Charlie Williams and about eight of his staff regularly wander through the Nicor Gas headquarters in Naperville, Ill., schmoozing with employees. The schmoozing comes naturally to the gregarious Williams, the facility and property manager of the 950-employee company. But it's also a subtle and important component of the company's security program.

"The best security I have are people in the building," says Williams. "They need to know I care and I'm here for them. If people feel they've got someone to talk to, they'll come forward to report security incidents and discuss their problems. My security system doesn't mean a thing if they don't tell me what's going on."

With the increase in workplace violence comes the need for security measures beyond locking the front door at the end of the day. Corporations and property managers must now devise multifaceted strategies that both protect equipment and ensure their employees' safety.

The first line of defense, particularly against external perpetrators of violence, is a building that is well kept and emits an aura of toughness. Bill Zalud, editorial director of Security Magazine in Des Plaines, Ill., suggests keeping a property clean, neat, well lit, and free of graffiti.In addition, access to the building should be tightly controlled, with no side doors left unlocked or propped open.

"You don't want a siege mentality because it makes occupants too nervous, but you need to balance your protection with your threat level," he says.

Williams favors a security strategy that combines technology and people. For instance, all Nicor guests must sign in and out at a manned lobby desk and wear a visitor's badge.

Employees, all of whom wear an identification badge, are expected to escort visitors to and from the security desk. In addition, the company uses video cameras in the parking areas, lobby, and some hallways, and the fact that these cameras are rolling is prominently indicated on signs.

"If people think they're being observed, they have a tendency to shy away from doing anything wrong," states Williams. "[A picture] is conclusive evidence, and they don't want their picture on a camera."

One myth associated with workplace violence is that people just snap. "In workplace violence incidents, some employee almost always comes forward and says there were early indications that something was wrong," notes Zalud. Lynne McClure, president of McClure Associates, a Mesa, Ariz., consulting company that helps businesses identify high-risk behavior, agrees, saying that perpetrators usually give copious warning signs.

The key is to recognize and respond to such clues. McClure, the author of Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace (Haworth Press), applies an eight-point checklist to identify behavioral red flags. Also, she suggests that managers use three criteria to determine whether a behavior requires them to react: In how many categories does a person exhibit behavior, how often does he or she exhibit the behavior, and how intensely is it exhibited?

  • Acting out: In a tense situation, an employee acts out his or her frustration in a physical way (e.g., slamming a file on a desk or throwing a computer monitor against a wall) rather than discussing a problem.
  • Fragmentor: When confronted, this person takes no responsibility for his actions. For instance, the computer thrower claims, "It's Joe's fault. He made me mad."
  • "Me first": These persons do things that suit themselves, regardless of the company's needs (e.g., taking a break even when its timing affects others' deadlines).
  • Mixed messenger: The person acts one way, but talks another; it's the person who sells himself as a team player, but won't work with others or share information.
  • Wooden stick: This person is an extremely rigid, controlling individual who always has to be right.
  • Escape artist: This person uses drugs or is caught lying.
  • Shocker behavior: This is someone who does something extreme or out of character (e.g., a very quiet person who suddenly walks toward a coworker's office enraged and screaming).
  • Stranger behavior: These people have poor social skills and are remote and withdrawn. They may become fixated on an idea (the Unabomber's obsession is an example) or a person (they may imagine a nonexistent relationship and start stalking a colleague).

Recognizing dangerous behavior isn't enough. It's imperative that building managers have a response mechanism in place. Managers need to document complaints and odd behavior, and make counseling services available.

Nicor, for instance, has an anonymous hotline that people can call to vent steam, discuss personal or work problems, or arrange a confidential counseling session. Moreover, Williams and human resources employees are always available to field tips about other employees' erratic behavior.

Although a tip service can be touchy and people may feel they're ratting on coworkers, it's an important component of a security plan. If used correctly, it can avert dangerous incidents.

"There has to be some tip service within organizations for employees to get word to someone that there's a problem. There's then an extraordinary pressure for the manager with responsibility to take action," notes Zalud.

The response to tips varies on a case-by-case basis and depends on an incident's severity. Some suggested manager responses: Taking note of and monitoring a particular behavior; being on the lookout for repeat performances; and confronting the employee to suggest -- or require -- that he or she enter a counseling program.

"The lawsuits companies often lose involve negligent hiring [not doing background checks] and negligent retention," comments McClure. "The plaintiff argues, 'All of us knew he was a risk, and you, company owner, didn't listen. Now that he has killed my husband and hurt my coworker, we're going to sue you so that none of us have to work again for eight generations.' The legal liability they face should drive property and business owners to action."

"There's nothing better than having policies and procedures in place and clearly communicating those not once, but all the time to employees. Make them aware of what is and is not tolerated, who is not welcome, and what their responsibilities are," says Zalud. "Everyone should be part of the security effort. We should care about each other."

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her background includes editorial positions at Building Design & Construction, an architectural business magazine, and at Realtor magazine, the publication for the National Association of Realtors. She also coauthored Building Design: Improving Commercial Spaces.

Copyright © 2000 Quinlan Publishing Group Inc.