BELTON — Preventing violence in the workplace is a fine line where rules that would seem to stamp it out may actually encourage violence.
Employees in human resources learned Thursday that even regimented zero-tolerance policies could actually increase the potential for workplace violence, according to a presentation from Gary Sargent, chief of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s police department.
Sargent’s presentation was part of a monthly meeting of the Central Texas Human Resources Management Association.
Sargent said punitive policies in the workplace, though necessary, can discourage witnesses or victims of workplace violence from notifying their supervisors. “They’re afraid of retribution,” he said.
Workplace violence is a hot-button issue, and with the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn., UMHB police are on high alert, Sargent said. It puts police in a tough spot responding to reports of suspicious people that may be frivolous, but have to be thoroughly investigated.
“I can’t downplay their concerns, because they are legitimate,” Sargent said.
Bell County is no stranger to workplace violence. The massacre at Luby’s in 1991 and the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 are both classified as workplace violence.
That label has even been the subject of litigation. Dozens of victims of the Fort Hood shooting and their families sued the government earlier this year because their benefits have been limited by the label.
To create a safe work environment, Sargent said, employers need to have a safe avenue to make any reports. First-line supervisors also need to understand what workplace violence is.
Threats, intimidation and harassment constitute workplace violence, Sargent said. If left unchecked, they can evolve into violent acts.
“If we don’t address workplace violence, we’re just creating problems down the road,” he said.
Homicide is the fourth most common cause of workplace fatalities. Workplace violence caused 458 deaths in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
About half of all incidents of workplace violence are perpetrated by a stranger, and about 15 percent are committed by a co-worker. Typically they are committed with criminal intent in mind, Sargent said.
Preventing workplace violence can take many forms. A counter between employees and customers was one example of an environmental design that could discourage workplace violence.
Instituting drug testing and limiting access to work areas also can prevent violence, Sargent said. Managers should also be trained in conflict resolution and learn how to defuse potentially volatile situations.
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