What are the chances that your company will experience an act or a threat of violence? Like most CEOs of small companies, you probably think the odds are pretty slim. So why should you consider developing a workplace-violence prevention program?

"There's a myth that there are violent people out there who suddenly explode," says Charles E. Labig, author of Preventing Violence in the Workplace (AMACOM, 800-262-9699, 1995, $24.95). "But that's almost never the case. Violence is situational, and people usually escalate in response to the environment they're in." Because it's often difficult to predict or control the events that precipitate violence, you need to develop a strategy for responding to incidents before they actually occur. If creating a safe workplace isn't motivation enough, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can be counted on to give you a little extra incentive: increasingly, the Feds are cracking down on companies for failing to protect employees from sources of violence.

Mark Braverman, principal of Crisis Management Group, in Newton, Mass., suggests that companies adopt "zero tolerance" policies for workplace violence. "You have to make it clear that no threat will be tolerated, and all incidents must be reported to top management," he says. How you proceed once a threat has been made is a delicate issue, and one that's best discussed with a workplace-violence expert and your lawyer. While most experts say it's best to keep the employee who made the threat on the job, where his or her behavior can be monitored, you must also be aware that, should a serious incident occur, you could be liable for "negligent retention."

Above all, experts caution small-company managers not to assume that violence is a big-company problem. James Madero, a psychologist at Scripps Center International, a San Diego-based company specializing in workplaceviolence prevention, just helped set up a program at a 30-employee software company where people were feeling threatened by a coworker's estranged spouse. At another small business, a California market-research company, an employee recently shot and critically wounded a coworker. The president has since hired a part-time human-resources specialist with whom employees can meet during a two-hour period every day. "When you're small and you don't have an HR department, there can be confusion about whom employees should talk to if there's a complaint," the president says. "We make it really clear that this is someone outside the day-to-day business that employees can talk to." She is also much more rigorous about background checks, drilling prospective employees on why they've left other companies and searching for gaps in employment.