Take Steps to Prevent Workplace Violence

by Van Harp, partner
Harp & Associates, LLC

Violent acts in the workplace are a reality of today. An active, engaged management team with a plan can reduce the threat of an incident. When taking steps to keep your business free from violence, remember:

Planning, Preparation and Practice = Prevention

The management team should concentrate on four areas to reduce the threat of violent conduct in the workplace and prepare for action should an event occur.

  1. Code of conduct
  2. Relevant policies and procedures
  3. Training
  4. Assessments

Code of Conduct

Basically, a code of conduct creates the guardrails that illustrate the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and attitudes in the workplace. These guardrails are the essentials of good human behavior: all people should be treated with respect; disrespectful, insubordinate conduct is not tolerated; people should be treated in a way that allows them to maintain their dignity and respect; and an opportunity should be provided to vocalize disagreements and hammer them out.

The goal is to create a successful, thriving and productive workplace environment. In many cases, that begins with the culture, and culture often begins with the unspoken code of conduct that governs behavior. Every company is in business to make money. That can’t be done in a facility where employees constantly are fighting or working separately. Instead, the leaders in each facility must build a culture that sets the tone. If leadership belittles employees, creates a culture of fear or rules without allowing employees to provide feedback, the seeds can be sewn for violent behavior.

Understanding of the code of conduct in a facility makes it easier to know when employees are acting in ways outside of those guardrails. That can be an early warning sign of a situation that could be dangerous.

Relevant Policy and Procedures Each business should outline policies and procedures designed to enhance safety and draw further attention to the guardrails of the code of conduct. These can include the following:

  • No weapons
  • No drugs
  • No violent personal contact
  • No belittling or threatening behaviors, including verbal assault

For these to be relevant and made important to the organization, there must be an owner who is responsible for the original iteration of the policies. The owner then takes responsibility for updating the policies when necessary and reviewing current laws for compliance. The policies should be current and dated, with updates provided annually.

In my personal opinion, the employees should be given ownership of the policies and procedures at performance appraisal time when being evaluated for salary increases or bonuses. Define each of the expectations and, at appraisal time, note these as objectives in the performance plan. Not only does this limit company liability by clearly setting guidelines, but it also refreshes and emphasizes the importance of the policy to each employee. Compliance with the policies and procedures should be addressed and annotated in an actual review document during the performance appraisal.

Positive reinforcement of the policies and procedures can serve as motivation to continue following those guidelines. By tying successful rules compliance with positive performance reviews, the desired behavior is encouraged and the facility is a little safer.


While it may seem that no one can adequately prepare for workplace violence, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the possibility of a dangerous event and save lives in the event the unthinkable happens.

In-house speakers. Ask an employee who has the ability and willingness to lead a discussion about workplace violence. This is not a public speaking event – instead, it’s done during the team meetings that are already happening during the daily work routines. Ask employees to talk about workplace violence, misconduct, knowing employees and creating a safe environment. To teach is to learn.

Event preparation. The 24/7 news cycle can be a significant stressor, but it also provides an opportunity to learn. When there is an incident in the US or even globally, do a brief analysis. Ask employees what lessons can be learned – and importantly, was there a kernel of validity to the grievance? What could they look for to prevent an incident like the one that occurred? What would they do in that situation? The mental “what if’s” are valuable. As a team, talk about how to change behaviors to improve response or prevent the incident completely.

Role playing/simulations. This one can be more difficult. Role playing is uncomfortable, and it might feel silly, but it’s important to start the conversations about preventing and reacting to workplace violence. During team meetings, offer a situation for discussion. These situations can be on the continuum from “the employee’s behavior doesn’t seem right” to “a dangerous situation is happening on the floor.” What do you say? How do you react?

It’s awkward and uncomfortable when these simulations first begin. The team will be embarrassed, unsure of the “right” answers and worried about being offensive. It’s important to put aside all personal worries to acknowledge that these training exercises could be an actual life-threatening or life-ending event. There is no stupid answer during the discussions, because the point is to find the better answers.

Once the conversations start, everyone begins to feel better because, while no one wants to think a violent event will happen, it’s better to have a plan. Addressing the possibility is a step toward being prepared.


Two steps can be taken when assessing a workplace – inside and out – and its employees for potential weak points.

Facility assessment. An assessment of the environment inside and outside a facility should be done. I recommend a 360-degree MBW – management by walking around. Walk the entire facility while employees are there and doing their jobs. This shows concern for their safety and elevates awareness, but also provides information about the facility during the work day. What windows are unlocked? What doors are unlocked? Are there areas of concealment in the outer perimeter? Are there locks that don’t work? Are the fences safe? Are entrances, exits and specialty areas/rooms clearly marked and labeled?

Then, perform another assessment before everyone arrives for the day or after they leave at night. Are things left undone from the day before? Who is around the neighborhood? Who is the first to work? Where do they park? Is there adequate lighting in all areas inside and outside? Is there order and symmetry at shift change? Is that an opportunity for someone to walk in without being noticed? Look at the security technology – is it in proper working order and tested regularly?

Finally, do a review of the written policies and procedures. Now that assessments have been done in the heart of the business day and when the facility is empty, how does that align with the policy and procedure document? Where are the gaps?

Employee interviews. Once the physical facility assessment is complete, perform structured employee interviews. Ask each employee to answer a series of 10 questions, most of which have “yes or no” answers (see sidebar). Once these questions have been answered, data-driven information will be available to identify gaps between the policy and what actually is done. This will allow leadership and employee teams to develop gap closure plans and increase the safety of the employees.

And, when those interviews take place, very honest conversations will happen about concerns within the workplace that are not just related to safety. When coupled with the survey answers, some real substance and recommendations can be considered for the benefit of not only the facility, but the larger organization.

Workplace violence is no longer an isolated incident that only happens to other companies. It could happen anywhere, but steps can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an incident and increase the safety of employees if the worst should happen.

Van Harp is a partner in Harp & Associates, LLC, a workplace violence prevention consultancy. The company’s focus is awareness, recognition, prevention and response to violent workplace incidents in both public and private settings. The approach is from a 360-degree perspective to prevent concerning incidents from escalating along the continuum of violence up to and including extreme violence/active shooter. For more information, email HarpAssociates@hotmail.com.

10 Questions to Ask Employees When Conducting an Internal Assessments

  • Have you been trained to respond to a violent incident?
  • Do you have the authority to respond to a threat of violence?
  • Do you think your company’s current safety policies/procedures are sufficient?
  • Do you think the policies/procedures are being implemented and followed?
  • Do you feel your colleagues and coworkers are “on board”?
  • Do you feel the business is moving in the right direction for providing a safe and secure workplace environment?
  • What changes or suggestions do you have to improve safety/security?
  • Do you know how to get support/help in case of a violent incident?
  • Is there a current situation that causes you concern at this time?
  • Has there been a situation in the past that caused you concern?

© Harp & Associates