The Importance of Leadership in Preventing Workplace Violence
Workplace violence (WPV) prevention is a challenging and anxiety raising issue for most organizations. Leaders react to this problem in different ways. Leaders:
- DENY: “It will never happen in our workplace.”
- GAMBLE: “I can’t justify the expense for something that may not happen”
- TAKE ACTION: This leader tackles the problem head on and acts proactively to create a work environment where grievances and other behavioral issue are not allowed to fester into violence.
Which leader are you? Have you created a culture which emphasizes the importance of a safe, effective and productive work environment?
In our experience, leadership is critically important in creating a culture where prevention efforts thrive and are lasting.
Leadership in this case refers to the ability of an organization’s key leaders to create, model and maintain a safe work environment, while culture represents the personality and character of the work environment – the sum of its values, traditions, behaviors and attitudes. With regard to workplace violence prevention, a safe workplace culture is one that prioritizes and communicates the importance of establishing a threat and violence free setting in which employees can effectively do their jobs. And should threats or violence occur, one that ensures that the organizational response is both prepared and immediately able to assess and mitigate any potentially dangerous situation.
So, what are the necessary cultural and leadership elements for effective workplace violence prevention? We like to think of them as the “3 R’s” – Report, Respond, and Reinforce. When taken together, they constitute a framework for guiding sound safety leadership, and establishing a culture where there is a shared responsibility for the safety of the organization.
Click here to download the 3 R's graphic Culture Counts: Report, Respond, Reinforce
Often employees and managers will ask us – what do we report? Where do we report? Why should we report? All great questions – and answers to all should be outlined in the organization’s WPV prevention policy and communicated through effective training and ongoing messaging.
With regard to Report, the following are critical issues to address both in the prevention policy and in training:
What to report:
- Acts of violence
- Domestic violence/stalking
- Protective orders
- “Other” conduct, which includes the onset of mental illness, illicit drug use, changes in usual behavior
To whom to report:
- To HR, supervisors, or other designated person or department
How to report:
- Multiple avenues (anonymous, electronic, hotline, etc.)
Why should I report?
- It’s organizational policy and it’s the right thing to do to prevent violence
Next, from both a leadership and a culture perspective, it is important to look at what happens once a report has been made – how does the organization Respond?
Too often we have seen organizations create and train on a policy, only to have it get dusty on the shelf after the initial program has been established.
Here’s really where the rubber meets the road from a leadership and cultural perspective - do the designated leaders “walk the talk” when a report has been made? Employees need to experience a “safety culture.” This is evidenced when:
Reports are taken seriously.
Reports are investigated immediately.
Reporting parties are ensured there will be no retaliation for reporting.
Reporting parties receive follow-up information.
Appropriate corrective action is taken.
Finally, it’s important to Reinforce the behavior that we encourage in our training – that is, when employees “see something, say something, do something” and report any behaviors of concern to the designated individuals or department. When this happens, it is important for leadership (whether it be HR, a manager or supervisor, or even the CEO) to recognize and acknowledge the employee for their contribution to a safe work environment and respond in a manner indicated above – which then also encourages future reporting.
Bottom line: employees talk – and when they feel that their concerns have been taken seriously they tell others and it reinforces the culture that is focused on the safety and well-being of employees.
(Conversely, we also have seen situations where concerns were not addressed appropriately – and in these cases employees still talk – but in a negative manner about their experience of reporting threats or behaviors of concern and not feeling that they are taken seriously or supported by the organization. This perceived non-response could sabotage your prevention program.)
Reinforce also has to do with messaging – including the verbal and nonverbal messages sent from the top leadership that workplace violence prevention is important. The cultural mandate for a safe workplace, introduced and established by key leaders, becomes clear to employees when they receive the message repeatedly and via multiple formats throughout the employment life cycle.
Organizations can message the cultural mandate for a safe workplace in:
- Top leadership “buy in”
- Onboarding training
- Ongoing refresher training
- Publishing the message in posters, newsletters, etc.
- Leading by example
- Taking prompt action to investigate, mitigate, and resolve complaints that will encourage future reporting, which reinforces the desired culture.
Report, Respond, and Reinforce are essential elements of a leadership and culture-based workplace violence prevention program - interwoven and cyclical – and each component is reliant upon the other for this type of workplace initiative to ultimately be successful.
Co-Written by Suzanne Hoffman, Ph.D. and Wayne Maxey, CPP, CTM