In the Wake of the Tragedy in Parkland, What Can Corporate America Do to Reduce Violence in the Workplace?

By: Jessica B. Jackler, Associate 

Seventeen years ago I graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I walked the halls of MSD daily without a care in the world other than that of a typical high-school student — did I study enough for the test next period? Does the boy I like notice me? I never felt unsafe in my school or in my community.

Seventeen years later, in the same halls I walked, 17 innocent individuals were gunned down and killed.

We have tragically become a society in which we grow complacent over reoccurring senseless acts of violence. They get filtered through the media cycle and we eventually move on. People send their thoughts and prayers, change their profile pictures, and after a week or two, we turn our attention to the next crisis or scandal. I admittedly have fallen victim to this numbness until February 14, 2018 when my outlook on acts of violence changed forever.

On the afternoon of February 14th, the same date which should have been filled with love, I received a text message informing me that there was an active shooter at my school. I froze in disbelief at the thought that there was an active shooter at MY school. The fact that “active shooter” is even part of our everyday nomenclature struck a nerve.

I will shamefully admit that until this shooting which occurred at my alma mater, I was not part of the conversation to effect change. I, like others I suspect, did not ever think it could happen to anyone immediately connected to me. But it did.

My home community is broken. Families have been torn apart. My school, a place which was once a safe space for learning, has become a side-show. We have become the breeding ground for another unfortunate statistic.

The shooting has certainly caused me many moments of quiet reflection filled with angst and sadness. As a new mother, it has been especially emotional empathizing with the parents of murdered students. It has filled me with anxiety thinking about sending my son to school one day and he can’t even walk yet. I should not have to worry about my child’s safety in an American public school. But I do. Because but for it being 17 years later, I could have been one of those 17 victims.

This tragedy awoke a sense of obligation within me and others effected. Undoubtedly, the surviving students of MSD have successfully started a movement towards change. It has taken on an impressive life force of its own.

The campaign credited to the students, #NeverAgain, is also a phrase that has long been linked to Holocaust commemoration. While the origins of the phrase are debated, the phrase has been widely used for decades in a universal sense to denounce genocide and other hateful acts of violence. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and world-renowned author is largely associated with the phrase. In 2012, he wrote “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow … never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence.” Former President Barack Obama used the phrase on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2011 when he said “[w]e are reminded to remain ever-vigilant against the possibility of genocide, and to ensure that Never Again is not just a phrase but a principled cause…[a]nd we resolve to stand up against prejudice, stereotyping, and violence – including the scourge of anti-Semitism – around the globe.”

The survivors of MSD have now coined the phrase to fight for gun control in an effort to prevent future school shootings. In a February 19, 2018 article, the New Yorker opined that the “first step of the Never Again movement was believing in an idea that the rest of America had grown too cynical to imagine: that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High really could be the last school shooting in America.”

Following the students’ lead, over 11,000 MSD alumni have gathered and connected on social media to discuss our role in their movement. It is a remarkable reflection on a strong community. We have planned benefits, fundraised over $180,000 in merchandise alone, and have immersed ourselves in a greater plan to demand legislative changes.

On a personal level, I have contemplated ways in which I could apply my area of expertise to the Never Again movement. At the very least, applying my own skills and education could continue to highlight this issue and help keep it relevant.

As an experienced employment attorney, an important part of my job is to provide advice and counseling to corporations about ways in which to protect their employees, and in turn, insulate themselves from potential liability.

Although there is an ongoing debate right now about whether the solution to America’s problem is gun law reform or a mental health issue, undeniably, we have a problem with violent behavior in this country to which we are all vulnerable. Corporate America, like public schools, faces the threat of a violent attack.

You may recall some notable examples of workplace violence in recent headlines.

In 2015, while live on the air, news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, employees of CBS affiliate WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, were shot dead while conducting an interview. Parker and Ward died at the scene. The news team and the interviewee were attacked by a gunman, a former reporter at WDBJ, who was fired for disruptive conduct in 2013.

Also in 2015, a deputy was fatally shot at a Minnesota hospital after the suspect he was guarding grabbed his gun and opened fire. The slain deputy was guarding the patient, who had been receiving medical care at the hospital after a domestic dispute.

Here in Chicago, in 2014, a seasonal employee at the Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue was fatally shot inside the department store on Black Friday, also her 22nd birthday. The shooter, believed to be her ex-boyfriend, killed himself after killing the employee.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, published by the U.S. Department of Labor, there were a total of 5,190 fatal work injuries recorded in the United States in 2016, a 7% increase from the 4,836 fatal injuries reported in 2015. This was the third consecutive increase in annual workplace fatalities and the first time more than 5,000 fatalities have been recorded by the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) since 2008. The fatal injury rate increased to 3.6 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers from 3.4 in 2015, the highest rate since 2010.

Our places of work are where we spend the greater part of our lives. Our schedules are predictable and our locations are known to those who may be interested in committing an act of violence. You may brush off the idea that this could ever happen at your workplace because the idea is far-fetched, or you, personally, do not have any reason to believe anyone out there wants to harm you. Until this shooting, I may have agreed with you. But after 17 murders took place 1 mile from my childhood home and in the halls I walked for 4 years, my perspective has changed.

What Is Workplace Violence?

First, it is important to understand the different threats of workplace violence. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”

According to OSHA, nearly 2 million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year, but many more cases go unreported.

What can employers do to reduce the threat of workplace violence?

The risk of workplace violence can be minimized if employers take appropriate precautions and implement a plan. Embodied within any plan employers implement must be their commitment to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. The policy may be independent of, or incorporated into, an employee handbook. As with any workplace policies and procedures, it is critical that your employees acknowledge and understand the policy and associated procedures contained therein. While a zero-tolerance policy is a good start, it falls short of what is sufficient to effectuate a successful workplace violence prevention program.

In 2011, ASIS International, an international organization for security professionals, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) issued a joint ASIS/SHRM Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention American National Standard (the “Standard”) for the purpose of assisting companies implement practical policies and procedures to better assess the threat of workplace violence and prevention tactics. The steps outlined below are amongst those identified in the Standard to combat workplace violence.

Step 1: Risk assessment.

Threats of violence may take many forms. A threat may be obvious, or it may be vague or unspoken. It could take the form of unusual behavior rather than verbal cues. Early detection is a key component in assessing and potentially preventing violence in the workplace.

An organization should begin its workplace violence prevention program by assessing its potential threats and vulnerabilities from both internal and external factors.

Examples of internal factors to consider may include potentially violent personal relationships involving your current employees, especially instances of domestic violence. Other risk factors may include disgruntled former employees or applicants, or current employees angry over disciplinary action or after suffering humiliation in the workplace. Observing certain behavioral signs from employees is important to assess the threat of a future violent act. Signs of irregular behavior which are important to note may include an increase in absenteeism, verbal threats or physical acts, increased anxious or depressed behavior, aggression towards coworkers, unsubstantiated complaints, preoccupation with weapons or violent events, reckless or erratic behavior, and a lack of focus on work.

Likewise, companies should take into account certain external factors that may heighten the risk of violence in the workplace. OSHA has identified certain external factors that may increase the risk of violence for some workers, including:

• exchanging money with the public;
• working with volatile, unstable people;
• working alone or in isolated areas;
• providing services and care, and working where alcohol is served; and
• the time of day and location of work, such as working late at night or in areas with high crime rates.

By assessing these factors at their work sites, employers can identify practical methods for reducing the likelihood of violent incidents from occurring in the workplace. The key is to be proactive rather than reactive.

If you are especially vulnerable to threats of violence, your organization may want to hire a third-party security firm to assess your risks and help implement a plan which suits your workplace.

Step 2: Implement a Plan.

After your organization has assessed its risk of potential workplace violence, the next practical step is to come up with a plan which includes preventative measures and protections. Some prime examples are engineering and administrative controls.

Engineering controls are safeguards to physically protect your employees. The following examples are a few organizations should consider depending on your type of business:

• limiting access to your workplace by keeping doors locked from the outside;
• installing locks or pass codes on doors that lead to employee-only areas;
• requiring visitor passes to guests on-site at your facility;
• installing security cameras in reception areas if there is no centralized security before entering your facility;
• installing panic alarm buttons where employees have exposure to the public and may be working in high-risk areas; and
• installing bright lighting on facility grounds, especially in parking areas.

Administrative controls, on the other hand, are practices that reduce the risk for workplace violence. They may involve:

• pre-employment screenings in order to identify and reject potentially violent individuals before hiring (these practices, however, must be consistent with privacy and anti-discrimination laws);
• hiring external security;
• implementing a “buddy system” for employees who work with potentially violent persons;
• creating an emergency action plan and procedure if a violent act occurs in the workplace, similar to a plan in the event of a fire or other natural disaster;
• preparing a list of outside emergency contacts, such as police, medical and social services in the event of emergency; and
• training and educating your employees regarding your workplace safety protocols (see Step 3).

In addition to these controls, companies should develop policies related to professionalism in the workplace and related disciplinary practices. Your policy should illustrate the type of behavior you expect your employees to exhibit in the workplace and the consequences for violations. You should emphasize reporting by those who feel as though they have been victimized in the workplace in an effort to curb unprofessional and potentially violent behavior.

Sometimes workplace conflicts are the result of interpersonal issues. These types of conflicts are generally resolved through informal methods such as a meeting with HR or a sit-down with supervisors. If the situation escalates, or does not appear to resolve itself through such informal measures, companies may want to apply alternative processes, like mediation, to remediate workplace conflicts. Employees may even feel more valued if their problems are addressed with more formality.

Organizations should further inform their employees of the availability of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). EAP programs are voluntary and offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. EAPs address a broad selection of issues affecting mental and emotional well-being, such as alcohol and other substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems, and psychological disorders, all of which may contribute to an episode of workplace violence. Many EAPs help organizations prevent workplace violence and other emergency response situations.

Step 3: Train your Employees.

After you create a plan, it is vital that organizations train their employees to properly enforce it.

First, your written policy should be disseminated to your entire workforce. Generally, policies are included in a handbook or manual, but for a policy rising to this level of importance, employers should circulate the workplace violence prevention policy by additional means. It could be posted online or on a central bulletin board. Employers may want to further consider an anonymous hotline to more confidentially report concerns.

Second, your organization should conduct training in order to educate your employees about the workplace violence policies and procedures you have developed. This training may be conducted singularly, or in conjunction with other workplace trainings or new-hire orientation. Your entire workforce, including management-level employees, should participate in the training.

No matter the timing of the training, the purpose of it should be to provide your workforce with a solid understanding of the workplace violence prevention policy, the employees’ rights and obligations under the policy, and responding to emergencies and threats of violence.

During training, employers should emphasize the importance of reporting, even if the employee is unsure about the severity of the behavior identified to management. Employees should be comfortable knowing that the organization is committed to providing a safe workspace and that it is encouraged to err on the side of reporting when faced with a potential threat of violence.

Employers that have a detailed escape plan should ensure that their employees are aware of it and that they understand the difference between a drill and a true emergency. When training occurs, a dry run of the escape plan should be included.

If you are unsure of how to communicate an emergency plan in the event a shooter enters your workplace, for instance, SHRM suggests that employees watch the FBI’s video “Run. Hide. Fight.” which details the agency’s recommendations in that scenario.

Should your organization choose to internally employ individuals responsible for security, make certain that he/she is properly trained to protect your employees and is educated on your emergency protocols. Your organization’s failure to properly train those hired to protect your employees could result in civil liability. For example, in 2017, a jury in Cook County returned a verdict exceeding $33 million against a security company after a disgruntled client was permitted access to the office of his attorney and killed 3 men and injured a fourth individual back in 2006. The injured employee and the estates of the deceased sued the security company asserting the security officers should have never allowed the gunman to access the office, failed to have proper emergency procedures in place, and failed to sufficiently train its employees which proximately caused the deaths and injuries. See Suzanne E. Malec McKenna v. Allied Barton Security Services, LLC, et al. 15 L 12124. This is a reminder that ensuring the safety of your employees should be your first priority and has repercussions beyond the obvious moral responsibility owed to your colleagues.

Step 4: Change your culture. Lead by example.

Workforces are diverse and bring with them different personalities, temperaments, and tolerances. Conflict can easily erupt when tempers flare.

Corporate culture is a pivotal component to reducing the risk of workplace violence. Professionalism should start at the top. Executive-level employees should lead by example in the workplace and exhibit the type of behavior they expect from subordinates.

In addition to this “lead by example” philosophy, management should also instill a sense of comfort with their employees that their complaints and reports will be taken seriously to encourage an open dialogue in the workplace. The widely-used phrase, “if you see something, say something,” is a good threshold approach to live by. You want your employees to feel like they have a safe space to report questionable behavior without the fear of retaliation.

This process will not happen overnight. It may be a trial and error process. You may be forced to make unpopular decisions to support the culture you want going forward. Ultimately, the safety and well-being of your employees is your first priority.

Final Thoughts.

The tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should never happen again, whether at another school, or a concert venue or in an office. None of us want to become another statistic. We can eventually change our laws and policies on a larger scale, but in the short-term, we can work to better protect ourselves in our homes-away-from-home.

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