UW News

May 3, 2007

Questions and answers on workplace violence

Editor’s Note: The murder of Rebecca Griego here at the UW and the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech University have brought issues of workplace violence and safety into the national spotlight. The following, submitted to University Week, is a discussion with two key UW administrators — UW Police Chief Vicky Stormo and Mindy Kornberg, vice president for human resources — who comment on the UW’s reaction to these events, and how employees can maintain a safe working environment.

Q & A with UW Police Chief Vicky Stormo

Q. Violence in higher education institutions is in everyone’s thoughts. What should members of the University community know to maintain a safe work and educational environment?

A. Learning how to best avoid or prevent violence in an open environment like a higher education institution is an ongoing process. In recent years we have seen acts of unpredicted violence in public schools and higher education.

The UWPD, Student Life and Human Resources are working together to develop strategies that will be effective. Most importantly, all members of the University community — students, faculty and staff — must be aware of and report situations where the potential for violence is a concern. We want to learn of situations that may present a potential for violence, and constructively intervene to avert violent behavior from taking place.

For intervention to be successful, it is critically important that members of the University community report concerns about situations where they believe there is a potential for violence. The University’s Policy and Procedure on Workplace Violence (http://www.washington.edu/admin/hr/polproc/work-violence/index.html) not only makes it clear that violent behavior is not tolerated at the UW, it establishes a reporting process to allow timely evaluation and action. In short, if you have a concern, report it. The policy describes the reporting process.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but everyone should immediately call 911 to report any situation that presents an immediate threat to oneself or others.

Q. Are there particular patterns of behavior that people should look for in assessing a potential for violence?

A. There are warning signs that should be taken seriously. These warning signs are described on the Faculty/Supervisor’s Workplace Violence Checklist that we have developed with Human Resources (http://www.washington.edu/admin/hr/polproc/work-violence/wpb-supchklst.pdf). People may exhibit several of the warning signs on the list, and their behavior may escalate to more serious behavior because of different events or stressors in their life. It is rare that someone would explode into extreme behavior before exhibiting some other warning signs first. We want to know about people exhibiting these signs so that we can make an appropriate assessment and intervene if necessary.

Q. Is the University taking particular action in response to recent incidents? Can you tell us what that is?

A. The President has asked Mindy Kornberg, vice president for human resources, to lead an advisory committee on violence. The committee will recommend any action that it finds would improve our assessment of and response to situations having a potential for becoming violent.

Q & A with Vice President for Human Resources Mindy Kornberg

Q. What role does UW Human Resources play in administering the UW’s Policy and Procedure on Workplace Violence?

A. One of Human Resources’ concerns and areas of expertise is helping managers and supervisors ensure that employees are performing successfully. Through our HR service teams we are in direct contact with departmental managers when there may be concern about an employee’s job performance or behavior. Human Resources is well positioned to learn about concerns early and to help develop appropriate response plans.

It is because of our experience and working relationships that the UW Policy and Procedure on Workplace Violence requires supervisors, faculty and managers who receive reports of violent or threatening behavior to notify the head of their unit and telephone their human resources consultant. In the absence of their human resources consultant, they must ask to speak with another human resource official in the office. This practice provides the best opportunity for a timely response to incidents.

Q. What happens when Human Resources receives a report of a potentially violent situation?

A. We have one Human Resource staff member who is designated as our workplace violence coordinator. She and other officials attend weekly workplace violence assessment meetings that include a UWPD representative. The team reviews cases and develops action plans. If a matter is more urgent, but does not require immediate police response, meetings of the workplace violence assessment team can be convened as necessary.

This is why, as Chief Stormo emphasized, early reporting is critical. The earlier we can consider a case the more likely we are to be able to address and resolve it before it escalates.

Q. What can you tell us about the advisory committee President Emmert asked you to lead?

A. We have not met yet, but will be doing so in the near future. We will critically examine our own practices and recommend improvement where necessary. We will look at other organizations to make sure we understand what the best thinking and best practices are on how to avoid violence in the university environment.

We want to make sure that the University community understands our reporting process, and we will want to make sure that our response to reported incidents is as effective as possible. The advisory committee will present to the President a report with our recommendations.

Q. Is there anything in particular that either of you would like to add?

Chief Stormo: Our faculty, students and staff should remember that violent incidents in our environment remain rare and that our community is a remarkably safe one. It is the intrusion of violence into an otherwise peaceful and respectful setting that makes it all the more traumatic.

It has been said before but it bears repeating: Members of our community should be aware of their surroundings and the people around them. They should be aware of the kind of behavior that indicates that a person may be having problems. They should report any persons or behavior that presents a concern.

VP Kornberg: Our practices will evolve and improve. Ten years ago the UW did not have a policy and procedure on workplace violence, and we did not have an assessment team. Ten years from now we hope we will be able to look back and see this as a time where violent incidents peaked, and that our ability to assess and respond to incidents will have been successful at maintaining the kind of environment we all want to learn and work in.