Engaged Leadership's Role in Workplace Violence Prevention

Why does workplace violence rear its ugly head? Are we needlessly worried about potential violence at work or do we have genuine reason to be concerned? Unfortunately, it turns out that those who worry about workplace violence have cause to be apprehensive. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that approximately two million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year; costing businesses up to $120 billion annually. Every day, on average, two people are killed and 87 injured as a result of a workplace violence incident, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Almost 50 percent of all businesses have had at least one violent event, according to Extreme Behavioral Risk Management Inc. (XBRM).

A nationwide workplace violence survey AlliedBarton conducted in concert with a polling organization found that one in three Americans employed outside the home are "very" or "somewhat concerned" with their personal safety. The survey also revealed that over half of Americans employed outside their homes (52 percent) have witnessed, heard about or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence at their workplace.

While there are warning signs, there simply is no magic formula that dictates who the perpetrator is, where the violent event takes place, or who the victims will turn out to be. For every 'typical' perpetrator profile, there are outliers. For every common office attack, there are upscale corporate suites where incidents of violence erupt with victims coming from all walks of life.

My new book, Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success, underscores how a broad range of people -- including executives, law enforcement, contract security, human resources and building management personnel -- can collectively build a culture of engagement, empowerment and education to lower an organization's workplace violence risk. I believe everyone in an organization has a responsibility to be an active participant in stopping workplace violence before it happens. However, employees are not apt to act on this kind of mandate just because management rolls out an unguided decree of "if you see something, say something." However, they can effectively act on that motto with the appropriate education, awareness and organizational support.

Numerous studies over the years have indicated a link between leadership and physical safety -- especially at job sites where there is a higher risk of accidents, such as at industrial facilities. What has been less examined is the relationship between solid leadership and workplace violence prevention. The way I see it, strong and steady leadership is at the heart of workplace violence prevention. I believe that any company that fails to embrace a leadership culture, with a definitive mandate on what defines leadership for each and every employee, will be more prone to an incident of workplace violence.

There's a direct connection between engaged leadership, workplace security and organizational success, regardless of your product or service. Psychologist Abraham Maslow identified safety and security as among the most basic human needs on the road to self-actualization -- achieving one's full potential. It therefore follows that if your employees don't feel safe and secure, they're not going to do the best job for you.

Our own experience shows that where there is a culture of leadership engagement -- where leaders are seen as plugged in and responsive to their employees; where employees feel that their leaders are concerned with their everyday activities, personal well-being and overall security -- those are the places where you see engaged employees on every level along with higher morale.

The rub for most organizations and their leadership teams is that it's easy to be complacent in the absence of a workplace violence incident. The typical attitude of "it can't happen here" is pervasive. In these cases, protecting against workplace violence is a question of motivation, or a lack thereof, on the part of an organization's leaders and those who report to them.

One of the interesting discussions from an external leadership circle held at our headquarters was that you never see numbers associated with the success of preventative measures. As an example, a disgruntled employee who was considering committing an act of workplace violence may have been dissuaded due to the preventative measures being deployed. That one prevented incident will never appear on a statistical analysis. So when people think that "It can't happen here," is that because of the protective culture in place, or that tactics have worked? In some instances it could be just luck, but I believe that these measures do work.

Creating and sustaining such motivation requires special leadership skills, which may differ from those required to fulfill other business focused goals. Still, there is great commonality in purpose, since workplace violence prevention is essential to ensuring the protection of shareholders' investment and company assets. It comes down to ownership of the full spectrum of risks that are out there, and accountability to your company's employees and shareholders.

Book excerpt submission to The Huffington Post from Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success, written by Bill Whitmore, chairman, president & CEO, AlliedBarton Security Services.