Governance & Risk Management

Workplace Violence -- What You Need to Know: Kim Matlon, Crisis Expert

Workplace violence - it's one of the most common but least understood risks to all organizations.

From robberies gone awry to bullies in the workplace to domestic anger spilling over from home, the financial institution is rife for violent situations. In this interview, Kim Matlon, COO of R&A Crisis Management Services, an Ill.-based business continuity, crisis management and project management consulting firm, offers insight on:

The four types of workplace violence;
Red flags to look for in employees and communications;
How to help ensure employees' safety.

TOM FIELD: Hi. This is Tom Field with Information Security Media Group. The topic today is workplace violence. I am talking with Kim Matlon, the COO of RNA Crisis Management Services, a business continuity, crisis management and project management consulting firm located in Illinois. Kim thanks so much for joining me today.

KIM MATLON: Absolutely, my pleasure.

FIELD: This is a fascinating topic, and I think it is one that hasn't gotten a lot of publicity so to speak in the financial institutions. Kim, in your estimation, what are the predominant workplace violence issues for financial institutions today?

MATLON: Well, workplace violence can commonly be broken down actually into four general categories. And each of the four categories are affected in the financial institutions. There is pure criminal intent, there is client/customer incidents, employee-to-employee incidents, and personal relationship or domestic violence incidents.

Now, pure criminal incidents are things like theft, and these are the things that generally financial institutions are keenly aware of and especially if they have the branch offices out there. Client or customer incidents generally occur where the client or customer acts out violently toward an employee. This kind of violence can be seen perpetrated mostly against teachers, police officers, social workers and that kind of thing. But financial institutions are not immune to this type of violence either.

Then there is worker to worker incidents, and these stem from work-related disputes and account for about 7% of all workplace homicides. This type of violence is seen across all industries and all occupations. However, trends have shown that managers and supervisors seem to be at greater risk for this type of violence.

Finally, it is the personal relationship incidents or the domestic violence-related incidents. And this can occur if the victim or the perpetrator is an employee of their organization. Something to keep in mind, the effect of domestic violence in the workplace is immense. This includes absenteeism, low productivity and violence occurring at the place of employment of the victim.

Employers also need to be aware that perpetrators of domestic violence may use business telephones, fax machines, email and the like to perpetrate violence on their victim at the workplace. Again, this cuts across all industries including financial institutions. It is a very serious problem, one of which we don't really know the full extent of at this time, but could affect upwards of 25% of all people in the workplace.

FIELD: Just a quick follow-up Kim. You know, we are going into what everyone is recognizing as pretty tough economic times. Does workplace violence increase in tough economic times?

MATLON: You know, there are no studies out there as to that, but any stressor is going to increase violence, and especially when you have a financial institution, you are going to see -- my guess is you are going to see increase in the client or customer incidents. Where people come in and they are angry and they have no other recourse, and they want to get back at somebody. And those are the things that definitely financial institutions need to keep in mind.

FIELD: That makes sense. Now, you speak about this topic a lot; what do you find to be most misunderstood about workplace violence?

MATLON: Well, I think that most people really don't recognize the breadth and depth of workplace violence. That it truly does encompass everything from a robbery to a bullying episode, to incidents of domestic violence. Also, no workplace is immune. And I want to stress that again. Absolutely no workplace is immune from violence. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an average of 1.7 million people were victims of violent crime in the workplace between 1993 and 1999. So if 75% of those were just simple assaults, so anything from a pushing and a shoving act in an office can lead to any number of problems within a workplace.

So, when people think about workplace violence they generally think about horrible incidents like the 2006 law office shooting we had here in Chicago, or incidents like what has been happening on university campuses across the country, Virginia Tech, NIU and the same. But what people don't think about is what happens everyday, possibly in our own offices. Burglaries that have the potential to turn into physical violence, especially in financial institutions -- you will see that that turns violent rather quickly. Bullying from fellow employees, again, you can turn into pushing and shoving and can rapidly escalate into something that can, you know, a homicide at that outside. Someone in a domestic violence situation, either perpetrator or victim, can work in your office. The likelihood of that is pretty, pretty high.

So it can happen anywhere to anyone and most people don't think that. Again, it's much more than well-publicized fatalities. Workplace violence includes everything from threats and non-fatal injuries, and includes lost work productivity, legal liabilities, economic impact on businesses and a wide variety of other costs that businesses just can't afford.

FIELD: And you mentioned those statistics there, and what strikes me right away is this is what has been reported. We don't know what has not been reported.

MATLON: Oh, absolutely. We don't know how many people are going through this on a daily basis. So we are anticipating that it is much higher than 33% over the populous in the United States has had domestic violence occur in their own household. I mean that is staggering.

So, and you work with those people every day, and then when you think about the added stressors of economic downturns, of any number of things that people go through, you increase those numbers just rapidly.

FIELD: Now, Kim, for a manager, what are some of the red flags to look for regarding workplace violence?

MATLON: There are so many things. Again, I go back to the four types. You are going to need to have a comprehensive plan in place to deal with all four of them; each has a different impact on the organization. However, it can be said that people just don't snap. You know that is what you hear in the media all the time, "oh he just snapped," like you never saw it coming. That is not actually true. Awareness by managers, co-workers, those who deal face-to-face with the public is going to be key, because remember it is not just worker on worker, it is going to be the person coming into that financial institution that could also be a hot button.

So first of all it is important to take every threat very seriously. This can become quite overwhelming for some organizations, but no threat should be ignored. If a person is threatening to commit an act of violence, take it seriously and take action. People have the propensity for violence sometimes like to test the water out. They become aggressive, intrusive, or downright obnoxious just to see how far they can push before being stopped. So look for harassing or intimidating behavior. Sometimes this is often the bully in the office that nobody wants to stand up to, but somebody needs to.

In the case of a bank branch or other institution, the perpetrator will generally watch the building for some time before going into action. So, if everybody can just be a little more aware of strange behaviors or people sitting in their cars or standing on a corner frequently, that will be helpful as well.

Stalking behavior. This can be someone who is obsessive about an employee and it often, often, often turns violent. Violent or threatening behavior can include physical acts, oral or written statements, harassing email messages, harassing telephone calls, explosive gestures or expression or other behaviors that are really out of the ordinary.

One thing that I generally do is when I work with an organization I actually call the local police in to talk with that organization. They know the people in that area. They know how people watch stores in certain ways, they know when people are getting hit by, you know, a theft, and they are really amazing at teaching human behavior and things to watch for. So whether it is somebody inside the company or somebody outside the company, it is always really, really important to get, first line reference so that is why I always call them in to get some information.

FIELD: In terms of information security, where a lot of our audience works, are there warning signs to look for in electronic communications?

MATLON: It's going to be a lot the same. Obviously you are not going to have gestures and intimidating vocal work, but you know people can make threats directly or indirectly through email or fax. Also be aware of the frequency of communications. It is possible to stalk and harass somebody electronically and harassment and stalking of any kind is a precursor to violence.

FIELD: So, a manager should be mindful of the volume of email traffic someone is getting from an individual?

MATLON: Yeah, that can really be a big sign as to there being a problem. You know, if it is somebody who is getting jokes every five minutes from their best friend, that's one sign. But if they are getting something, the type of emails where they are feeling uncomfortable, whether it is a known entity or an unknown entity, so it could be somebody who, a spouse or a lover that they've just ended a relationship with, and that third-party is emailing your employee non-stop, that can become harassment and that can be a sign of something that could turn very, very violent.

FIELD: Now are you apt to wait for the employee to bring that to a manager's attention, or this something a manager can be proactive about and start a discussion about it.

MATLON: I think the manager can carefully raise that issue. It is going to depend on policy in terms of when the managers can actually read employee email. Different organizations have different policies on that.

So, if the manager is aware of it from whatever method, you know, just kind of poke around and say, "is everything okay? " You know, check in about the home life. That's when managers can really, really make a difference.

Generally when somebody is going through a domestic violence situation they feel really, really isolated, and they don't feel safe to reach out. So, somebody reaching out to them and saying 'We've noticed that there is an issue,' without accusing the employee of anything, they might feel okay with saying, "you know what, I do have a problem" and then extra security can be brought in to provide safety for all the employees.

FIELD: Now I know there is nothing easy about this, but what are some of the first steps that somebody can take to ensure their employees safety?

MATLON: Well, there really are no easy steps, and you are absolutely right. The first thing, especially when you are dealing with financial institutions, is you are going to want to implement stringent cash handing procedures. That's going to be one place where you are going to have violence occur when somebody is coming in to do a theft. Again, you know this is something banks are well aware of. Physical separation of employees from customers, using bullet resistant barriers, using height and depth of countertops to protect employees, physical protection when you have face-to-face work with the general public is really helpful.

Some things that organizations also do are visibility and lighting. That is always going to be important. Make sure that your high-risk areas are visible to more people and install really good external lighting, especially if you have people coming in early or staying late. And that's going to be helpful no matter what type of violence comes into the office.

Numerous security devices can reduce the risks for assaults and facilitate identification and apprehension of perpetrators. Increasing the number of staff on duty can be helpful. Of particular importance, though, is taking a look at work practices and staffing patterns during opening and closing, especially when there are money drops involved.

Again, there is no easy answer. It is just kind of being proactive, looking ahead and trying to think, okay, is there a vulnerability here and how we can we close that gap as much as possible.

FIELD: Now, how do you advise institutions to create, communicate and test your strategies for workplace violence prevention?

MATLON: Well the first thing that I do actually is I advise every organization to do "something." So many organizations aren't doing anything or are doing very, very little. Anything is better than nothing.

When incidents occur, many organizations find themselves in a tenuous position to deal with the incident without exacerbating the situation. They are really frozen into inaction due to fear of litigation and afraid of doing something wrong or saying something wrong and then the media getting involved. However, this is absolutely the worst thing to do. The lack of doing anything will almost always exacerbate the situation.

Going to take a little sidestep here because where I come from in terms of helping people is to first look at -- I'm a trained attorney, so the first thing is to look at the law for guidance. There is none in this instance, which kind of makes it frustrating. Really, the only thing we have to go off of is the OSHA General Duty Clause, which merely requires employers to, and I quote, "furnish to each of his employees, employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm." Well, that doesn't say a whole lot. That doesn't help us figure out how to keep our employees safe.

Several states are trying to do something, but primarily all of they are really doing is formalizing those OSHA standards, which aren't really standards. So although nothing can guarantee that an employee will not be a victim of workplace violence, I believe that organizations should put their efforts into three distinct areas: prevention, response and follow up.

I talked a little bit earlier about prevention steps, you know, the adjusted lighting and security enforcement, so I'm going to talk a little bit more about response and follow up. It is important for organizations to include follow up procedures following an incident of violence in the workplace. That can be getting your case managers in, you know, getting social workers in to talk with your people. It can also be making sure that people have what they need to feel safe in the workplace. Maybe it means now implementing newer security measures.

The perception of support and responsiveness of the organization, regardless of the particular intervention offered, plays a central role in returning business to normal and that's something that obviously my clients are looking for is, "when can we get back to normal?"

In general, policies and procedures for assuring and reporting threats allow employers to track and assess threats and violent incidents in the workplace. Those policies must indicate zero tolerance of workplace violence and provide mechanisms by which incidents can be reported and handled. In addition, such information will allow the employers, the financial institutions, to assess whether prevention strategies are appropriate and effective.

These policies should include guidance on recognizing the potential for violence, methods for diffusing or deescalating potential violent situations and instruction about the use of security devices. Another little side point here, teaching people to deescalate and diffuse is huge. That is something that I do train with the organizations that I work with to try and get them to work one on one with their employees to understand that there is a way to diffuse and deescalate.

In addition, training employees in non-violent responses and conflict resolution is also a great way to reduce the risk of volatile situations. Also critical is training that address hazards associated with specific tasks or certain worksites. Training should not be regarded as the sole prevention strategy though, and only as a component of a comprehensive approach to reducing workplace violence.

Now I know that that doesn't detail exactly how I work with each organization to create, communicate and test their strategies, it is much like any other business continuity plan that they put in place and it is specifically deals with areas of vulnerability to physical safety and working with the managers, working with the tellers, working with the people that have face-to-face with general public that is really a key area that we can move things forward and help keep everybody in the workplace safe.

FIELD: Kim we really have to have a long conversation about this sometime. This is good material. I'm going to ask the audience right now, if you want a webinar on this let me know. Write to me. I think that we need a webinar on workplace violence.

MATLON: It is something that is truly of importance to everybody, and as I said earlier -- nobody's immune. Unfortunately, nobody is immune.

FIELD: Kim, thank you so much for you time and for your insights today. I really appreciate it.

MATLON: It's been my pleasure. Thanks so much.

FIELD: We've been talking with Kim Matlon, COO of R&A Crisis Management Services. The topic has been workplace violence. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

For the full interview in Streaming Audio, please see: Workplace Violence: What Every Financial Institution Needs to Know

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