Every year since 2015, April has served as Workplace Violence Awareness Month. But at Hillard Heintze, we recognize year-round that proper workplace violence prevention policies, programs and training are critical measures for employers in order to help ensure the safety of their most valuable asset: their people.
When we conduct such training, we strongly stress the importance of a “see something, say something” policy and the collective responsibility of the entire workforce in preventing an act of violence in the workplace. We support this training with concrete examples drawn from our experience on what to look for and how to report concerning behaviors and situations.
During a training session several years ago, a real-life “see something, say something” situation came to fruition, and we were able to immediately employ the best practices we had just been teaching.
‘I Picked a Bad Boyfriend’
We were training the general workforce of a large company after writing and implementing its workplace violence prevention program. A component of this program included a new policy requiring employees to voluntarily notify Human Resources about any protective or restraining order they may have obtained through the courts and to provide a copy of it.
I reminded the members of the audience that they will not be denied employment or promotion merely because they are suspected of being a victim of domestic abuse and, instead, that it was their duty to help the company and its security team protect all personnel in the workplace.
During a break in the training, a senior office manager brought a young employee to my attention while I was in a discussion with the CEO. The woman, a highly regarded employee with tenure, was obviously distraught and in tears. She described how she had obtained a protective order recently and feared that the subject of the order would cause her bodily harm.
We asked her about the circumstances of the order, and she replied, “I picked a bad boyfriend and, until now, was afraid to report it to my work.”
Reframing the ‘Victim Narrative’ in a Workplace Violence Context
The employee’s words were heart-wrenching not just because of the anxiety and pain she continued to endure but also because she clearly recognized and now accepted her responsibility for a personal decision that had placed both herself and her colleagues at risk. Of course, she had not “picked a bad boyfriend.” Instead, her former boyfriend had decided to abuse and threaten her.
We often use the term “victim blaming” to refer to a scenario like this or when the victim of a crime or unfortunate circumstance is held wholly or partially at fault for the risk and, if an event occurs, the harm it causes. In the context of workplace violence prevention, such a mindset can prevent a company from taking the proper actions to protect the employee and its workforce.
If employees fear retribution from their employer – such as termination or other action – then they will be far less likely to report a protective order or other personal situation that may result in a violent incident. Similarly, even if fellow employees becomes aware of a situation involving potential domestic abuse, they may feel as though they are overstepping the bounds of their role by reporting it or even raising it with the colleague suffering from the abuse. This can lead to what we refer to as a dangerous “cloak of indifference.”
A company’s indifference, whether actual or perceived, can foster a climate of hostility toward employees who report domestic violence incidents or risks.
According to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, 30 percent of companies said they had too many priorities to offer training on domestic violence, and 26 percent indicated that they believed another organization – such as an employee assistance program – should be responsible.
Through our workplace violence prevention training, we openly discuss domestic violence and how it can impact the workforce. This dialogue can make employees feel willing and ready to report a matter and feel that both they and their experience or observations matter – such as in the case I described above. Otherwise, a company’s disinterest could be interpreted as a “lack of caring” or a belief that domestic violence is not relevant to workplace security.
Taking Steps to Protect the Workplace
Let’s return to that scenario I was describing. Upon learning of the protective order, CEO allowed us to implement the following steps to ensure the safety of the employee and the entire workforce.
- Upgraded access control at the reception area.
- Installed panic alarms at key points of entry.
- Obtained a photo of the protective order subject and posted it discreetly at the reception station.
- Acted to amend the court order to also include the workplace as it originally covered only the employee’s residence, which was located in another county.
- Notified the local police department whose jurisdiction included the company’s location about the protective order to help ensure prompt and informed police coverage and response, if necessary.
Establish a Plan Before Harm Occurs
During another annual training for workplace violence prevention at the same company, we learned from the CEO that the employee who had once been afraid of the impact that having a protection order would have on her career had since been promoted. The entire workforce experienced higher morale; and many employees clearly were exhibiting and acknowledging a newly refreshed culture of courtesy, respect and workplace safety.
Let’s remind ourselves this month that the time to establish a workplace violence prevention program or an assessment is not when a threat has been made against an organization or someone within it. The program, and any training exercises to support it, should be organized in advance of need – before harm occurs.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 (TTY (800) 787-3224) or visit www.thehotline.org. Highly-trained advocates are available on a 24-hour basis every day of the year to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship.