response teams. Test evacuation and shelter-in-place drills. Have table-top exercises, in which employees and managers walk through what they would do if a hypothetical situation occurred. Do employees know where to go in different types of emergencies? Do they know what to do if they see something out of place or feel threatened?

Beth Mirza is senior editor for SHRM Online. 

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