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Times change, but basic HR practices prevail

November 23, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The tragic events in Paris reminded us, unfortunately not for the first time, that we live in a very different world from the one that our parents and our older workplace colleagues knew. Not only is the world more violent, but it is more randomly violent, whether driven by politics or ideology or simply an individual’s uncontrolled rage. It is our inability to prevent it by anticipating it that forces us to look completely differently at our world than we used to.

The violence in Paris was not perpetrated by a worker or workers against another worker or workers, but the world of work is no stranger to random violence, as we all know. It is no less vulnerable to random violence than the world at large.

But can it be?

A recent blog by A. Kevin Troutman of the law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP implies that the “next ticking time bomb”—i.e., a violent act by an employee, or behavior so completely inappropriate that it alienates customers or coworkers, disrupts the workplace, triggers litigation, etc.—is nearly inevitable because it is random. Troutman advises us that no preventive steps we can take are foolproof and so management must be prepared to respond effectively to such events at all times.

But what is most interesting about the blog to a veteran HR professional is how almost all of what Troutman recommends sits comfortably within the parameters of traditional HR practice. It is as if he is saying, “In the end you cannot completely eliminate the potential for the next ticking time bomb to go off, but do good basic HR work, do it consistently and thoroughly in every circumstance, and you will measurably lower the risk of violence in your workplace.” Consider the six tactics he recommends to head off the “ticking time bomb” employee:

1.Don’t Hire the “Walking Law Suit” – Have a clear candidate application and screening process in place and accept no deviation from it. For example, do not accept “see resume” as an answer to a question on the application form. If you were to hire that person, how well do you think he would follow directions on the job? Read the completed application in depth. There may be hints of future behavior in the way the responses are written.  
2.Screen applicants thoroughly – Vet the completed application thoroughly. Make the candidate explain employment “gaps” in the interview even if they are explained on the application form. Watch the candidate’s facial expressions and body language when she answers those questions. Make the candidate talk about things he did not like at prior employers, and listen for “victim-like” responses. Responses to these questions almost always predict future behavior in the workplace if you read the signs well. Conduct a thorough background check on every candidate called for in your policy, every time. Make no exceptions.
3.Affirmatively welcome and support new employees – Assign mentors to new employees; make job and behavior expectations clear, give both positive and negative feedback, and do not hesitate to act when signs of problems emerge. Do at least for-cause drug testing and consider random drug testing if circumstances call for it. Set up an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) and promote its use; along with it, set up an anonymous hotline for employees to express concerns about policy violations, etc. Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for all talk about workplace violence, even if only joking, and make sure your new employees know about it.
4.Prepare to deal with potential problems – Train your employees, especially your front-line supervisors, on the company’s expectations for safe, non-violent behavior. In these sessions, make sure all employees know the organization’s security policies and procedures. Make sure the executive team takes violence prevention seriously and models the right behaviors. Make sure your employees know their responsibilities to maintain a violence-free and harassment-free atmosphere. Make sure everyone knows that retaliation against anyone who brings complaints of discrimination, harassment, improper conduct or the threat of violence will not be tolerated.

Explain in your written policies that the company fully intends to err, if that happens, on the side of caution when warning signs of potential problems arise.
5.Handle all terminations with dignity and respect – Even in cases of termination for misconduct, treat every terminating employee the way you would want to be treated if you were that employee. Orchestrate the process carefully; make sure the setting is private, give the employee your undivided attention, and do it at the time of day that will spare embarrassment and protect company interests. But safety must be paramount. The situation may call for hired security to be on hand during the process and in its aftermath. If so, the extra expense will probably be well worth it.
6.Control responses to inquiries about your former employees – Make sure only designated HR personnel respond to inquiries about past employees. Make sure they understand laws related to defamation and negligent referral. Often the workplace equivalent of “name, rank and serial number,” i.e., the ex-employee’s dates of employment, job title, and last rate of pay may be the limit of the information that you provide.
Random violence has always existed in society, but the prevalence of it today compels organizational leaders to adopt a permanent posture of “high alert” at all times to protect life and property. And yet the most basic HR practices, carried out with greater focus and consistency than ever before, can be the key to maintaining a safe workplace despite the mayhem we see in the outside world.

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