Violence at Work: What HR Can and Should Do

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Feb 26, 2020

Last summer, a man who had been fired by Walmart shot and killed a store manager and a supervisor. Last fall, another recently discharged employee shot 29 people, killing seven, in Odessa and Midland, Texas.

Organizations part ways with underperforming employees all the time. But what makes one departing employee quietly move to another job and another commit a senseless act of violence?

Is there any way to tell which path former employees will pick? Can employers do a better job of protecting their workplaces? Though there are no foolproof plans, the answer to both questions is yes. And it starts with a better understanding of what’s going on with employees outside the workplace.

Getting the whole picture

Individuals’ actions at work can be indicators of what’s going on at home. For example, if someone is facing some sort of financial, physical, or emotional hardship in their personal life, they’ll probably bring some of that burden back to work. They may suddenly show signs of irritability when interacting with others, perhaps even lash out and instigate a physical or verbal altercation with coworkers or customers.

Other employees may see this, and if their employer has a system that allows them to efficiently, and potentially anonymously, report inappropriate behaviors their coworkers exhibit, leadership could be made aware of these issues in real-time. Then, HR could engage that individual in a conversation about what’s going on behind the scenes, ideally before the situation escalates.

In some scenarios, HR may be able to make meaningful improvements. If an employee is having financial struggles, they may be able to refer them to a financial advisor or company program. If an employee is having issues related to their mental health, HR may be able to refer them to a medical professional, help them find healthy ways to cope with stress or talk to their supervisor about their workload.

Many employees could benefit from an HR department offering such services. Still, the reality is that too few do because too few employers and HR professionals have the tools needed to effectively discover employee issues early and connect them to employee assistance programs. That’s where continuous evaluation comes in, opening employers’ eyes to patterns of behavior that clue them in to which workers may be struggling at home and work.

Going beyond violence at work

This approach has benefits well beyond preventing incidents of workplace violence. Disengaged employees cost organizations $450 to $550 billion per year, according to a study conducted by The Engagement Institute. In addition, disengaged employees who are financially desperate are much more likely to commit fraud, steal company money, or send intellectual property out the back door.

Continuous evaluation can reduce risk and improve productivity, saving businesses money to the benefit of all involved. Employers may reinvest these savings to grow the business by opening other offices, hiring more workers, and increasing their annual revenue. They may also allocate savings to increase existing workers’ wages. This is a gift that keeps on giving: Money is a stressor for many people, and by increasing employees’ pay, employers can also reduce one of the top contributors to stress.

Business leaders identifying employees under stress – and helping them alleviate it – is the key to making American businesses a safe place to shop and work. But this drastic transformation can’t be carried out alone. It will require all business leaders to use 21st-century tools to know the people on their payroll better, and once they do that, we will make great strides to prevent workplace violence, crime, and ultimately tragedy.

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