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Helping Employees Cope

WHEN MELISSA, an employee, first came to the security department for help, she was anxious and obviously hadn’t slept well. Upset to the point of tears, Melissa told me she was being harassed by a person whose child had been fighting with Melissa’s child at school.

After the school fight between her child and the harasser’s, Melissa and her family had been threatened, both in person and from regular and vicious phone calls at home and at work. Her frustration, anger, and fear were evident.

The harassment was affecting every part of her day. And since the calls were also coming into work, this issue became a company matter. The task before security became how to help Melissa deal with her harasser and how to protect other employees. However, the situation also offered an opportunity to impart lessons on victim prevention that could help Melissa avoid suffering the same fate again.

It is not easy to quantify the extent to which the workplace is affected when an employee or a member of their household is victimized. While some studies suggest only one person in 50 misses a week or more of work during or after any type of victimization experience, statistics cannot account for the days taken off under other pretenses by an embarrassed victim or the time wasted on legal issues. Also unaccounted for is the time a crime victim spends distracted at work while worrying about repeat victimization, court proceedings, and his or her own general sense of security.

Being the victim of crime can be an overwhelming experience, even when the victim is lucky enough to suffer minimal loss or harm. For some, the actual crime is just the beginning of the ordeal. As security professionals who come from law enforcement know, the criminal justice system is difficult to navigate, which can add to a victim’s stress.

Security professionals cannot protect employees around the clock. We can’t influence their choice of spouse or friends, or sway them from residing in a questionable area if that is all their personal finances allow. And as much as we’d like to, we can’t pick their children’s friends and enemies. We can, however, help employees develop good personal security habits, educate them with real crime statistics and trends, and be a resource for them after victimization to prevent repeat incidents.

Program Benefits

The first step is to establish a formal victim prevention program within the security department. But before that can be done, top management must be sold on the importance of devoting some of security’s limited resources to victim prevention, even though most of the crimes employees face will take place away from work.

In selling senior executives on the value of the program, security should note how teaching employees to avoid victimization during their time away from work will help them form habits that will enhance security in the workplace. Offering employees sound advice on personal security, such as how to secure their homes properly when traveling on vacation, can help make them more cognizant of the need to protect company assets.

Further, every manager is concerned with keeping a high level of employee engagement on the job. Helping employees recover quickly from a negative event will get them back on the job and fully contributing in less time.

The victim prevention program can help establish good communications and trust between employees and the security staff, which will make staff more likely to turn to security to report concerns about work crime. Such trust can also be invaluable when security needs data from employees. For example, if security sponsors a lunchtime speaker on domestic violence, a potential victim is more likely to either ask for additional advice from security or contact an employee assistance program. And once the employee gets help, that assistance will lessen the likelihood of a domestic issue spilling over into a workplace violence incident, which could endanger many more innocent victims.

Program Specifics

Victim awareness programs can take many forms, but the following components are essential. The program must include individualized attention, procedures for notifying law enforcement, and informational efforts.

Individual attention. If the first outreach from the employee is caused by a specific incident that takes place at work, it’s imperative that a security manager visit the victim as soon as possible and no later than the very next business day. After getting all the details of the incident, the next step is to manage expectations. For example, if money or personal items have been taken and it is unlikely that the victim will see the stolen property again, the security representative should say so. Sometimes victims, even in the smallest of events, just need to hear someone say “move on” in a sympathetic way so that they can get back to work.

The security department contact should then offer any pertinent advice on preventing a second occurrence. This must be handled delicately. The last thing security wants to do is blame the victim. The key is to help the employee learn what role his or her actions played in the incident.

For example, if property has been stolen, security can ask if the employee has access to a locking desk drawer. How the question is phrased is also important. Asking “Have you been provided with a key to your file cabinet?” is better than “You should lock your personal items away.” The first phrase empowers the employee while the second one sounds like an accusation.

In Melissa’s case, because the problem originated outside of work, we handled the incident in terms of its possible implications. Threats made by phone into the workplace are workplace violence. The case was handled directly by senior security staff members, who built a rapport with Melissa as quickly as possible and checked in with her regularly to see whether additional calls had been received.

Notifying authorities. The solid and active relationships security must forge with local law enforcement should be used in the victim prevention program. If an employee comes to you with a concern about being a victim outside of the workplace, it is helpful to have a law enforcement contact who can join you on the phone with the victim to talk about whether the incident rises to the level of a crime, what agency is best to give a report to if necessary, and what may happen down the road.

The more common practice is for the security professional to tell the potential victim to go to the police and file a report. They seldom do. By facilitating the contact between the victim and law enforcement, the security department can make sure the report gets filed. That’s important because the incident may not be isolated, and the local police may need the information to make a case. In Melissa’s situation, by contacting law enforcement she learned that her harasser was known to police and had a history of intimidating others. This knowledge helped Melissa feel empowered and the information that Melissa gave the police helped them as well.

Providing information. In addition to telling employees about petty crimes that occur in the workplace, security should also notify them of external issues. The department Web site can serve as a portal for Amber Alerts, local articles on unsolved crimes, and even daily reports from local police departments, each of which provides useful information to employees. When consistently posted, such articles can also increase hits to the department’s site, which will provide an opportunity to put other corporate security information in front of those same viewers.

Security can also share with employees information obtained from the police, the courts, and even state corrections authorities. Many victim advocacy groups and county prosecutors’ offices have published brochures and other materials on what a crime victim should expect when navigating the system. By relying on this approved information, the department also ensures that the victims do not mistake the resources for legal advice.

Providing such information not only educates the victim, it also reduces his or her stress, because it helps the person feel more in control and more confident that the situation will be resolved. In Melissa’s case, information on personal protection orders, coupled with a handoff to the court clerk’s office, proved valuable in giving her some peace of mind. Security also gave her articles and Web sites on school bullying and directed her to school resources. Security then provided practical advice on reporting all incidents, maintaining all evidence, such as voice mails or other harassing communications, and implementing basic home security principles.

Apart from any one-on-one assistance that security renders to victims, the department should spread the word about the availability of its victim assistance and crime prevention awareness services. Security should inform human resources of the program and also get the word out to senior managers, employee assistance coordinators, and administrative groups.

We learned that Melissa was unsure whether to contact security about a problem taking place outside the office. After talking to her, we took more steps to better publicize security’s contacts, capabilities, and experience in handling sensitive matters, such as reaching out to human resources and other department managers.

Employees step out into the real world every day, yet we routinely focus our security awareness on site-based risks and threats, ignoring the vast amount of time spent away from work and the potential business impact of victimization. Working with employees through victim assistance programs can reduce the potential for repeat occurrences and help victims and their coworkers stay safe and focused on their jobs.

Brian P. Wisneski, CPP, is senior manager of physical security for Pfizer’s US/Canada Operations. He is currently pursuing a Master of Criminal Justice degree at Boston University.