Workplace Violence Insurance Policy Submissions Up 30% in
SHRM: HR's Take on Preventing Workplace Violence
Preventing Workplace Violence Inspired by COVID-19
"HR & Security Need to Lead This"
Unity, teamwork and collaboration typically are at the core of a successful
company's culture and mission. But the added stress brought on by the monumental
circumstances of COVID-19 can wreak havoc on any workplace.
As businesses reopen and HR managers focus on helping their workforces adjust,
they must also keep a close eye on the safety of those employees—and not just
from the virus.
"There are all kinds of new variables that are causing employees to be under
stress," said Philip Dana, vice president of HR at Dendreon, a bio-tech company
based in Seal Beach, Calif., with 600 employees. "It could come from them being
cooped up in their homes, maybe their relationships are a bit strained, they
might be feeling pressure from other family members, and friends and family
could be ill or facing job layoffs or reduced hours."
According to new data from the Federal Reserve, nearly 40 percent of households
earning less than $40,000 a year experienced at least one job loss in March,
versus 19 percent of households earning between $40,000 and $100,000 and 13
percent of those earning more than $100,000. And while 85 percent of those with
no work disruption said they could pay their current month's bills in full, just
64 percent of those who had lost a job or had their hours cut said they could
cover their expenses for the month, the Fed's report adds. Such financial
pressure can result in inappropriate workplace behavior, or worse.
"Highly stressed employees can potentially bring violent behaviors to the
workplace, and companies need to do all they can to anticipate, identify and
manage that threat," said Ignacio Zamora Jr., chief security officer for
Vigilance Risks Solutions in La Jolla, Calif. Attention to current and former
employees' state of mind is always crucial, but its importance is magnified
during crisis moments like COVID-19.
"HR managers must recognize the new threats and challenges this pandemic has
created," Zamora said. "We've never had this kind of global situation where
we've had to abruptly turn off the lights and now have to figure out how to turn
the lights back on in a way that is safe, sustainable, and addresses the fears
and anxieties of employees coming back to the workplace." He adds that "people
suffer when they experience a breakdown in systems. Domestic violence, for
example, goes way up. Research following previous natural disasters has shown
As a result, Zamora says he's seeing two types of concerning behaviors emerge:
Distance Tensions. Some employees will not maintain proper distance from
co-workers and may fail to respect capacity rules in a kitchen or meeting room.
In those cases, other employees are likely to speak up and become upset if
nothing happens to those who aren't observing the rules.
Weaponization of the Virus. Employees who can't afford to lose pay or simply
don't take the virus seriously may return to work even when they don't feel
well, risking the health of others. And in extreme cases, saliva is being used
as a weapon and is now considered a biological agent by the federal government.
A man spat at a police officer in Tampa recently and was charged with a federal
There have been near-daily reports of customer incidents at retail and
service businesses, most related to disputes over mask-wearing and competing
demands for supplies. A customer shot an Oklahoma City McDonald's employee after
being told to leave due to coronavirus restrictions, police say.
Abroad, The Guardian newspaper of London reports that front-line workers in
pharmacies in the United Kingdom are receiving abuse ranging from verbal
intimidation to violent attacks. "Police patrols have been deployed to some
outlets as deterrents amid mounting day-to-day tensions, scuffles in queues
outside premises, which are limiting the number of entrants, and incidents
including the theft of pharmacy stock by masked raiders," it reported.
Adding to potential friction in the office is discussion of conspiracy theories
linking COVID-19 and big pharma, 5G, Bill Gates and anti-vaccine proponents,
among others. From an employer standpoint, "there's never been a better time to
provide honest, accurate, science-based information," Zamora said. "This will
cool the rumor mill about safety, health issues, spreading of the disease and
Look for Warning Signs If Possible
Dana says his manager-level staff is trained to look for signs, but because his
entire team moved to a "max remote" schedule, and about two-thirds of his staff
have been working from home—including him—they are not truly face-to-face with
"It's difficult to get a read on the state of our co-workers," he said. "It's
hard to notice warning signs related to health, signs of mental distress, or
unusual or inconsistent behavior when you only see them on Zoom calls. So how do
Writes Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, "A lot of bad
things happen behind America's closed doors. The pandemic has made those doors
Dana says Dendreon starts by creating calm in the office and building confidence
in the staff with frequent and empathetic messages.
"We assure staff that we will have masks and hand sanitizer in the office," Dana
said. "We meet the guidelines for cleaning the office space, and we do the
cleaning during the day, in sight of employees, instead of at night, and we have
more signs posted. All of this can ease employees' worries. They should not have
to stress on their way into work each day wondering if it will be safe."
Dendreon employees used to have access to four or five entrances to the office,
but now there's just one for production staff and one for nonproduction.
"These paths do not cross," Dana said. "We have spacing rules in common areas
and work areas. We adjusted our seating chart. It used to be if you needed help
from our IT team, you walked over to that area and talked to someone. Now, the
IT person will meet the employee in a designated area to pick up a laptop or
solve a problem."
As for all of these in-office changes, the response from employees is mixed,
Dana said. "Some greatly appreciate and understand it, and others struggle with
the changes. Again, this is where empathy comes into play."
Tech companies such as VergeSense were installing cameras pre-COVID-19 to help
track employee movements so that businesses could optimize their space. Lately,
that firm has been installing sensors in offices to help signal if too many
people are congregating in given areas, such as kitchens and conference rooms.
The devices cost a few hundred dollars each, and the analytics software to run
them costs less than $100 per year to run. VergeSense's CEO says some of his
customers are considering hiring floor safety coordinators as a next step.
'How Are You Doing?'
As his company's HR leader and a veteran, Dana has experience with handling
stress. "I have to understand my role," he said. "Am I the person who wants to
take control of it all, 'Come on, get in. I'll drive.'? Or am I more like the
guy in the back seat who is watching and listening? Typically, I'd be the
take-charge type, but not here. I want to do the things that allow the others to
step up. They are in operations. They get what's going on. They can handle it
and I can support them and make sure they have what they need."
To be sure, not every company is taking such precautions. The lack of concern
for workers can lead to shaming and possible retaliation. One employee who
worked at a fitness supply company in the Midwest who requested anonymity says
he had been working effectively remotely with his team throughout the pandemic
until recently, when their employer made it mandatory that all workers to return
to the workplace, yet it did not require everyone to distance and wear masks.
"We've had an increasing number of cases in our city, and many of us did not
feel safe about returning, especially with the lack of precautions," he said.
"Despite this, I returned to work but quickly began to feel uneasy and isolated
by co-workers who did not share the same opinion about the severity of the
virus. My department also was asked to promote an event that I thought could be
potentially harmful to those involved. I shared my concerns and ultimately was
told to 'get on board or part ways,' so we parted ways."
HR, C-Suite, Security, Legal Counsel
Once employers decide to reopen physical locations, the HR department, C-suite,
security team and legal counsel should be "attached at the hip" throughout the
process of developing and implementing new policies, Zamora said. "Security
needs to be more than just fences and alarms. For a crisis like this, the HR
manager and senior leaders can't just be sending out office memos," he says.
Taking precautions is a wise approach, which likely is why
workplace violence insurance policy submissions have risen by nearly 30 percent
in the past two months, said Paul Marshall, managing director of the
Active Shooter and Workplace Violence Department at McGowan Program
Administrators, a global insurance broker based in Fairview Park, Ohio.
"HR professionals are getting better at recognizing warning signs in their
employees," Marshall said. "That life's stresses are building for so many, it is
leading to more acts of violence. We're especially noticing it among companies
in the agriculture and banking industries."
When building or revising a workplace violence prevention plan, Zamora says
companies must consider the physical design of the office. "HR and the
security team need to lead this," he said. "And they must ask these
questions: Is the spacing proper? Are barriers such as clear plastic walls
required between work stations? Will employees be required to wear [personal
protective equipment]? Will you be taking the temperature of employees each day?
Will employees need to fill out a health questionnaire? Will vaccinations be
required? HIPAA policies are often relaxed during a state of emergency, but what
about after that? What are the criteria for shutting down the office? Are travel
policies being revised?"
These questions reflect health and safety concerns that could quickly become
security issues, Zamora said. "Good, clear, reasonable policies need to support
any employee wellness and workplace violence prevention initiatives. Otherwise,
good intentions become wasted efforts."
Zamora spoke of one retailer that invested a lot of money in temperature-sensor
cameras and then asked its employees to operate them. "This was not in their job
descriptions or skill set, and they were angry about having to do it," he said.
Ultimately, new plans and policies will need to be worked out with legal
"Attorneys are good at protecting their organizations by reminding us of the
things we can't do. But now more than ever, you need to figure out a way to get
to, 'Yes, we can do it that way.' "
Paul Bergeron is a freelance reporter who covers the HR industry.
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