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The topic of workplace violence continues to make national news coverage. Employers, including law firms, are beginning to realize that no setting is immune from violence. Adverse publicity may not be the only factor forcing organizations to consider methods of reducing the risk of workplace violence. Businesses are also investigating their obligations under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which states, “Each employer shall furnish to each of its employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees.” Considering the variety of sources of hostile behavior — layoffs, financial problems, quarrels at work, job pressure, domestic problems — every commercial entity is at risk. Law firms are now looking into ways to reduce their risk of exposure to this growing epidemic. Preventive measures need not be complicated. The first step many firms have taken is to establish a workplace violence committee, often consisting of senior management and labor or employment lawyers. Collaboration and consensus among the members is vital in establishing the key components of the workplace violence prevention program. The committee’s goals might include reviewing current employment practices, developing a management training program focusing on workplace violence, and forming an internal and external support system that includes physical security measures. Review employment practices. The committee members can begin by looking inside the firm’s culture and asking themselves certain relevant questions. For instance, does the firm foster open communication? Does it promote employee involvement in the grievance process? How does the firm handle grievance proceedings in general? Second, the committee may review the firm’s interviewing, hiring, and termination practices to identify any weaknesses that could foster workplace violence. Additionally, every firm should establish a written zero-tolerance policy on workplace violence. Provide management training. Many firms have considered hiring consultants to train supervisors and managers to identify behavior that may lead to violence. Firms often have the consultants assemble a training program that is repeated throughout the year. It is essential that managers have proper training to know when and how to intervene in a potentially violent situation. Develop an internal support system. Essentially, internal support includes services that your firm can provide employees to effectively deal with issues surrounding workplace violence. First, firms should review their employee assistance program and determine whether it has the means to assist in preventing workplace violence. Some EAPs, for instance, will provide counseling to those employees showing signs of violent behavior. Second, a firm may consider developing a hotline where employees can report co-worker behavior that seems atypical. This hotline can be operated internally by the firm or externally by an outside entity. Keep in mind that for it to work, employees must believe that reports to this hotline are generally confidential. This system can be an important element of an early detection and intervention program. An internal system should include an investigative protocol once a complaint has reached management. Key questions to address in the response protocol include: Who would be selected as a response team to be responsible for conducting a good-faith investigation? What will be the steps in gathering information about a complaint? What strategy or course of action may be necessary after the complaint has been investigated? Physical security. Having an established program in place to handle security issues can protect the employer from both internal and external threats, as well as reduce liability should an incident occur. The first step here would be to designate someone in the firm to be in charge of physical security. The committee could choose someone in administration, a director or manager. This person may want to perform a security analysis on vulnerabilities and strengths of the firm. Although it is certainly important to include internal professionals in the decision-making process, many firms use an outside security consultant to provide this type of analysis. A security consultant can perform a risk assessment on your firm to evaluate the physical space in your office for vulnerabilities and recommend security procedures. The areas of liability a consultant should focus on include the availability of safe areas for employees if a violent act occurs and unsecured entrances and exits. Basic security measures that can be evaluated include cameras, panic buttons at reception areas, and entry cards. Coordinating plans with the building’s security people will enhance, instead of duplicating, the security initiatives that are already in place. As firms formalize plans to deal with this growing national problem, one additional item to consider is workplace stress. High tension levels among employees are viewed as one of the leading contributors to workplace violence. So how your firm handles work pressures can be an indicator of the risk of workplace violence. No organization can totally prevent or eradicate workplace violence, but with appropriate planning and effective programs, the risk can be dramatically reduced. Taking steps to give employees more support and peace of mind can go a long way: Just knowing that their employer has taken preventive measures, including a policy and a coordinated strategy, will provide some comfort to employees. While there are no guaranteed solutions, planning and training are the best tools to dramatically reduce the chance of a violent incident taking place in your firm. Jason E. G�no is the Washington, D.C., administrator of Boston-based Ropes & Gray.

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