Steps for averting pandemic-induced workplace violence

As states and municipalities reopen — and perhaps close and reopen again — more and more businesses are reviving in-person operations, leaving employers to confront myriad state and local requirements, industry-specific guidelines, and commonsense health practices to operate a business in a post-COVID-19 world, according to Law360.

A thorough return-to-work strategy addresses at least one aspect of health and safety other than the illness itself: the increased potential for incidents of workplace violence due to the stresses and tensions caused by the virus.

As part of a return-to-work plan, employers should consider implementing policies and mechanisms to both prevent and diffuse these inevitable tensions along with the more common measures to ensure employee safety, such as screenings, social distancing and additional hygiene practices.

OSHA recognizes workplace violence as a potential hazard, defining it broadly as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. Such workplace violence ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.

In response to increased threats and agitated customers, some large retailers that require customers to wear masks have now told employees that they are not required to prevent customers that refuse to wear masks from entering stores. A goal of this directive is to preserve employee safety and address employee fears about confronting potentially irate customers. Aware of the excess stress on employees and potential threat to their safety, some retail employers have created specific positions for employees trained in conflict de-escalation skills to interact with mask-reluctant customers.

In addition to disagreements about mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, COVID-19 has inflicted stress on employees from a variety of other sources. Families are dealing with record unemployment, increases in domestic violence, and lack of child care or schooling — in addition to the everyday concerns of simply trying to lead their lives surrounded by uncertainty.

Many employees are plagued with worries: Will I still have a job in a month? Will my kids go back to school or how will I manage remote learning? What happens if I get sick? What is my job doing to protect me?

Now put these overstressed employees together at work and bring on the job demands. Under these circumstances, employers must not neglect another perhaps overlooked workplace hazard: tense COVID-19-related interactions between co-workers and managers, which could serve as fodder for possible workplace violence.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reports there are employees experiencing such frustrations but not even speaking up, fearing negative repercussions from their co-workers or their employers.

There are proactive steps employers can take to prevent employee behaviors that could spur workplace violence. The process begins with revisiting a strong workplace violence prevention policy, and for those employers without a policy, drafting one.

Such a policy includes a straightforward definition of workplace violence and contains a strict prohibition on this conduct in the workplace. A thorough policy provides clear examples of prohibited conduct to employees for additional clarity.

The policy must contain well-defined procedures for reporting incidents of threats, violence or other acts that violate the policy. Employers should also include language making clear that employees will not be retaliated against for raising concerns pursuant to the policy in good faith.

To enforce the policy properly, each employer should designate an individual or a team responsible for addressing employee concerns raised under it and to ensure that each complaint is handled properly.

Employers should prepare an emergency safety plan for worst-case scenarios of actual physical violence or imminent threats of it. Employees should know when to call the police and where the nearest exits in each workspace are located.

Once written, employers must effectively communicate the contents of a workplace violence prevention and anti-retaliation policy to their employees. Employers may distribute these policies through email, post them on an intranet or post them in conspicuous places — along with mandated requirements such as mask wearing, standing 6 feet apart, etc.

Employers should discuss violent behavior warning signs with managers, acknowledging that while these are difficult times for everyone, the mental health impacts of COVID-19 might impact some employees more severely than others. Employers must be clear, however, that it is a manager’s job to report behaviors and concerns through predesignated channels, not to diagnose or treat employees.

The recommendations discussed aim to prevent and address COVID-19-related tensions and hostilities between employees that could result in threatening or violent conduct in the workplace. Clearly written policies and procedures that address workplace violence prevention and retaliation concerns and proper employee training, together with empathetic and ongoing communications from management, will serve to diffuse interpersonal frictions and foster an environment of open communication and understanding where employees are comfortable, supported and safe.