Avoiding violence in the workplace

Laura Nelson, manager of the Grand Avenue Ale House, said avoiding violence at her place of work generally revolves around followng stated rules and using common sense.

Dan Hiestand
   Many of the potentially explosive confrontations that occur at her workplace are alcohol fueled, said Laura Nelson, manager for the past four years at Grand Avenue Ale House in Bellingham. To help diffuse these would-be problems, Nelson said she instructs her employees to go with their gut instincts, and to keep aware of customer behavior.
   “We keep an eye on how much we are serving people and how they are handling their cocktails,” she said. “If we notice that someone is getting a little boisterous and out of control, we have no problem cutting people off and asking them to leave. And that prevents a lot of problems.”
   According to Tara Fleetwood, a crime prevention officer with the Bellingham Police Department, this is an example of the kind of awareness and mindset that businesses of all kinds are well-served to have when dealing with confrontation.
   “What I like to tell people is that their greatest indicator is their own intuition about people,” she said. Warning signs of impending confrontation and potential violence may include changes in body language, the way someone speaks or eye contact, she said. “All of those things together play into the feeling you get about that situation. The little hairs going up on the back of your neck — that’s a bad sign. Don’t ignore your inner voice, your gut feeling.”
   Keeping the workplace safe — and potential confrontation at bay — takes a mixture of good communication skills, creativity and awareness, as well as a clear plan of response.

Communication is key
   Fleetwood has been a Bellingham police officer for 12 years, and she has done a lot of teaching on crime prevention to private businesses and government agencies, she said.
   “I just go out and give them the best information that I can about some of the problems they may be dealing with and how they are best handled,” she said.
   One thing she has learned along the way is that every business should handle every situation differently.
   “If I am talking to (home healthcare nurses), there is a little bit more detail and more possible chances of risk when you are going out into the community and meeting people in their homes,” Fleetwood said. “If you are dealing with people in the city planning department who are coming down to discuss why they didn’t get a permit, it may be a little bit different.”
   Fleetwood said most of the people she speaks to are well on their way to understanding what it takes to avoid testy — and dangerous — situations.
   “Basically, everybody has already got the tools. They are already in the business of customer service. So it’s really getting people to realize that their good communication skills are what will de-escalate a situation more than anything,” she said. “People really want you to be able to put things into black and white for them and say that if it’s ‘this,’ do ‘that.’ But so much of what happens in a situation is decided by your direct communication with that person that you are dealing with. And a lot of it is non-verbal — reading the situation as it unfolds.”
   Most of the calls the police department receives involve customers who are disruptive, Fleetwood said.
   “They may come into a business and have a legitimate complaint, but they just get out of hand,” she said. “Or sometimes it can just be that someone is coming in off the street who really doesn’t have any business being there. They are intoxicated, or under the influence of drugs. Maybe it’s somebody who is dealing with some mental-health issues.”
   The problem is not specific to Bellingham, but rather nationwide in scope, she said.
   “I don’t think it matters where you go in the world anymore. People have so much baggage that they are carrying around with them,” she said. “They are coming at you with everything that has gone on in their life that day, plus the past 20 years.”
   Often times, defusing stressful situations simply comes down to listening skills, she said.
   “We are so fast-paced and so ‘stress, stress, stress’ that people sometimes forget to use their good skills and really listen,” she said. “Taking that extra time with people is really sometimes what they need to de-escalate if they are upset or angry about something.”
   Workplace violence and confrontation is not just between clients and employees, she said.
   “There is workplace violence that is just co-worker to co-worker,” Fleetwood said. “Harassment in the workplace is one of the things that is kind of fallout from having bad communication between employees.”

Employee education
   Robert P. “Bob” Gardner, security operations director with Security Specialists Plus in Bellingham, has had 20 years of experience in military law enforcement, as well as an additional 20 years of civilian law enforcement in Washington state.
   Gardner said workplace violence can lead to a variety of problems if it is not contained properly.
   “(Workplace violence) leads to loss in productivity, a decrease in employee morale, an increase in business costs — such as insurance premiums, employee absenteeism, and litigation costs,” Gardner said.
   To combat the issue, employers should be prepared, he said.
   “The most important aspect of education lies with having a well written, viable, and comprehensive policy prohibiting workplace violence — and then, aggressively enforcing that policy,” Gardner said.
   He said education of the employees is important, and employers should instill the need in them to respond quietly and calmly to disruptive behavior. He also said it’s important for employees not to take the behavior personally (as the issue likely doesn’t involve them), and to show respectful concern and interest — thereby calming the situation and indicating the employee’s interest in the underlying complaint or grievance. Finally, employees should summarize what they heard the individual saying — a practice that maintains the open lines of communication and encourages a feeling of self-worth and respect.
   Fleetwood said keeping calm is important, especially at the outset.
   “I think initially, try and give people some time to calm back down,” she said. “If someone comes in and they are angry and upset about something, usually they’ll start to de-escalate and defuse within a minute or two.”
   If this approach doesn’t work — Fleetwood said — the situation is probably not going to get better on its own, and further action may be required.
   “People hesitate to bring that to someone’s attention, but I encourage employees — if they have a problem with a customer or a client — that they need to establish that they are going to seek some other help and that the situation isn’t getting any better,” she said. “They need to say, ‘Hey, look. I’m not going to be able to help you with your problem if you continue to raise your voice and swear at me, or point your finger at me. I’m going to have to get my manager.’”
   The last resort, she said, is to tell the customer they need to leave, and if they don’t leave, the authorities will be contacted. Crossing the line from dealing with problems in-house to involving the authorities depends on the business, she said.
   “Sometimes, based on the business itself, some things are okay and some things aren’t,” she said. “Obviously, if someone comes into the public library and they are yelling and creating a stir, then that goes beyond the scope of what’s okay in that establishment. On the other hand, maybe that kind of behavior is tolerated a little bit more if someone goes into (a social service agency) to get some vouchers.”
   Follow through is important, too, Fleetwood said.
   “You want to be careful that you are not being wishy-washy,” Fleetwood said. “Once you establish the line and draw that line for somebody, you need to follow through on that. If they leave and then they are hanging out outside, you still need to call the police. Often times, if you don’t follow through, the problem customers will feel like they have control of a situation, and that will enable them rather then get them to move on.”

Common mistakes
   Make sure to treat customers with respect and keep in mind the rules of good customer service, Fleetwood said.
   “One big mistake that people make is that if you can’t fix someone’s problem, that you just kind of tend to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, we just don’t do that here,’ and you shut the door in their face. Well that’s just going to make people more angry,” she said. “And if they are already dealing with some other issues in their life that have stressed them out, and they’ve brought them to this angry place in their life, and here they are standing in front of you, you don’t want to add that last straw that pushes them over the edge.”
   To deal with this issue, Fleetwood said she encourages business to have resources available.
   “Be helpful enough that even if you can’t solve someone’s problems, you can direct them somewhere where they can get what it is they are looking for,” she said. If you don’t carry a product or service, be ready to help.
   “Refer them somewhere else, even if it’s to a competitor, because that is good customer service — and it gives customers somewhere to go with what they have,” she said. “It’s not that you are trying to pass the problem off on someone else — you’re trying to help the person get what they need.”
   Businesses should always put employee safety first, Gardner said.
   “In many cases, executives are concerned with image,” he said. “Image must take a back seat to individual safety and the overall well-being of the other employees. Attempting to diminish the severity of aggressive behavior may well cause an escalation. Always involve professionals in reaching satisfactory resolutions, be it the local law enforcement agency, mental health professionals, or people trained in handling these situations.”
   Nelson said her employees have done a good job of handling confrontational issues, and that her staff is prepared to deal with many of the problems they may face.
   “I definitely tell employees to handle things in the most calm manner they can. You can’t go in angry because the situation is already hostile,” Nelson said. “If that doesn’t work, call the officers. That is what they are here for.”

If it’s predictable, it’s preventable
   Many local companies may not be aware that the Bellingham Police Department provides training workshops for business on keeping workplaces safe and secure. The workshops are free of charge.
   “We can talk about what their particular needs are for their company and arrange a time that is good for me to come out,” said Tara Fleetwood, a crime prevention officer with the police department. “It’s money in the bank for us, because it means that we are empowering people to be proactive and practice really good communication and crisis intervention in the workplace, which is a good thing.”
   At the very least, Fleetwood suggested that businesses communicate with employees the importance of a plan of action to prevent workplace violence.
   “It doesn’t matter where you work — if there are concerns or issues at work, you need to talk with everybody about them,” she said. “If there is one customer or client that comes in and always seems to be a problem, talk about it with the employees. Make sure everybody is on the same page, because that is how you troubleshoot a problem and are really ready to take care of it. If it is predictable, it’s preventable.”
   Have a response set in stone, she said.
   “It’s important to have policy and procedure that backs up your employees when it comes to dealing with these issues,” she said. “If you haven’t thought about how you’re going to handle a situation, you’re just not ready. And it always happens to the new person.”
   For more information, call Fleetwood at 676-6924 or e-mail her at tfleetwood@cob.org.




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