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Incidents of workplace violence have been reported off and on in the news for years. The expression “going postal” stems from that. Human resources managers and corporate executives have become increasingly concerned about this problem, in part because of its potential severity and in part because it seems so unpredictable.

We all know prevention is a better policy than waiting to react when bad things happen. But workplace violence is a complex issue. Nonetheless, certain improvements in your hiring and firing practices can help reduce the risk of violence in your workplace.

Hiring

Obviously, the best way to prevent workplace violence is to not hire people who might become violent. But how can you know? How we’ve acted in the past is usually a good indicator of how we’ll act in the future. Does your current hiring process go far enough to uncover personality traits and past behaviors that might indicate a candidate doesn’t cope well?

Identifying social skills, or lack of them, should be at least as important as identifying job-specific skills during your interview and selection process. Ask situation-based questions that force the candidate to reveal their thought processes. For example, ask them to relate a time when they had to deal with a difficult customer or co-worker – or a major personal disappointment. Ask how they handled the situation and why they chose those actions.

In the past employers had another source of behavioral information – the candidate’s former employers. But now this has become a real dilemma for companies. Laws that protect people from unfair “references” make it tougher to protect your company and employees from undesirable or potentially dangerous new hires. HR managers complain (rightly) that the bare-bones “yes, she worked here on those dates” response they now get does nothing to inform their hiring decisions.

There is something else you can do. Many employers don’t conduct background checks for all types of employees. Some don’t check out any employees. Experts now recommend comprehensive checks for everyone.

Job performance monitoring

Paying attention to individual behaviors should be an ongoing effort. Clear policies about what is expected, and applying them evenly to everyone, can help eliminate feelings of being singled-out or “picked on” that could lead to trouble later. Use regular performance reviews to discuss behavioral issues as well as job-specific achievement. Allowing negatives to go unchecked lets problems fester and gives employees the idea their actions are OK. The earlier you identify someone who doesn’t fit in and let them go, the better.

OSHA says certain behaviors indicate likely violent tendencies:

  • Implied or overt threats
  • Poor self-control (slamming doors, swearing)
  • Frequent complaints about unfair treatment
  • Blaming others
  • Refusal to accept criticism
  • Deteriorating personal habits such as poor hygiene
  • Deteriorating work habits such as absenteeism and poor work quality

Does your company’s health insurance program include an EAP? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also points to substance abuse and similar problems as predictors of potential violence. Employees who have an option to get help may be able to find relief from their troubles before things escalate out of hand. In that case, everyone benefits in the best possible way.

Termination

Sometimes you have to remove people. As noted above, it’s best to do that as soon as possible. When the time comes, keep it factual. Explain your job-related reasons (which you have recorded from ongoing monitoring). Doing everything you can to make the situation as dignified as possible can help avoid feelings of personal rejection, and that can help avoid post-firing problems.

Workplace violence has drawn official attention.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied workplace violence in the health care industry. They recommended that OSHA assess the situation further, then develop a policy for issuing hazard alert letters and citations regarding workplace violence. OSHA is currently working on that.

The possibility of violence is a concern across industries, though, certainly not isolated to health care. So as you’re working to improve your internal hiring, monitoring and firing practices, you should also keep an eye out for new requirements coming from OSHA.

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