COVID-19 Return to Work Security Considerations
February 8, 2021
We can finally move on from a very difficult 2020 and look with hope to a 2021 that promises to bring us all out of the doldrums of this past year. The COVID-19 vaccine is being implemented in increasingly larger numbers; the post-COVID-19 recovery is underway; and while lingering societal issues remain, I think it is safe to say we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As the recovery gains momentum, businesses of all sizes will recuperate and go back to a new normal dictated by our collective experience in 2020. Many employees will continue to telecommute, numerous others are expected to return to an office setting, and the normal flow of business will restart. While this is good news, unfortunately criminal activity and associated risk will also resume, necessitating a renewed commitment by businesses to maintain a safe and secure workplace. We expect the main security challenges during the recovery and beyond to be threats against employees, assets, and operations, with areas of concern falling in the categories of workplace violence, physical security, and emergency/crisis preparedness.
Protecting People, Assets, and Operations
The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has gone beyond human suffering as companies worldwide of all sizes are feeling the effects of social distancing, mask wearing, and other disease-prevention requirements. This is occurring at a time when the resulting financial hardships have forced many companies to do layoffs and reductions in force (RIFs), and this downsizing trend is likely to continue for some time as companies look to reduce costs.
Having to downsize is a difficult event for most companies under the best of circumstances, and is especially difficult for employees under the current economic conditions. Affected employees losing their jobs face poor prospects of getting new employment elsewhere due to high unemployment and a recovery that will take time to stabilize the economy. As a result, there is a strong possibility of increased numbers of workplace violence incidents as some employees react angrily to being let go and potentially become aggressive or violent when notified of terminations, lay-offs or RIFs.
RIFs are specially concerning from a security perspective because the action represents the elimination of jobs rather than a temporary pause in employment. When planning a RIF, consider following the strategy below to minimize the risk of violence:
- Develop a plan and have it vetted by all relevant stakeholders involved in the action prior to implementation
- Include security consideration in the RIF plan
- Develop and implement a timely communication plan
- Increase security discreetly during the leadup to the RIF and on the actual day of execution
- Be prepared to address workplace violence issues as they come up
- Provide workplace violence training to managers and supervisors, including how to identify triggers and warnings of workplace violence
Plainclothes armed protective agents are common during these events to ensure any security issue can be addressed and to escort employees out if necessary. Protective agents are less noticeable than uniformed guards and more effective, and their presence is less noticeable, thus less confrontational.
Ultimately, the goal should be to remain safe and secure through these difficult job actions, and being prepared is the best way to mitigate issues.
Employee terminations are always difficult situations regardless of the circumstances. This is especially true when the target employee has exhibited workplace violence tendencies that can result in violent behavior during the termination. Understanding the risks a termination represents is the first step in safely and securely letting go.
When planning a termination, there are several steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of violent behavior and prevent workplace violence incidents. Here are some tips Human Resources professionals, managers, and supervisors should keep in mind when planning and executing a termination:
- Handle all terminations in a respectful and thoughtful manner
- Follow all workplace policies and procedures dictated by Human Resources and applicable law
- If a threat of violence is identified, consider having a professional conduct a WPV threat assessment
- The responsible management official should prepare a termination plan considering the specific needs under the circumstances (expected belligerence, non-compliance or other likely issues)
- Purposeful disengagement should be pursued by letting the employee go as gently as possible and without any unnecessary friction
- Security professionals should be utilized during the termination to handle any potential violence
- The termination location should be carefully selected, including the following:
- The room should be private
- A manager’s office should be avoided to conduct terminations
- A conference room is a good setting, especially if it is located close to an exit
- Any items that could be used as a weapon should be removed from the room
A security expert with specific workplace violence expertise should be consulted if internal security and risk mitigation resources are limited.
As businesses get back to work, it is important to revisit the security stance of the company and what can be done to ensure a safe and secure environment. There are two types of companies when it comes to workplace violence: those that have experienced an incident and those that will experience an incident. According to OSHA, approximately two million workers per year are victims of workplace violence. This is probably underestimated as many incidents are not reported.
The best way for a company to mitigate workplace violence is to create and implement a workplace violence prevention and management program. Here are the basic core elements of a workplace violence prevention and mitigation program per OSHA:
- Management commitment and employee participation
- Worksite analysis and hazard identification
- Recordkeeping and program evaluation
- Hazard prevention and control
Developing these core elements into an effective program that can be operationalized takes some work and expertise. The program can be created by internal subject matter experts if the company has such talent on its staff. If this is not the case, an external subject matter expert should be contacted to do this work.
The COVID-19 crisis has created unparalleled challenges for all, but particularly for healthcare facilities. Workplace violence in the form of intimidation, threats, abuse, insults, and even physical aggression against medical personnel are some of the most prevalent and persistent challenges. While these was true even before the COVID-19 crisis, they have been intensified during the pandemic period.
At a minimum, healthcare professionals should consider following the tips below to prevent or handle a situation of violence at work:
- Whenever possible, avoid working alone with patients who have exhibited a propensity for violence
- Practice situational awareness and consider how you can quickly exit an area where an incident of violence or abuse has or could occur
- Ensure you maintain constant communication with coworkers and supervisors and ask for assistance if necessary
- Ask if your facility has a workplace violence prevention program and become familiar with related policies and procedures and what is being done to protect you
- If an incident occurs, move to a safe place and contact facility security and law enforcement for assistance
- Identify “panic” devices in your area or consider carrying one with you, and learn how to use it
Face masks will continue to be necessary for some time into the future but wearing them has not been easy to enforce. When dealing with uncooperative mask wearers, employees should above all do what is necessary to remain safe when a customer or visitor needs to be approached regarding not wearing a mask. Here are some tips to consider when dealing with this problem:
- Communicate your concerns professionally (keep in mind it is not personal)
- Reference the safety needs of both parties- “Wearing a mask is a good idea to keep us both safe from infection.”
- Work to understand their position and show empathy- “I understand wearing a mask is uncomfortable. It takes a while to get used to it.”
- Ask for their help in resolving the issue- “We appreciate you choosing us. How can we resolve this issue so you can get what you need?”
- Seek assistance from a manager
- Consider having an extra supply of masks on hand for individuals who did not bring one
- Present alternatives to the issue – “They are hard to come by, but I happen to have an extra mask you can use today.”
Hostility management and de-escalation techniques are key to successful outcomes during these incidents, and training in these disciplines is recommended for businesses dealing with customers on a routine basis.
The COVID-19 crisis has presented several challenges to businesses that required adapting quickly to changing circumstances. The same will be true during the recovery, to include how to keep assets secure. One of the best ways to improve security and the protection of assets is by having a facility security plan and by conducting a facility physical security assessment.
A facility security plan is important because it helps to document and communicate security policies and procedures, protects the organization from criminal attack, and provides protocols to follow when there is an incident. The plan must be customized to the facility and the priorities of that specific operation. Here are the basic components of a facility security plan per industry best practices and guidelines:
- Facility Profile
- Roles and Responsibilities
- Asset Identification
- Risk Analysis
- Risk Management Strategy
- Security Countermeasures
- Testing Procedures
- Incident Response Management and Procedures
- Facility Specific Policies
- Information Security
- Training and Exercising the Plan
- Plan Review
- Resources Support
This approach is focused on creating an effective plan that will help protect the facility’s people, assets, and operation.
A physical security assessment can be considered the cornerstone of effective security for a facility. It identifies gaps in security and helps correct those gaps supporting security policies such as a facility security plan, crisis management plan, and a workplace violence prevention and mitigation program.
Facilities come in all shapes and sizes, and the security assessment needs to be customized to the facility and priorities of the operation. Here are the basic general components of a physical security assessment:
- Internal and external observations
- Review of existing security countermeasures
- Review of existing security policies and procedures
- Evaluation of security guard services (if applicable)
- Evaluation and analysis of criminal activity in the vicinity of the facility
This assessment can be done with internal resources if the company has security personnel on its staff with the appropriate expertise. If this is not the case, an external subject matter expert should be contacted to do this work.
Man-made emergencies and natural disasters are unpredictable and can wreak havoc on an organization, and maintaining physical and psychological resiliency by being prepared for a potential emergency or disaster is vital. This can be accomplished by creating and implementing a plan to ensure the safety and emotional well-being of your employees, restore damaged property and assets, and recover quickly to resume essential services. This can be accomplished by having emergency preparedness and business continuity plans. Emergency preparedness (EP) refers to the actions your organization can and should take prior, during, and after a natural or manmade disaster or emergency; and business continuity (BC) refers to the planning and execution of actions focused on recovering from the disaster or emergency.
Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity Plans
The scale of the disruption when a disaster or emergency strikes is an unknown but can be anticipated if properly planned for. Preparing EP and BC plans requires knowledge of your organization and the participation of and input from representatives of each department. Creating these plans includes the following general areas:
- Conducting a risk assessment of threats and hazards the organization may face
- Identifying potential points of failure in which a process can fail due to a lack of back up or proper execution
- Creating and standing up a Crisis Management Team (CMT)
- Creating a communication plan
- Having effective emergency response protocols
- Implementing a shelter in place or evacuation plan
- Having a process to account for all employees and assets
- Creating a plan and standing up a disaster recovery team
- Identifying essential organizational functions and how those can be back in operation within a predetermined amount of time after the disaster or emergency
- Identifying, protecting, and having access to essential organizational assets such as intellectual property, negotiable instruments, critical documents, etc.
- Having contingencies for an alternate workspace
Developing these core elements into an effective program takes a bit of work and expertise. The program can be created by internal subject matter experts If the company has such talent on its staff. If this is not the case, an external subject matter expert should be contacted to do this work.