CHICAGO — The specter of workplace violence appears to owners of drycleaning companies and other leaders when an incident happens elsewhere, and it seems like those incidents happen with alarming regularity. Instead of ignoring the problem, hoping “it could never happen here,” leaders should examine their own companies for signs that could warn of coming problems.
Carol Dodgen, owner of Dodgen Security Consulting, outlined some of the things business owners should look for during her recent webinar “Staying Safe in a Violent world,” hosted by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
In Part 1 of this series, we examined some of the ingredients for crime and where various dangers might come from. In Part 2, we explored red flags that could signal future problems and what to do when those signs appear. Today, we’ll conclude by looking at the different types of workplace violence and ways to prevent them from happening.
Types of Workplace Violence
There are a number of ways violence can enter a workplace, Dodgen says, and listed four types of incidents.
- Type 1 — Criminal: The perpetrator has no legitimate relationship with the employer or workplace, other than to enter and commit a crime such as robbery.
- Type 2 — Customer/Client: A customer or client of the business directs violence at employees, possibly because of dissatisfaction with the service or product.
- Type 3 — Employee on Employee: An employee or former employee perpetrates violence against coworkers, supervisors or managers.
- Type 4 — Domestic: Violence is committed in the workplace by someone who doesn’t work there, but has a personal relationship with an employee, such as an abusive spouse or domestic partner.
“Most of us probably think about employee-on-employee violence, because that's usually what we hear most about,” Dodgen says. “But actually the first type, the criminal type, is responsible for most murders. So, you're going to be vulnerable to this type if you handle money. This is somebody coming in to commit a crime, such as robbery. So, as we assess our risk, what are we most likely to deal with? We have to put our resources toward that.”
When it comes to angry customers, the most important thing the owner or employee can do is remain calm. “It can be challenging,” Dodgen says, “but it’s important.”
Most angry customers want to feel heard, she says. “Don’t tell them to calm down. That never works. Try to show empathy to this person, and if they think you’re trying to genuinely help them, a lot of times that will calm them down. Identify their needs or wants, and then seek a solution or work through alternatives.”
If the employee or owner finds themselves getting upset, practices like the “combat” or “four square” breathing method — taking a breath for four counts, holding it for four counts, letting it go for four counts and waiting for four counts, and then repeat — can help in this regard.
“What happens when our heart rate goes up and we get scared or upset is that we lose some of our cognitive thinking skills,” Dodgen says. “This breathing helps to slow things down, gets oxygen to the brain and allows you to think better.”
As for the case of domestic violence, Dodgen says, it can spill over into the workplace because an abusive partner knows the victim’s schedule. “If I've moved into a shelter, or I moved in with friends or family,” she says, “he knows that I still come to work, and he knows that schedule. It's easier to target me there.”
Leaders should be aware of domestic situations like this, she says, and handle these events sensitively. Leaders who have clear, open lines of communication with their staff are better able to determine when there might be a problem and how they can help.
One situation where violence can become an issue is during employee disciplinary or dismissal sessions, when emotions can run high.
“It’s really important to put some forethought into that,” Dodgen says, “and we need to handle it with as much grace as possible. You’re not trying to humiliate the person.”
Some of the factors that leaders should be aware of in cases of discipline or dismissal, Dodgen says, are:
- Setting — Where are you going to have this discussion?
- Position of Exit — If things go badly, would you be trapped in the room, with the aggressor between you and the door?
- Environment — Are there items in the surroundings that could be used as weapons?
- Second Person Present — Should there be a witness or, in extreme cases, someone there to help defend?
- Alarm Button or Alert System — Is there a way to call for help should it be necessary?
Leaders should also be proactive when it comes to disciplinary or termination discussions.
“When you drag something out, it makes it worse,” Dodgen says. “I spoke to a labor and employment attorney about this, because people say, ‘Well, we're afraid of lawsuits.’ He basically said, ‘You have a rule. Everybody is made aware of the rule. They violated the rule. You document it. You do an investigation. And then, you treat everybody the same.’ And then he also added, ‘The threat of violence is always far greater than the threat of a lawsuit.’”
The Ultimate Goal
“Our goal is always going to be prevention,” Dodgen says, “and we really need to kind of start with awareness of what's going on around me. What is the situation? What things are happening?
“Denial is the enemy of preparation,” she says. “You might think, ‘This isn't going to happen. I don't want to think about it. That's not realistic.’ We want to do everything we can on the front end, so that we are prepared.
“Crime prevention is just recognizing risk, apprising that risk and then doing something to remove or reduce it,” Dodgen says.
Some of this removal or reduction of risk is common sense, she says. “We have to know what our current state it. The door doesn’t lock. The window is busted. What is it that we need to fix or remove? What can we do to make ourselves a less attractive target?”
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) can be a great way to reduce risk and encourage criminals to go elsewhere, Dodgen says. She defines CPTED as the proper design and effective use of the built environment that can lead to a reduction in the fear and incidence of crime, as well as an improvement in the quality of life.
CPTED can use landscaping, lighting and other simple but effective means to increase visibility on the company’s property and parking lot, and give those who mean to cause trouble fewer places to hide. Tending to shrubs that can be hidden behind and trees that can block lighting, as well as using mirrors on blind corners, can limit the ways criminals can lurk in the shadows. “Different things in the environment can either invite or discourage crime,” Dodgen says. “Be aware.”
Natural surveillance is also a factor in CPTED, which includes not having posters and signs all across windows so that the interior of the store can’t be seen from the outside. “If I’m coming in to do harm, I don’t want to be seen from the outside,” Dodgen says. “Criminals are basically looking for the target of least resistance, so you’re looking for things that make you a less attractive target.”
Simply paying attention to your surroundings can be one of a company’s biggest safety factors.
“As people come in, look up, greet them and make eye contact,” Dodgen says. “Sometimes that's a deterrent, because they don't want you to look at them. They don't want you to make eye contact and recognize them if they're coming in to do something. So that natural surveillance, that kind of meet and greet, can be a big help.”
Thinking like a criminal, Dodgen says, can help determine where areas of risk might be.
“If I'm going to target your business,” she says, “I'm going to look for the easiest place to do it. I'm going to look for the place that doesn't have good policies, that has overgrown shrubs, that doesn't have good lighting and that has employees who don't pay attention. Think like a criminal. Clean up areas and get rid of overgrown landscaping, because that's going to provide a hiding place for somebody and create ambush points.”
Dodgen says that it can be easy to feel paranoid when thinking about workplace violence, but the key is to have a plan, and take as much control over what you can control as possible.
“It's not paranoia — it's just having that forethought,” she says. “We know that trained people react much differently from those who are not trained. I like this quote: ‘A person without a plan and a ship without a rudder have a lot in common. They're both at the mercy of events and conditions beyond their control.’ You don't want to be the one who is controlled by the storm. Have a plan and take control.”
For Part 1 of this series, click HERE. For Part 2, click HERE.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].