The 5 Elements of Effective Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Training
Effective Workplace Violence (WPV) Prevention and Response programs do a lot more than prepare people for an unlikely (but possible) extreme violence incident, such as an active shooter. The best programs also cover the awareness and prevention of all forms of workplace violence, including such things as threats and verbal abuse. Organizations intent on creating and sustaining a safe and positive workplace culture do not see workplace violence prevention solely as “safety training.” Rather, it is viewed as a key component of improving day-to-day work-life for everyone.
There are 5 key elements to this type of comprehensive approach:
1. Awareness – Addresses WPV misconceptions and clarifies understanding
On the topic of workplace violence, myths abound. These misconceptions often cause organizations to focus on the wrong things—or do nothing. These can include:
- Myth: IT’S ONLY WHEN THINGS GET PHYSICAL…
Workplace violence is about overt physical violence, and that doesn't really happen here.
It’s easy to assume that workplace violence only refers to acts of physical violence. However, as referenced above, the OSHA definition is much broader and includes threats and verbal abuse in addition to physical assaults and homicide. The issue impacts organizations of all types and sizes.
- Myth: PEOPLE JUST SNAP…
When workplace violence occurs, there is little advance warning—people who act out violently tend to “snap” unexpectedly.
In cases of workplace violence, there is often a triggering event (think, “straw that broke the camel’s back”) that propels an offender into action. That event -- frequently a real or imagined profound loss in their personal or professional lives -- is what many people mistake for someone’s “snapping.” Learning to spot patterns or clusters of concerning behaviors can alert organizations to potential problems early, which can help prevent workplace violence.
- Myth: YOU CAN TELL WHO'S GONNA’ GET VIOLENT...
Workplace violence offenders are typically disgruntled former employees or people suffering from a mental illness.
It’s vital to know that there’s no profile for a violent offender —as there’s simply no reliable way to predict who might take violent action. However, research has identified Behaviors of Concern that may signal potential danger, and it's important that people recognize these behaviors and feel willing and able to share any concerns at work.
Increasing employees’ awareness of the facts around workplace violence, and what they can do to help prevent it, will have a positive effect on them and the workplace itself.
2. Recognition– Enables people to spot and register changes in others that might signal potential trouble.
In the wake of 9-11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed the “If You See Something, Say Something” directive as a way of working together to keep one another safe. While DHS aims its message at the public on a community level, the idea is just as relevant in our workplaces. It’s important that today’s organizations build cultures where people make it their business to have their co-workers’ backs. In organizations “See Something, Say Something” means teaching employees about "Behaviors of Concern", so that when they’re presented with potential early warning signs they recognize those for what they are; indicators that someone might be on a path to violence.
A few examples of concerning behaviors appear below, including those that would warrant immediate action.
• Being consistently argumentative and/or uncooperative
• Collecting injustices or holding grudges
• Being hypersensitive - unable to take criticism and/or blaming others
• Verbal abuse of co-workers, associates, or customers
• Any distinct change in a person’s behavior and/or physical appearance...
• Ominous fascination with weapons, violent content and/or events
• Violent Outbursts
• Unusual or extreme mood swings
• Acts of self-harm or personal neglect
*to be reported immediately
It’s here, at the earliest stages of concern, where employees can make the greatest impact by coming forward and speaking up. That’s why awareness and recognition must be followed by preparation—helping employees know what it means to take preventative action and giving them the mental permission and the knowledge to do so.
3. Prepared Employees– Familiarizes employees and managers with proven prevention and survival methodologies and primes them with a bias toward action.
According to Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) research, in organizations where training on WPV Prevention and Response has been provided, 87% of employees say they know what to do when they witness or are involved in workplace violence. This compares with 53% in organizations where training has not been provided. In general, WPV preparation makes employees feel less vulnerable and safer at work.
Preparation is about sharpening awareness; it’s about teaching insights that can be quickly recalled when needed. And, it sets the stage for action.
WPV Prevention "Preparation" Encompasses the Following:
• Ensuring there is an accurate organization-wide understanding of the various forms workplace violence can take.
• Communicating to staff that they play an active role in WPV prevention for their own protection as well as the safety and well-being of others
• Explaining what is meant by “Behaviors of Concern,” why addressing them is so important, and what to do should you observe them
• Providing managers with advanced training on the critical role they play in helping to nurture a workplace culture of dignity and respect while addressing concerning behaviors early, in order to keep potentially volatile situations from escalating.
• Helping employees know what to do if they experience abusive conduct that falls short of overt physical violence.
• Effectively training on extreme violence response. (Although these situations are rare, making sure people have an idea of what to do should the unthinkable happen reduces the likelihood that they will “freeze” in fear during a critical moment.)
The Department of Labor notes that 27% of all violent events in the workplace are tied to some form of Domestic Violence (sometimes referred to
as Intimate Partner Violence).
In many Domestic Violence situations, the workplace is the ONLY place where the abuser knows to find the victim. Part of training employees and managers on WPV Prevention is helping ensure they:
• know some of the common indicators associated with Domestic Violence
• acknowledge that the best course of action when observing potential Domestic Violence is NOT to get directly involved, but to report the potential signs to management, HR, or security.
4. Action- Empowers and primes employees and managers to take preventative action ─ even in a worst-case scenario
Action-oriented WPV prevention training falls into two general categories:
(1) Addressing or Reporting Concerning Behaviors
Our inclination as humans is to avoid conflict. So, even when someone's behavior might seem a bit off, we tend to explain it away. We talk ourselves out of saying something, even when we know we should. Employees must understand that reporting concerning behaviors doesn’t equate to being a “tattle-tale.” Deciding to address concerning behaviors could be be key to getting someone the help they need, and that might be the difference between a violent or peaceful outcome.
For employees the options include:
- Talk to the other person. (If they feel comfortable and safe doing so, the employee can ask a co-worker how they’re doing. If it turns out the person is simply facing some tough circumstances, the employee can show their support and suggest options for assistance. If the co-worker says something concerning, the employee could bring it to the attention of their manager or other officer as appropriate.)
- Go straight to a Manager, Supervisor, HR or Security.
The course of action ─ and urgency with which it is taken ─ depends on whether or not the concerning behavior falls into what might be considered an “alarming” category and/or whether or not the observer feels safe approaching the other person.
Because most employees report concerning behaviors to their manager or supervisor, effective WPV prevention programs prepare managers by providing instruction on how to:
- foster the kind of work environment where employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns.
- develop a basic understanding of the behavioral evolution toward violence that has been exhibited by those who have acted out violently so they might reasonably determine if a situation is escalating.
While there is no clear cut profile of a workplace violence offender, experts have determined a series of behaviors and related progression that can signal trouble. Managers need to understand what this path looks like so they can take appropriate action at various stages.
(2) Responding to Extreme Violence
Facing the reality of Extreme Violence, and learning what survival options to consider should a critical incident occur, helps employees manage their anxiety and reduces their response time when seconds can mean life or death (most incidents of extreme violence are over in less than 10 minutes).
Empowering employees with a survival mindset and priming them with viable response options optimizes their chance of survival and maximizes a positive, post-incident recovery.
The fundamental options behind surviving an Extreme Violence event aren’t complicated. What complicates matters is the extreme mental stress that happens when people are caught inside such a situation. Response options must be simple, clear, and memorable so they can be recalled in the midst of extraordinary fear and chaos.
Verbal Abuse, Threats, and Bullying
People sometimes feel that abusive behavior that stops short of overt physical violence doesn’t warrant reporting, but it is a mistake to ignore these types of incidents. Verbal abuse, threats and other acts of psychological intimidation are concerning behaviors and, when extreme, should be reported immediately.
Outside of extreme violence incidents, when employees are faced with a co-worker, visitor, or customer who is frustrated and growing increasingly agitated, verbal de-escalation skills can help defuse the situation or at least help the employee buy time to bring in help. Verbal De-escalation training is an important but sometimes overlooked component of workplace violence training.
“Get Out” (or “Run”)
The best way to survive an act of extreme violence is to not be where the violence is happening. Sometimes it is best to run to the closest exit, other times it is best to move slowly so as not to be noticed by the attacker.
“Get Safe” (or “Hide”)
When getting out isn’t an option, the goal is to find some type of physical protection and/or concealment, being sure to do what’s necessary to stay hidden and safe (e.g. lock or barricade the door, turn out the lights, get quiet, etc.)
“Get Tough” (or “Fight”)
When directly confronted with an assailant, it may be necessary to fight for your life, preferably joining forces with others. The goal here is to do whatever is possible to render the attacker ineffective.
Effective extreme violence response training also covers other actions that should or shouldn’t be taken “in the moment,” including:
- Calling 911
- How to alert others
- What to do when law enforcement arrives
5. Empathic Culture - Nurtures a culture of dignity and respect where colleagues and co-workers look out for one another.
People often look at WPV Prevention and Response training solely as a safety and security issue—a “one and done” type event that ensures the organization has provided people with a basic understanding of what workplace violence is, and what to do should an extreme violence event (such as an active shooter) occur.
But that view limits the possibilities of what can truly be accomplished. As has been stated in earlier sections of this post, when WPV Prevention is done effectively ─with extra emphasis on prevention─ the training can help enhance and improve overall workplace culture. It supports an environment where people show respect and concern for one another and where employees can trust that the organization takes seriously its “duty of care” responsibilities. In this sense, WPV Prevention is intrinsically linked with training efforts in the areas of Respectful Workplace and The Employee Experience. Here are a few examples:
- Empowering people to be aware of their fellow co-workers, particularly those who appear to be struggling, encourages employees to flex their “empathy muscle.” Showing empathy is key to demonstrating emotional intelligence and conveying respect.
- WPV Prevention Training that additionally addresses incivility and abusive conduct (often precursors to more violent behavior) is a natural extension of initiatives that also focus on bias and harassment prevention. It helps “push prevention forward” in a way that not only addresses a worst-case scenario, but nurtures a culture of shared responsibility for the health and well-being of everyone in the organization.
- Training in workplace violence prevention (and what to do in situations of extreme violence ) reduces employee anxiety, primes them for early action, demonstrates the organization's resolve for peoples’ well-being, and positively impacts how employees perceive the organization.
- Teaching the principles of verbal de-escalation (optional instruction in the best and most mature WPV prevention programs) can help employees with general conflict resolution and dealing with difficult clients/customers. This can lessen a sense of helplessness and frustration that one can feel in emotionally charged/escalated situations.
Today’s workers –particularly Millennials and GenZ─ want to work for organizations that care about people and are committed to creating a safe and respectful work environment. Providing training on workplace violence prevention demonstrates this organizational commitment, empowers employees to play their part, and can possibly save lives.