Crisis management: Keep calm and carry on

Defusing potentially violent situations in the workplace is something that all employers need to be prepared for. Phil Boucher talks to those taking a proactive approach.

Most employers have to deal with angry customers and irate members of staff at some stage, but very few go down the route of some London schools and hire nightclub bouncers and ex-soldiers as cover in response, as reported at the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference in April.

Yet this doesn’t mean employers and their HR departments can stand still in the face of workplace aggression.

In 2007-08, the Health and Safety Executive calculate that 6,170 injuries were caused by violence at work. The British Crime Survey (BCS) also indicates that UK workers endured more than 397,000 threats of violence and 288,000 physical assaults by members of the public in 2006-07. These resulted in four fatalities, 932 major injuries and 5,468 injuries requiring a minimum of three days’ absence from work.

Duty of care

For the most part these attacks were directed against public-facing organisations such as the police and NHS, but this is an issue that all employers need to address – not least because they have a legal duty to take reasonable care for the wellbeing of their staff.

“Whether you are talking about a hospital or train journey, organisations have to ask ‘what are we doing to reduce conflict?’,” says Bill Fox, chairman of conflict management specialists Maybo.

Within Transport for London (TfL) this question has already been answered thanks to a ‘violence audit’ carried out by the HR team in 2001.

It revealed aggression against TfL staff to be a far bigger problem than imagined, despite the organisation historically collecting mountains of data on the issue. As a direct result, the joint London Underground/British Transport Police Workplace Violence Unit (WVU) was set up in 2006 to address physical violence, threats and abuse against TfL’s 10,000 staff.

“Our three aims are to improve the level and standard of staff assault investigation, to enhance care to victims, and ensure that more cases are successfully prosecuted,” says WVU manager Aiden Harris.

Staff training

A key part of this has been the introduction of staff training in defusing techniques, where each member of the TfL workforce is taught to use their body language and vocal tones to prevent arguments from escalating. At the same time, a wider programme of cultural change is underway to help nip potential problems in the bud by training staff to focus as much on customer service as shunting carriages around as efficiently as possible. Tube drivers and platform staff now make announcements whenever a train stops for longer than 30 seconds in a tunnel, and provide regular updates on service levels across the Underground network.

“It is all designed to try to defuse tension, because at the end of the day it is the poor person on the station gate who’s likely to get it in the neck,” adds Harris.

Yet one of TfL’s most important innovations has been even more basic than this: spit kits. These were introduced in 2004 to tackle the problem of irate passengers spitting at TfL staff, and contain a swab stick and sterile bag so staff can take a sample of the saliva and send it off to the police national database for analysis. It may sound disgusting, but the kits have helped trace 70% of culprits and are now being used by London Buses and a number of other rail companies.

Crucially, TfL rigorously prosecutes any offenders it catches and keeps staff informed as the cases progresses. It firmly delivers the message that management is prepared to do more than simply make policies and introduce training: they are also willing and able to take action when an incident occurs.

Conflict management

“Very often this is the weak link,” says John Crawley, director of training and consultancy at workplace mediation firm Conflict Management Plus. “Many companies have a protocol to deal with violent incidents and really good material to debrief people afterwards, but fall down because they don’t rehearse what to do if something actually goes wrong.”

The consequences of not maintaining this link between policy and action can be seen in the NHS. According to the latest Health Commission staff survey, more than one in 10 NHS workers (12%) experienced physical violence from patients or their relatives in 2008, while nearly one-quarter (23%) experienced bullying, harassment and verbal abuse from patients, and 18% from either their line manager or colleagues.

The level of physical violence against NHS staff has now failed to improve for four years in a row, despite record numbers of workers being trained to handle abuse – 28% of staff took training in prevention of violence and aggression techniques, up from 26% in 2007.

Lack of support

David Guest, professor of organisational psychology and HR management at London’s King’s College Hospital, suggests the disparity is being created by two main factors: a feeling of a lack of support from the NHS hierarchy, so staff don’t believe their reports are going to be taken seriously; plus a lack of faith in the existing systems to address any problems they do flag up.

Through studying a string of south London NHS trusts as part of the Workforce Programme for Patient Safety and Service Quality Research, Guest believes this is now partly responsible for increased stress levels, lower job satisfaction, raised staff turnover and reduced commitment among NHS staff.

“You can get all the policies in place, do all the right things and tick all the HR boxes, but if you look at the divisions within an NHS trust – one section deals with cardiac, one deals with cancers and so on – HR has rather little control over ensuring that they implement these policies,” says Guest.

“It’s not a question of just training staff and having these wonderful policies in place, but of HR making sure it is being effectively implemented through the ranks of middle and junior management.”

Or put another way: if you talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk.

Case study: West Midlands Police

West Midlands Police currently has no policy for tackling hate crime against its officers or support staff. This is about to change thanks to an initiative at the Solihull Operations Command Unit, which has seen HR and police team up to tackle the issue.

Personnel manager Julie Richardson has been closely involved and is currently writing a policy that will be rolled out across the West Midlands force by the end of the year.

“We looked at the support we gave to staff and realised there wasn’t anything,” she says. “So we developed a system where staff can talk both to me and the unit commander about their issues and receive confidential help that’s linked to victim support. As hate crime is a shock for most police staff and something they are really not used to, our priority has been to show that we take it very seriously as a management team.”

Inspector Neil Thomas adds: “Part of every police officer’s personal safety training involves the conflict resolution model, which starts off with negotiations to verbally defuse a situation and gradually moves on.

“However, police staff don’t receive the same training, so we are looking at doing an NVQ in customer services in the hope it will enable them to defuse situations at an earlier stage.

“We are also looking at giving detention escort officers within our custody suites a similar NVQ, as a lot of the conflict occurs within the confines of the custody block. It is looking to bring in a little bit of common sense and standardisation to the overall approach.”

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