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The Slap Heard Round The World: Violence in the Workplace

According to Nielsen, the 2022 Academy Awards celebration was seen by 16.6 million viewers around the world. That’s 16.6 million people watching as Will Smith slapped Chris Rock across the face on stage. It was emotional and horrifying and, to us, it was a dramatic example of violence in the workplace.

According to the National Safety Council, workplace assaults resulted in 20,050 injuries and illnesses involving days away from work and 392 fatalities in 2020 alone. That’s more than 20,000 incidents of fear, and rage, and trauma that impact not only the people directly involved, but those around them — friends, co-workers, table-mates. Whether your workplace is a small office or the massive Oscar stage, it’s critical that you know what to do if an incident occurs in your workplace.

Today, Tom Jones, AIM HR Solutions attorney specializing in labor and employment matters, and Jen Moff, our VP of training, join Pete Wright to talk about workplace violence and how you can help your teams prepare, respond, and recover from incidents at work.

Episode Transcript

Pete Wright: The Chris Rock, Will Smith Oscar incident from the March Oscars presentation, put violence in the public eye. Incidents of workplace violence deserve all that attention and more. According to the national safety council, workplace assaults resulted in 20,050 injuries and illnesses involving days away from work, and 392 fatalities in 2020 alone. What happens if an incident occurs in your workplace? Today, Tom Jones, our very own attorney specializing in labor and employment matters and Jen Moff, our VP of training, join me to talk about workplace violence and how you can help an employee who has been involved in an incident at home or in the workplace. Welcome Tom, welcome back to the show.

Tom Jones: Thank you, Pete.

Pete Wright: It’s good to see you, sir. And Jen, welcome to the show first time.

Jen Moff: Thank you. Long time listener, first time caller.

Pete Wright: This is a serious topic, talking about violence in the workplace. And we know from the numbers alone that this is a thing that everybody struggles with. And one of the I think, interesting notes that I … Perspective setting notes that I hadn’t thought about is just remember, nearly every place is someone else’s workplace. Violence can happen anywhere. Let’s start with a bit of a plate setting, shall we? What is violence in the workplace in terms of the, shall I say, legal definition, Tom? Is that a fair way to talk about it? Is there such a thing as a legal definition of violence in the workplace?

Tom Jones: I suspect somebody like OSHA has created one over the years. OSHA is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is the federal government agency that mission is to keep a safe, healthy workplace. They would be the people who might investigate those issues that you just talked about, those cases where there was violence in the workplace or death in the workplace, that would be one of their missions. They define it as any act of threat or physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening, disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. That could be verbal, it could be physical, it could be psychological, it could be any number of things that makes someone feel unsecure or unsafe in the workplace.

Pete Wright: Wat do you see in your role when you … Let’s talk about your own experience, have you ever experienced a situation of violence in the workplace yourself?

Tom Jones: Not that I could recall right now. Years and years ago, I had a summer job when I was in college, working at the airport. And we put baggage on the planes and things like that. And so I was talking with some of the older guys about different things and I really loved it. I had a great job, I loved airplanes, I was really happy doing this job. And this guy was really reading me a bit of the riot act about what I couldn’t couldn’t do during the course of the work day, where I shouldn’t go, who I shouldn’t talk to. I don’t know if it was a threat or just a statement of saying … I treated it maybe a little bit more cavalierly than I would nowadays but at the time, this was back in the late 70s, early 80s, I didn’t really think too too much about it, but I certainly felt warned off from doing anything.

Pete Wright: Yeah. Jen, what do you got in your back pocket? Do you have any stories?

Jen Moff: My personal experience with violence in the workplace, the story that comes to mind is actually an employee that I had. I work in the retail space, brick and mortar, an AT&T franchise. And I had an employee that started having a individual show up while we were at the job and throw things at the front door, throw things at the glass, and they would have to hide out in the back. And it started happening more and more frequently. And I kept going like, "We’re going to have a conversation about this." I did, I pulled him aside and said, "You got to tell me what’s going on here because this is not a one off, this is a pattern of behavior, and I have to protect the store but I also want to protect you." What I ended up doing at the time was just calling the local police line, not 911, but asking for them to do a safety check or just a drive by periodically. And they did that frequently, and it actually deterred the individual from coming back and harassing my employee while he was at work.

Pete Wright: I wonder, I don’t have the specific stats about the breakdown of types of workplace violence and intimidation, but it mirrors directly … My own story was a former boyfriend of a seasonal employee at a tourist place in one of my early careers. And he was a massive oak of a man, a former football player, and was just devastated that she had broken up with him and started tormenting other staff members. And it was an outdoor environment, so there was no protective space for these people. And it was just a threatening, horrible situation for many weeks leading up to restraining orders and things like that, but very difficult to track down. I think all of these experiences, while not the worst of the worst that we’ve heard about on the news, certainly not the academy award stage slap, but they do beg the question, what does HR need to consider to effectively and efficiently deal with these kinds of scenarios? Who wants to start?

Jen Moff: Not it, I will defer to Tom first.

Tom Jones: Well, you can see a number of different issues. And Jen, feel free to jump in as I go to supplement. One of them obviously, is to have policies about intolerance for violence in the workplace, no tolerance for violence in the workplace. Another would be to make sure that people know what to do if and when they see it or experience it. Who do they call, who do they respond to, how do they get resources that might be available for them? But to make it crystal clear that there are resources within the company. One thing we’ve seen a lot of companies do would be put notifications in places like the bathroom, because one of the things people feel uncomfortable about is doing this in front of everybody. You go to the bulletin board and stand there and look for the … What’s this information about that? People are like, "Oh gee, I wonder what’s going on with him or her?" If you do it in the bathroom, it’s going to be quiet. It could be somewhat secretive, in the sense that people can go get the information. And you also want to check out if you offer something like an employee assistance program to help your employees, is that EAP any good? Have you ever called it? Has you ever used it? Are they going to be qualified to respond to violence? And look for different patterns of quality of the response. Do they look like they’re going to be helpful? But I also think if there’s a serious pattern of violence going on in your workplace where you’re concerned about it, would be to bring in some outside resource and say, "We need to maybe educate our workers better about how do they respond? How can they cope with violence? What resources might be out there to help them cope with that violence, be it psychological resources or just family support resources?" Or maybe something in the workplace, like bullying is going on in the workplace. Whereas discrimination and harassment are clearly illegal, bullying is not illegal in most workplaces. It might be in the public schools but not in the workplaces, but what does a company do when they feel someone’s being bullied? What type of response can they give that person to help them overcome the stress of that situation?

Jen Moff: There’s two things that you said Tom, that I really liked. One was you were talking about having all of these options for people. And one of the core things there is the communicating of those options, making that information readily available. How do we communicate these things? What processes and systems do we have in place so that people know where to go or to go somewhere or how that information is regularly made available? Not that you’re marketing these offers and these programs but people forget things very easily. We’ve got so much we’re juggling, so how to make that information front of mind and have it stick in your brain. The second thing that you mentioned was the EAP. You actually taught me what that was, I had never heard of that. And I don’t know if anybody listening right now isn’t familiar with the term but Tom, would you mind explaining a little bit more about that just in case?

Tom Jones: Sure. It’s an employee assistance program. Typically they are unaffiliated with companies and they might be affiliated with your health insurance carrier but they’ll be a resource base for people going through stress. But it could be stress related on divorce, violence, financial problems, all of which might contribute to violence frankly, in this stressful situation. They’re supposed to be a good resource for counseling, therapy, psychological resources.

Jen Moff: Well, we talked about that for the first time Tom, you asked me if I was even familiar with it. And I said, "No, it would’ve been amazing for some of the experiences that I’ve had in the workplace." But yeah, I think that’s definitely an opportunity for a lot of companies to implement.

Pete Wright: I feel like there are a couple of things that are lingering in the back of my mind here. And one is a training development issue. When we talk about incidents of violence, whether it is the bullying or a more dramatic instance of violence, what is your perspective on best preparing your staff for being able to experience those things? We don’t know when they’re coming. It’s like a fire drill, right. I don’t think people are aware of what they need to do if something like this happens. How do you prepare folks for this eventuality, while helping them feel safe?

Jen Moff: Oh, that’s a fantastic question. In my opinion, if we zoom way out, the bird’s eye view, these are life skills things. We’re never taught as human beings. It’s not part of a school program, it’s not any extracurricular activity. There’s nothing built to formally help people help themselves, it’s something that we rely on learning through experience. And so to have formalization of education and training and development in these areas, is something that I’m really passionate about. The mental and emotional health is a direct contributor in my personal opinion, I imagine Tom would have some thoughts here on that being a foundation or a seed that is planted that creates and births the violence, whatever that is. And also defining what is violence? Just domestic violence, it can be psychological, it can be emotional, it can be financial, it can be so many things aside from just laying hands upon another person. Having opportunities in the workplace to educate on mental and emotional health, I think is essential. Having opportunities for your employees to partake in conversations about these things in an environment that allows for an open dialogue, perhaps a round table discussion or an ask me anything from experts, but prioritizing it as part of a holistic training program because you are looking at people as more than just a screw, a cog, a bolt in this machine. It’s a very outdated, in my opinion, idea of how a business works. And we can’t build a solid organization in the way that we once thought we could. Looking at people holistically and providing for them from so many different vantage points, is really going to be essential in their success and the company’s success.

Pete Wright: And I’ll turn to you, Tom. I had this experience with a local US postal service facility that is a distribution facility. And some years ago, I’m going to say it’s 10 years ago, a former principal at our local high school moved over there to take over managing for this office and wanted to institute active shooter training because that’s exactly the thing they do in high schools right, lockdown drills, active shooter trainings, they’re training kids how to handle these kinds of things. Now, at the time, he was told, "You can’t do that. You can’t institute active shooter training at a federal office." And my understanding was they didn’t have any idea how to do it at the time. I don’t know if they do these kinds of trainings at this point at all. I don’t want to speak to that but I’m curious, if there are limitations to the kinds of things you can and should do to train for the worst of the worst. We train for fire drills, should we not be training for some of these things?

Tom Jones: I think the answer to that is definitely yes, empathetic to your point Pete, that every workplace is different, and picking up what Jen said. Every situation’s going to be different. And so you need something probably tailored to what that workplace is. Some workplaces are more open, other ones are more cubicle based, other ones are just remote, whatever it might be. Every work situation’s a little differently. Maybe a good place to start might be talk to your workers comp carrier because their job is to help keep a safe workplace. And some of them will do training, they can come out. And presumably, they know who they’re ensuring. They can then tailor it a little better to that type of workplace and to the OSHA. It’s funny what you said about the post office because OSHA, which is the other federal agency, does this training that’s called hide, run and fight.

Pete Wright: Yes.

Tom Jones: The first thing, if there’s violence in the workplace, you hide, if you can do that. The second thing is run if you can get away from the person. The last possible option is fight. You’re not some hero out there fighting this … The goal is to save lives, to get people away from here. And so some companies I know have been active in doing training like that. Another thing is I think, learning from other experiences. When I first came to AIM 20 years ago, it was right around the time of the … It was called Edgewater shooting. This guy came into work one Christmas day and the day after Christmas … He’d brought guns in the day before, he was angry that the government was withholding some of his income for tax purposes, and he shot seven coworkers. And I remember seeing the chief of police for that time later give a speech in which he said, "One of the problems for us was that we didn’t know anything about the company. We got a phone call that said, ‘Come out here in a hurry’. We did but we didn’t know which door to go in. We didn’t know if we were going to walk into a shooter, if we were going to walk into some other situation we shouldn’t have. And so we didn’t know anything about it." I’ve always encouraged companies to build a relationship with the local police if they can. They may have a community relations officer or somebody so that if and when some crisis occurs that’s violence and they need the police there, the police know what the company’s like. You know what doors there are, what exits there are, where the facilities are within the organization so they might be able to help respond a little quicker.

Jen Moff: I’d wonder Tom, if there are companies out there that specialize in that today, because I can …

Tom Jones: Probably are.

Jen Moff: Are there?

Tom Jones: I would think so. I would think there must be consulting firms that … Sorry to cut you off but I would think there must be some consulting firms that do it. But the workers comp one I thought about because you’re already paying for the comp premium.

Pete Wright: Right, right.

Jen Moff: I think that’s great point.

Tom Jones: It’s a starting point to try and get some information.

Pete Wright: Well, there is this other side again, from an HR perspective of … And I think Jen, you already alluded to it, which was if there is an incident of violence at home that is then by virtue of the fact that you have an employee coming to work, but what are the resources and sorts of considerations that you as an HR professional should be aware of and need to think about in terms of supporting your team members when they experience violence at home?

Jen Moff: Yeah, this is something I can speak to personally. Back when I was working in that same industry that I mentioned previously, I was in a relationship that was what you would classify as intimate partner violence. This is over a decade ago, I’m very comfortable talking about it because I’ve done a lot of work to get to this place. But back then, I was not able to talk about it. I didn’t tell a soul, let alone the people that I worked with. And quite frankly, I don’t know that I would have shared that with my work colleagues at all. Because a lot of what happens in some of those relationships, you begin to doubt yourself and you don’t trust yourself and you lose parts of yourself. If you don’t trust yourself in decision making, you’re not going to trust that you’re able to go to an employer. It might not even be a situation where someone self discloses but the employer is picking up on behavior change, and that would be a way to find out. And then maybe there’s people that do feel like they’re able to disclose at work. I personally have never been on the receiving end of finding out about something like that but I’d love to hear from Tom. Tom, you have so many fantastic stories.

Tom Jones: Thank you. I’m sorry, thanks for sharing that too, Jen. I appreciate that.

Jen Moff: You’re welcome.

Tom Jones: It was a eye opener to hear that. Massachusetts does have a law about domestic violence and what companies are supposed to do when someone comes forward with issues about domestic violence, but that’s the legal side of it. It’s the empathetic side of it, the human emotion side of it that’s I think much more challenging for HR folks in how to deal with it because we’ve had a few phone calls on the hotline over the years in which people are saying, "We’re afraid of sticking our foot in the wrong way. And we’re not qualified to help a person like Jen coming forward today with that question. What do we do?" And so one way is to fall back on the legal and say, "Okay. Well, there’s this, there’s this there’s, this there’s this." … which is true. And those resources do exist and they’re helpful and they’re good. But it’s the side of it I don’t think anyone’s trained for, that you’re learning how to respond to someone’s personal plea, personal call for help. That is hard to do. And so the workplace violence that comes from outside of the workplace, I think a lot of these HR folks would feel even more impotent because they can’t …

Jen Moff: Their hands feel like they’re tied.

Tom Jones: Yeah, the best you can do is help your coworker, your employee, and you can get a restraining order from the police within the courts if you need one, to keep people away. You can make it clear to the company that no stranger should be allowed on the property. You can lock down doors, you can do all those things but once he or she leaves the door at five o’clock, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And you can only do so much. You want to be supportive but you don’t want to take over people’s lives either. And so you’re trying to drive that balance between the two, of how you can offer a good support. And it’s hard, it’s very hard.

Pete Wright: Yeah.

Jen Moff: Here’s a question. Is this something that you could make a recommendation on? I don’t know, legally this is not my area of expertise, that’s why I defer to you. You are so wise and have so much good information. I know that in the city and state where I lived at the time, there was a house that was available for domestic violence survivors, and hotlines and things. Are those things available for a company to provide, in terms of information, to direct them to those resources?

Tom Jones: I’m sure there are. I don’t think many companies formally do that but I would think there are … Used to be there was a battered women’s coalition in Massachusetts, they probably still exist. Years ago, there was a counseling service for men who commit acts of violence as well from years gone by, called Emerge, that may still exist. And so there are some resources out there. I don’t know that there’s a quality checklist on how good those things are. Just like you were talking earlier about EAPs, I don’t know if there’s a … You don’t know if this is a good one, a bad one, or what’s going to happen when you refer someone over there to it. Because it may not help, they may not be qualified to help the person, but it’s an area where there’s not a lot of resources. The state may have some programs but some of the cities, the bigger cities, like a Boston or Worcester or Springfield may have some resources, but beyond that, I’m not sure where else you could turn.

Pete Wright: More than anything, it just highlights the level of responsibility or authority as HR folks you have to take in building up the institutional knowledge around these issues in order to be ready when something happens.

Jen Moff: 100%.

Tom Jones: It’s not something you go looking for either. You put the information out there, then you hope you train your supervisors to respond the proper way when the information comes in. Because the person may go to the supervisor first. You want to make sure that the supervisor knows what to do, which is typically move this to HR as quickly as possible. But a lot of HR folks may not be prepared either.

Jen Moff: I think what you really just touched on with the … We never want a blanket statement to anything absolute, I don’t find to be very effective. When we think of HR people, we sometimes think of them through these certain lenses that we come to believe that they operate as, but one HR person is different from the next. We’ve seen that in all of the training classes that we’ve offered for our HR specialists across the state in different companies. And every one of them has their own personality and what they’re comfortable with and how they choose to conduct themselves in the role and with that company that they work with. There’s so much nuance here as well.

Pete Wright: We do have this … Is there a rundown we can offer for resources available for folks or should we just plan on … Maybe we can put some links in the show notes. What are the things they can expect around sick leave, time off, those sorts of things? And Tom, you’re aces at talking about investigations. Are there any details we should run down about expectations?

Tom Jones: Well, I think it’s probably easier to gather them after the fact, for show notes in general, Pete. I agree with that but I think you’d certainly want to look at … There are different ways. If you ask a lawyer, you’re going to get legal responses, right. You ask a social worker, you’re going to get social worker … And so a good HR person has to have a range of resources that he or she can turn to and say, "Okay. Well, that satisfies one part of the issue but there’s another part of the issue that we’re not satisfying yet." … which might be the person’s emotional needs or the person’s financial needs for that matter, or for housing needs, whatever it might be. And so we don’t have resources for that. All I can give is legal stuff. Yu want to try and I think, put as wide a mix as possible out there of … It’s almost like you need a concierge service that you can call and say, "Okay, who would be a clearing house with this information?" And that’s why I say, it might even be the state. I don’t know, I haven’t looked in a while to see what resources they have.

Jen Moff: I like what you just said though, about not neglecting certain aspects. There’s a diagram if you Google it, healthy relationships or respectful relationships. It’s a circle and there’s different spokes along the wheel. And so when you look at these different areas, and even abusive or other types of relationships that aren’t respectful, they cover all of those things, the financial thing, the emotional thing, the physical thing, the job thing, the social thing. If you’re a company that is looking to maybe design something in house or plan around this, that diagram might be a good place to start, to make sure that you’re not neglecting all the different facets that can be affected by violence in the workplace or by an individual who’s experiencing violence at home. And then obviously, there’s the blend into the workplace as well. You don’t want to leave out anything. And that would be a great place to start.

Tom Jones: Great point.

Pete Wright: We will post links that we can cobble together, hopefully to get you started in … If you have not started building a plan for your own organization, hopefully we can post some resources that will help you kickstart this on your end. Not a fantastic conversation to be had any time, but I sure appreciate both of you, Jen Moff and Tom Jones, for your insights and wisdom. Thank you so much.

Jen Moff: My pleasure.

Tom Jones: Thank you, Pete.

Pete Wright: And thank you everybody for downloading and listening to this show. Again, you can find all of those notes and resources at I’m Pete Wright, until next time. We’ll see you back here on Human Solutions, simplifying HR for people who love HR.

Each week we will showcase a bite-size conversation dedicated to helping you get your arms around another HR challenge. The people on this show have decades of experience, and this is our chance to share that knowledge with you.

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