When the Unthinkable Happens: Nine Steps to Dealing With Workplace Violence

The worst-case scenario: A disgruntled employee shows up at work, argues with his former boss and co-workers, loses his temper and commits an act of violence, injuring or killing people with whom he may have shared lunches, recreational activities or even family reunions. The impact of violence leaves deep scars on employee morale and on public perception of the company.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), “workplace violence” is defined as any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting. It includes but is not limited to beatings, stabbing, suicides, shootings, rapes, near suicides, psychological traumas such as threats, obscene phone calls, an intimidating presence and harassment of any nature such as being followed, sworn at or shouted at.

What can PR professionals do when violence strikes at work?

1. The company cares. As soon as there is an act of violence in the workplace, company leaders need to address the severity of what has happened, empathize with the victims and their families and show their determination to ensure that such acts will never happen again.

Tip: Establish direct communications with company leaders, even if you are working through a specific department. You want to ensure you have direct input in the overall management of communications.

2. Have an emergency team and a plan in place. If you already have a team, ensure your protocol is in place. This means senior leadership, mid-management and employees understand what to do in an emergency situation. If you don’t have a plan, this is a great time to create one. If you did have one in place but events went beyond what you had ever imagined, create an emergency team inclusive of representatives from all sectors.

Tip: Establish direct communications with this emergency team and participate in their meetings.

3. There is one voice. Clear and strong leadership will focus on integrating and aligning one single message to be used within and outside the company. Lack of leadership early on will promote chaos, finger-pointing and poor public perception.

Tip: Become a valued member of the team who helps frame and position a cohesive message within the organization and with the general public.

4. Offer counseling on site. Timing is key; companies will benefit by intervening and offering counseling on site as soon as possible. The best options are those in which people are initially encouraged to share their experience, emotions and concerns. The experienced counselor will not only address these issues but will also help employees shift their attention to how to manage their emotions and concerns while moving forward.

Tip: Stay abreast of ongoing company measures to assist the victims and their families.

5. Offer counseling off-site. Disabled victims or families of deceased victims should be offered counseling and help, privately and confidentially. There is no need to advertise this service but it will enhance the company’s goodwill and willingness to help in any possible way in spite of this catastrophic event.

Tip: Inquire about additional services the company offers and be knowledgeable of everything the company is doing to assist the victims and their families.

6. Conduct an assessment of what happened and improve the system. Although it is easy to attribute the act of violence to an alienated worker, in hindsight we usually see many red flags that may—or may not—have predicted the possibility of an act of violence in the workplace.

A good assessment should include a solid method to track this information and should include representatives from different sections within the company.

Tip: Be aware of company measures to improve the situation and participate in the process as an observer.

7. Ensure work is resumed as soon as possible. Present the need for going back to a regular schedule as early as possible as a positive intervention. Many people are tempted to stay in limbo by waiting to hear what’s going to happen next instead of focusing on the business itself.

Resuming business will help workers continue to contribute by providing value to society, their families and their own lives. While some people may view this decision as company greed, it should be presented as a proven way to help people move on in a positive way after a catastrophic event occurred.

Tip: Help leadership frame a positive message of hope and work toward achieving common goals even in the midst of a critical situation.

8. Manage your stress. Acts of violence in the workplace affect everyone from the top down. It is essential to manage your own stress no matter where you are within the corporate ladder. Top leaders will need to deal directly with the media and public perception. Middle managers will need to deal with the pressure they receive from their higher-ups and appease nervous employees or their concerned families.

Employees may be concerned about their families and pressure from above. Assume that stress will be present and make it a priority to manage it.

Tip: Help maximize positive messages while the company is dealing with tough media scrutiny or overt criticism.

9. Have a candid approach.  Most importantly, you must communicate your messages as a person who cares, understands the concerns of others and wants to do something about a dreadful situation. If confronted with tough facts that make you—or your company—look really bad, avoid repeating what’s being said, but also avoid dodging the facts.

Tip: Help leadership stay on point while they are dealing with the aftermath. PRN

[Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from PR News’ Crisis Management Guidebook, Vol. 5. This and other guidebooks can be ordered at www.prnewsonline.com/store/55.html.]


This article was written by Dr. Gaby Cora, who is a leadership consultant and author of Leading Under Pressure (Career Press, 2010). Dr. Cora can be reached at [email protected].