The Blind Spot in Workplace Violence Prevention Programs: Part Two
In this article, we will continue the discussion of workplace violence prevention for home office workers (A.K.A. telecommuters, remote workers, or employees working from home). In Part One of this three-part series, we explored the OSHA and Worker’s Compensation perspective on home worker safety and security, and in Part Three, the focus will be on physical security and security practices that the individual employee can adopt to reduce the risk of violence. Central to the discussion in Part One was the concept of “universal vulnerability;” that no worksite is immune from the possibility of workplace violence, including the home-based office. As such, our recommendation is that the employer’s workplace violence prevention program must envision the possibility of violence affecting the home office worker, and afford home-based workers the same sorts of protections as those working in traditional office environments.
This installment will address strategies and techniques that employers can use to mitigate the risk of violence to home office workers. Both employers and employees benefit from a pragmatic and proactive approach to identifying risks and resources to reduce the possibility of violence. The Duty of Care is a shared responsibility between a worker and their employer; each must do their part.
Home-based workers have the same workers’ compensation benefits as in-office employees. Cases regarding workers’ compensation have shown that the law tends to see the home office no differently from the office building. If workplace violence is considered a risk in the traditional office environment, then it must be considered as a risk in the home office environment, as well. While OSHA does not have a specific regulation regarding workplace violence per se, it is considered a foreseeable risk, and as with other workplace hazards, states that, “employers have a ‘general duty’ to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The broad duties defined by OSHA apply wherever the employee is working from.
Employers of people who work from home offices and may be isolated during their work time must take reasonable steps to minimize associated risks. Organizations that promote Home Office Safety and Security Week typically address a range of safety issues such as ergonomic risks and electrical safety, but seldom mention the risk of violence, other than recommending that first visits with new clients should take place in public places like coffee shops, rather than at the worker’s home office.
General Home Office Safety & Security Recommendations
- Checking that anti-virus and firewall protection is current or upgraded if needed.
- Untangling, organizing and grouping electronic cords.
- Making sure there’s a clear path to the exit.
- Practicing healthy ergonomics (e.g., seating, posture, keyboard and monitor positions, etc.)
- Backing up all information onto a hard drive.
- Keeping stored client data confidential; Ensuring sensitive data is encrypted.
- Putting loose papers into files to keep them secure.
- Childproofing home offices if children have access.
Fulfilling the Duty of Care means that the employer should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure the health, safety and well-being of their employees. Due to the risks faced by home office workers, and the lack of assistance if something goes wrong, the Duty to Care takes on a greater importance. The risk of violence must be considered along with the overall list of potential home office hazards mentioned above.
An employer’s failure to proactively address home office work risks can result in personal injury lawsuits and regulatory penalties.
Omitting home office violence from the organization’s overall violence prevention program creates a double standard and undermines both the employer’s and employee’s position.
Include Home Workers in Workplace Violence Prevention Programs
Workplace violence prevention for home office workers is best addressed as an integrated part of an organization’s overarching approach to violence prevention, not as a stand alone feature. It cannot be seen as a secondary concern if it is. When dealing with the risk of violence in home-based offices, there are six steps that should be addressed in sequence.
Step 1: Management Commitment
As with all violence prevention initiatives, it is critical to first garner executive buy-in. This may be easier in organizations that already have robust workplace violence prevention programs in place since most of the heavy lifting in program development has already been done. Discussions about Duty of Care, OSHA’s viewpoint, Workers’ Compensation issues, and the risk factors that contribute to violence potential in home office work, can help motivate leaders to take this problem seriously. As previously mentioned, employers have a Duty of Care to their employees regardless of where they work. Executive managers must get their heads around this concept and understand how it applies to their home office workers.
Step Two: Develop Policies, Procedures and Protocols
If an organization has already developed a sound and defensible workplace violence prevention policy, it is likely that working from home is implicitly covered. Most workplace violence prevention policies include broad language that discusses violence potentially occurring anywhere and anytime an employee is on the clock conducting company business. When reviewing existing policies, or developing new policies from scratch, consider how workers in non-traditional settings are covered. This includes workers in home offices, lone or remote workers, business travelers, travelers abroad and ex pats. It will also be important to discuss how such policies relate to part-time, per diem, and contract employees; essentially everyone doing business on the company’s behalf.
In addition to ensuring that workplace violence prevention policies envision the risk of violence to home office workers, it is helpful to cross-reference workplace violence prevention policies with work-from-home policies. Integration of violence prevention into home-working polices ensures that the issue will be discussed proactively with any new home office worker, and not simply be assumed to be addressed in workplace violence prevention awareness training.
The development and implementation of procedures for violence prevention, response and recovery will be a necessary step in making policies actionable. As such, it be necessary to consider what types of defensive actions by home workers will be supported by the organization. This can be tricky business. For example, gun ownership is prevalent in the U.S., with more than 300 million firearms among 320 million Americans. Employers should consider the possibility that the home office worker may have access to a gun and elect to use that weapon in self-defense in a home-office workplace violence incident. It will be important to discuss this possibility with in-house legal specialists and perhaps outside counsel, since gun laws, the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws vary greatly from state to state.
What are the implications for the organization if an employee who is on the clock uses a weapon (firearm or other) in self-defense within their own home?
It is worth the exercise to have this discussion and develop a position on this matter even though this may seem like a low-probability occurrence.
Step Three: Identify Risks
Risk identification itself is a three-step process:
Identify Workplace Universal Workplace Violence Risks: All employees, including those who work from home offices should be acquainted with:
- Definitions, scope and prevalence of workplace violence.
- Types and sources of workplace violence.
- Potential risk indicators of violence (i.e. warning signs).
- How to report concerns or threats.
- Safety and survival in violent encounters (e.g. “Run > Hide > Fight).
- Post-incident support.
Identify General Violence Risks in Home Office Work
- The risks of working alone.
- Absence of security measures and personnel.
- Application of the five types of workplace violence to home offices (see Part One).
- Situational awareness and guarding against complacency.
- Recommended physical security measures and practices for home offices.
- How to respond to concerns or threats.
- Emergency communication and emergency actions.
Identify Specific Violence Risks to Individual Home Offices*
- Self-assessment tools (for employees).
- Site assessment by security or safety specialist (for employers).
- Identification of violence-related risks and resources in the home: (e.g., possible safe rooms, proximity and response times of local police, etc.)
- Family issues: children, elders, others in the home during work hours.
*While OSHA has been clear that they do not require home office inspections nor will they conduct such inspections, it is a good idea to have a sense of the home office worker’s environment. Visiting each home-working employee may not be practical, but requiring photographs of the office when the employee first begins using it and periodically thereafter can bolster an employer’s position in litigation.
Violence risk identification should be done with the home officer worker, not to them. Involving workers in the process is helpful since they are often the most knowledgeable about the actual risks in their area and in their homes.
As part of a home office violence prevention program it will also be necessary to address cyber security. Employers must ensure that home office workers’ devices are fully protected from intrusion. Internet connections with weak or no security leave the employer open to hacking, which can put a business and its customers at risk. Employers should require that only employees use whatever company equipment is provided to the home office workers. Allowing others in the home to use such equipment can create serious cyber-security problems.
Step Four: Training
Training is especially important in circumstances where there is limited supervision to control, guide and help employees in uncertain or dangerous situations. Most organizations find that using blended approach to physical security, safety practices and technologies is often most effective. Employees benefit from clear instruction how to use these elements individually and in concert with each other to mitigate the risk of violence. Employers must identify clear limits about what can and cannot be done if violence is encountered while working from the home office and empower workers to take the necessary actions when confronted with a hostile or dangerous situation. A model training curriculum should include two main categories:
- Explaining the possible safety and security risks to the worker and others who may be in the home.
- Introducing approaches to counter foreseeable risks, (e.g. policies, procedures, and technologies in place to ensure safety).
- Notification and calling for help in an emergency.
- Reporting accidents, incidents and near misses.
- Any industry-specific guidance (e.g., Best practices for pharmaceutical sales rep safety.)
- Situational awareness and combating complacency when working from home.
- Physical security enhancements to the home (e.g., doorbell cameras, emergency notification/panic button technologies, window treatments that obstruct an outside view into the office, shrubs and bushes trimmed to reduce hiding places near the home, etc.)
- Security practice enhancement (e.g. basic mail security/suspicious letter or package identification, having an PO box to receive mail to avoid sharing home addresses or deliveries to the home, letting others know when and with whom the worker has appointments with, etc.)
- Verbal de-escalation and personal safety skills for dealing with threatening and aggressive behavior.
- When and how to call for help: When should the main office or corporate security be called instead of 911, and any code words to let others in the main office covertly know that the employee urgently needs help. Our recommendation is a code phrase like, “Can you please email me the Red File.” A receptionist or co-worker back at the main office must understand that anyone calling from an off-site location requesting a Red File is asking for immediate emergency assistance. This of course must be established in procedures and shared in training to be effective.
Specific training should also provide guidelines for acceptable means of self-defense. Such training may help reduce panic and emotional distress, as well as physical injury in the face of potential violence. In Part Three of this series, we will discuss personal safety strategies and techniques for the employee more fully.
Step Five: Monitoring and Supervision
It is important for employers to be cognizant of the employment law concept of “negligent supervision” and its relationship to injuries and deaths stemming from violence on the job. It remains an employer’s duty to supervise employees even if constant supervision is not possible when an employee is working from a home office or other field setting. Supervision around the risk of violence and violence prevention measures can be provided in site visits and while checking on overall performance indicators. Ongoing supervision can also help employers and employees understand the changing nature of some types of violence (e.g., recent increase in gang activity in the area, etc.)
Unless employers check in with home office workers on a regular basis, they won’t know if the worker is having problems or concerns.
There is a natural bias for people to want to present themselves in a good light, as being competent and in control. Employers should not wait until employees raise concerns; they should proactively inquire.
Supervision and a personal connection with the home office worker can be provided through webcam meetings, regular emails, and phone calls. Taking these steps can help keep safety and security on the minds of home office worker who can otherwise become complacent about such risks when working in the comfort of their own homes.
It is important to have the right telecommuting tools and technologies in place not only to communicate and collaborate with work projects, but to facilitate rapid notification and response in a crisis. In additional to providing performance-focused supervision, video calls are helpful to allow supervisors to go “eyes on” with employees and visually check out the work environment. Although this is topic worthy of an entirely different paper, home office workers can become isolated, withdrawn and feel detached from the flow of their professional life. Some can feel that if they are out of sight, they might be out of mind for promotions or acknowledgement of their efforts. If an employee is struggling with depression or other physical and mental health issues, visual contact with the employee may give co-workers or supervisors important insight into the home worker’s condition and possible need for intervention.
Step Six: Support
Support of home office worker safety and violence prevention must be clearly communicated and consistently provided before, during and after an incident or emergency. This includes:
- Support from both executive and line management.
- Immediate post-incident support, including assistance with police reports, HR and legal concerns, and of course, addressing any injuries or medical needs for the employee and any others in the home.
- Employees may feel unsafe returning to their home immediately after a violent encounter. Will the employer pay for a short-term hotel stay as an alternative to going back to the scene of the crime? Will security officers be assigned to the worker’s home if the suspect in a violent attack is still at large?
- Connection to post-incident psychological support resources (e.g., EAP, crime victims services, clergy, etc.)
- Guidance on how to handle any media inquiries. This may also include a need for security at the worker’s home to buffer media intrusion.
- Report and investigation, including an after-action report to capture any critical lessons-learned in managing the incident.
Pulling It All Together
In the final installment of this series, we will focus on specific strategies and techniques that home office workers can employ to reduce the risk of violence on the job. With ever growing numbers of home office workers and telecommuters, the need to address the risk of violence in home-based offices also grows. Taken together, the three segments of this series will hopefully provide some meaningful direction to leaders and decision-makers charged with the safety and security of their workforce.