James Davis | HR Daily Advisor

At the recent #SHRM2018, I attended a session entitled “Addressing Prescription Overuse in the Workplace,” given by Norbert J. Alicea, Executive Vice President with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life Services, and Raffi Terzian, the Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations and Senior Medical Director at Health Advocate. Their session addressed the astounding and alarming impact that addiction has on the workplace.

Much of the session was eye-opening and deeply concerning. Perhaps one of the most powerful things that Alicea said was that “People lose their family 5 years before they lose their job, it’s the last thing to go.” Addicts on average experienced destruction because of their addiction for at least 5 years before their addiction cost them their jobs. That’s 5 years that an addict would, at the very least, be underperforming at work and, at worse, be destructive to his or her organization.

I can’t think of a better way to characterize how important it can be to address addiction in the workplace.

The Numbers

The session covered a wealth of facts and figures. Here are a few that were presented, all about 2016:

  • 116 people died every day from opioid overdose—over 42,000 a year.
  • 2,100,000 people misused prescription opioids for the first time.
  • The economic cost due to opioid misuse and overdose was $504,000,000,000 (2015).
  • The total cost for opioid addiction and overdose treatment for enrollees in large employer plans was $2,628,000,000. In 2006, it was $278,000,000, just shy of a 10-fold increase.

While opioid deaths and new opioid addictions grow every year, and while organizations lose resources and productivity, employees who are abusing drugs continue to work. The numbers above are just a tiny slice of the true impact of opioid and prescription drug use and abuse. But how do they specifically influence the individual workplace?

Alicea and Terzian explained that, according to the National Safety Council, employees who abuse drugs are 2–5 times more likely to:

  • Take unexcused absences.
  • Be late for work.
  • Quit or be fired within 1 year of employment.
  • Be involved in workplace incidents.
  • File workers’ compensation claims.

Those costs add up very quickly with just one employee struggling with substance abuse at work and even faster if there are multiple abusers.

Addiction Is a Disease

Terzian introduced the session by saying, “We have to view opioid use through the lens of addiction. It’s not a moral failing, it’s a brain disease.” Both presenters repeated this statement many times because it’s that important. Alicea elaborated, “I’ve never run into the person who wants to be an addict in 25 years.”

The image of a hooded figure slumped in an alleyway with a needle in his or her arm does not represent the clear majority of prescription drug abusers. Most are now, or were, like everyday people, with families, lives, and careers. The difference? They have a powerful addiction, and without help, they will succumb to it.

The Red Flags of Addiction

If employers are to help, they need to be able to identify the warning signs of a drug abuser. Alicea exclaimed, “I’d bet every person in this room, in this conference, across the states, knows someone with a substance abuse problem. We all know at least one person. But if I asked that question, we won’t see a lot of hands go up. That’s the power of denial.” The presenters also mentioned that drug abusers’ fellow employees know about substance abuse problems long before the employers do. How? Because the warning signs are visible to those who know them best.

The more of the following red flags that an employee exhibits, the “greater the probability of an issue,” said Alicea.

Monday and Friday absenteeism—Users who have kept it together for the workweek might be hurting to use their drug of choice unimpeded or be spent from using over the weekend.

Absenteeism the day after payday—These habits are expensive. Payday might be the only time a user can afford to purchase his or her drugs.

General tardiness and/or absenteeism—Especially opioids can drain users of energy and make it difficult for them to come to work on time, or at all.

Poor quality of work and/or poor quantity of work—If a user can’t use at work, he or she might be experiencing the beginning of withdrawal. If he or she can use at work, the effects of the drugs have an equally distracting effect. Either way, his or her work will be affected.

Theft—The power of addiction leads many to make choices that you or I would never consider, especially if they are struggling to pay for their habit. Stealing equipment and other goods and money from work can help fund their addiction.

If drug abusers’ fellow workers know about their cohorts’ drug problems, “they are looking to see what HR or a manager is doing about this problem,” says Alicea. By not addressing the problem, what message is the company sending to its drug-abusing employees, never mind its loyal and clean employees?

Drug Abusers Know Where to Apply

Alicea said, “people who use drugs and alcohol know exactly where to go and apply for a job. They know.” What does that mean for employers that don’t drug-test new employees? It means a high probability that the workplace will experience continuous problems from drug-abusing employees. After the session, I asked Alicea and Terzian about that phenomena. They related to me a few examples of organizations that, for various reasons, wanted to avoid preemployment drug tests. “And they wonder why they constantly have problems,” said Alicea.

What Can You Do?

Once an employer realizes that employees who abuse opioids and other prescription and illegal drugs need help, it can begin to find a way to administer that help.

“A lot of companies had zero-tolerance policies. A lot of them are doing away with it, and I’m all in favor of a second chance,” said Alicea. He explained, “If you have an employee who worked for you for 10 years and they are relatively good, and they end up testing positive, and you terminate them—you don’t know if the new person has a problem, too, and you lose all of that knowledge.”

Alicea said the best way to help is to offer employees a one-time chance to get clean through a program (and prove it after the program is over) or be fired. Work, he said, represents a critical part of many people’s identity. Remember, by the time they are potentially losing their jobs, many drug abusers have already pushed their friends and family out of their lives. Their work identity might be all they have left. And that can be a powerful motivator, says Alicea. That makes them decent candidates for rehabilitation.=

Alicea said, “by threatening the job, the core values of a person, that person has a high probability of success in making the change provided that it’s monitored.” He focused heavily on the value of monitoring and reinforced it when we talked after the session. He said, “the success rate in treatment today is really, really low. But if you have someone monitoring that person for 90-120 days after the treatment, the rate is really, really high.” The reason is that they know that if they don’t follow through with aftercare, they will lose their job—their core personality—and that’s too much.

The Takeaway

This topic is incredibly complicated; the research is far from complete; and even with treatment, drug abusers have very real challenges ahead. If you deal with substance abusers at your organization—and it’s just a matter of time before you do—it behooves you to explore how you can help those people.

Employers must be aware of drug abuse

By Chrstine Hansen | The Daily Record (Md.)

In a 2017 survey conducted by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating preventable deaths at work, more than 70 percent of employers in the U.S. have been impacted by prescription drugs. The prescription drug epidemic in the U.S. is far-reaching, and costs organizations billions of dollars each year. Yet, only 19 percent of employers feel extremely prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse, according to the survey.

Navigating Maryland laws regarding drug abuse is somewhat tricky, says Brian Markovitz, a Beltsville-based labor and employment attorney at Joseph, Greenwald & Lake. While Markovitz largely focuses on helping victims who have suffered severe injustice in the workplace, he says when it comes to drug abuse in the workplace, employers should take immediate action.

“If you have anyone abusing drugs, you fire them. If they are currently abusing drugs, you can’t have someone working there. You just don’t know what they will do,” Markovitz says. Under current Maryland law, employers can drug test their employees, as long as it is a “legitimate business reason.” The law dictates the procedures for testing, confidentiality and other procedures. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act has provisions that may protect workers who have been rehabilitated or in recovery.

“You cannot discriminate against anyone because they used to be a drug abuser,” says Markovitz. “If they have a history, and they are rehabilitated, they are protected by the ADA.” Markovitz says the courts are not super clear on what constitutes being in recovery or rehabilitated, especially how long of a period an employee has not been on drugs. That’s why he says it needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. Employers also have to keep liability in mind.

“These drugs in particular are so addictive, and it takes a certain amount of income to keep getting these drugs. Sometimes people are so desperate, they will do things you don’t want,” Markovitz says.

Bert Alicea, a licensed psychologist and vice president of employee assistance programs at West’s Health Advocate Solutions says employers should not only make their drug policies clear, but to also make all resources – wellness programs and services – easily available so employees know how and where to access them.

He and his colleague, Dr. Raffi Terzian, a board-certified emergency physician, senior vice president of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate, recently presented at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference on the topic of opioids and the workplace.

“A lot of attention has been placed on the opioid crisis and it’s a critical public health problem – specifically, prescription opioid use, misuse and abuse,” Terzian says.

Alicea and Terzian recommend employers develop clear guidelines on their drug policies. Eighty-one percent of employers lack a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy, according to the National Safety Council survey. That shouldn’t prevent employers from developing guidelines says Alicea. The U.S. Department of Transportation has one of the best.

“DOT’s guidelines really are the gold standard of guidelines. It includes clear policies on testing and is a legal- and federally-mandated policy,” Alicea says.

What makes the Department of Transportation’s drug testing policy stand out is its inclusion of the testing of opioids. According to the National Safety Council’s survey, 41 percent of those who drug test all employees are not testing for synthetic opioids at all.

Recognizing the signs of opioid use and abuse are key. Employers should provide training programs for managers and supervisors and provide a safe anonymous place for all staff to report potential issues.

“Turn this from an ‘I’ issue into a ‘we’ issue. It takes a village – not just the chief – to raise levels of awareness,” Alicea says.

Alicea believes employers should, in addition to substance abuse training, consider adding “reasonable suspicion” training for managers and supervisors. This training prepares supervisors on how to appropriately and effectively identify possible substance abuse in the workplace, and what to do when they suspect it. Reasonable suspicion training also helps mitigate potential liability for companies. While slurred speech, staggering walk, lack of concentration and sleepiness may be signs of substance abuse or misuse, there may be other signs an employee is struggling, such as excessive tardiness or absences.

Overall, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, says Marc Engel, a Bethesda-based partner and employment attorney at Lerch Early Brewer. Engel represents for-profit and nonprofit employers in employment claims, and with more than 30 years of litigation and counseling experience, is a sought-after speaker on employment issues.

“Employers need to be careful. It’s a delicate balance of empathy for an employee versus taking appropriate steps to ensure an employee’s actions do not harm them or others in the workplace,” he says.

By Dave Shadovitz | HR Executive

The workplace is the perfect place for intervention, experts suggest.

Attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference who were in search of some disturbing numbers weren’t disappointed during a Monday morning session on the opioid crisis titled “Addressing Prescription Overuse in the Workplace.”

Below are just a sampling of figures fitting that description. They were shared by Health Advocates’ Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations Raffi Terzian and Vice President of EAP+Work/Life Services Norbert Alicea at SHRM’s gathering in Chicago this week:

  • In 2016, 11.8 million people abused prescription medication;
  • 116 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses;
  • More than 70 percent of employers are impacted by prescription drugs;
  • Prescription-painkiller abuse costs employers almost $42 billion due to loss of productivity; and
  • Providers wrote nearly a quarter of a million opioid prescriptions in 2013, enough for every American adult to have his or her own bottle of pills.

Employers are worried—and rightfully so. A recent study by the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit association of more than 420 large U.S. employers, found that eight in 10 employers were concerned about the opioid crisis at work, Terzian said. Yet despite this fact, he added, only 30 percent of them reported they have restrictions in place for prescription opioids.

(NBGH issued a recommendation earlier this week that employers work with their health plans and pharmacy-benefits managers to ensure they are implementing national guidelines for prescribing opioids.)

Alicea addressed the necessity for more thorough training so managers and supervisors are better equipped to recognize the red flags. They need to be able to identify the early warning signs, such as absenteeism on Mondays and Fridays (or the day after a payday), lateness, poor quality of work, theft and morale, he said. (He also touched on this topic in a brief video recorded at the conference. See below.)

Workers, he said, often know long before HR that a person has an issue, and they’re looking to see what HR is doing or what the manager or supervisor is going to do about this troubling problem.

“I can’t even tell you how many times an HR person has called me about a problem employee who has tested positive, even though it has been going on for five years,” said Alicea, adding that the problem often has less to do with the employee and more to do with the manager or supervisor who has allowed it to continue.

“HR needs to help the managers and supervisors understand that this is a real issue and teach them how to supportively confront employees, including what to say and what not to say,” Alicea said. “That’s where HR can come in as a partner, helping them focus on identifying the early warning signals and helping them remain objective.”

HR also needs to educate them on the barriers they are likely to run into and how they may be enabling the problem to continue.

“I always tell managers and supervisors to use ‘I’ messages,” said Alicea. “When you’re speaking to an individual about work-performance issues, stay away from those blame statements that include the word ‘you.’ ‘You need help. You have an alcohol or substance-abuse problem.’ I think it’s a lot better that they take a step back and address it as, ‘We have a problem. The organization has a problem. We are concerned about your work-performance issues and, based on what we have observed in the last hour, we’re going to send you for a medical evaluation, which includes a drug and alcohol test.’ ”

Employers have a critical role to play in addressing the opioid crisis at work, Alicea said. “Think about it for a second: What’s the second or third question that you’re asked in a social situation? ‘How are you, how’s the family, how’s the job?’ Whether we love our job or hate it, we all take pride in it.”

By threatening a person’s job, he explained, you’re threatening the “core values” of that individual and therefore have a much higher probability of success.

“If you have an employee who’s worked for you for 10 years—and they’re a relatively good employee, and they end up testing positive—to terminate that employee, retrain another employee, and then go ahead and hire that [other employee who could also have a substance-abuse problem] will cost you more money in the long run than to give that person an opportunity for rehabilitation by putting them on a last-chance agreement,” Alicea said.

The workplace is “the perfect place for the intervention, better than any place else in the world,” he said.

By Nick Otto | Employee Benefit News

Employers weighing how to deal with substance abuse issues among their workforce are facing an expensive task as the cost of abuse continues to skyrocket from healthcare costs and lost productivity.

“We’re all aware and have come to understand this has become a major public health crisis on a national, state and community levels,” said Raffi Terzian, senior VP of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate.

The cost burden for people with employer-based healthcare coverage saw an eight-fold increase since 2004, Terzian said Monday, speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference here.

Employees who often abuse drugs are two to five times more likely take unexcused absences, quit or be fired within one year of employment or be involved in workplace incidents, he added.

But Terzian points to recent National Business Group on Health data that shows only 21% of employers have programs in place to help manage prescription opioid abuse.

And for employers looking to put a program in place, or beef up existing programs, Norbert J. Alicea, executive vice president of EAP+ Work/life services at Health Advocate says managers need to focus on the red flags and early warning signals — both physical and behavioral — of substance abuse.

Among some of the early warning symbols, he says, are frequent absenteeism on days like Monday or Friday, or drastic increases in tardiness and use of sick leave.

“Also look for a change in morale among colleagues,” he added. “Employees know long before HR knows that a person has an issue.”

In addition, Alicea advised employers to train managers to focus on these early warning signs and teach them how to supportively confront workers.

“Use ‘I messages.’ Stay away from blame statements which are ‘you need help’ and instead ones like ‘I am concerned,’” he said. “Managers and supervisors struggle with tact. It isn’t so much what they say, but how they say it, and that’s where HR can come in and assist them with that conversation.”

In addition to employee engagement in combating substance abuse, Alicea said many employers are also taking steps to change culture, such as moving away from a zero tolerance policy.

From a financial standpoint, it is 4 to 5 times better to offer rehabilitation for workers than to terminate, hire and retain new talent, he added.

He also says employer scan take more proactive approaches to stemming the stigma around substance abuse. Alcohol awareness month, suicide prevention numbers … create visibility around the topics and engage workers, he added.

Join Health Advocate at one of the nation’s leading HR conferences. Bert Alicea, Executive Vice President, Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life Services, and Dr. Raffi Terzian, Senior Medical Director at Health Advocate, will co-present a timely presentation, Addressing Prescription Overuse in the Workplace on Monday, June 18, 2018 at 10:45 AM CT.

By Lisa Roepe | SHRM

Shootings and other violent attacks are a sad reality of the world we live in—and the workplace is no safe haven.

Mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Fla., dominate the news in the days that follow. And while violent incidents in the workplace don’t always generate national headlines, they are every bit as devastating to the victims and their loved ones. For instance, a UPS driver opened fire on his co-workers last June, killing three and injuring five, at a warehouse in San Francisco. That same month, a former employee returned to an Orlando factory where he once worked and shot and killed five former colleagues. In Raynham, Mass., a man was arrested for attempted murder after he stabbed his supervisor in the neck with a box cutter following an apparent argument in September.

Each year, an average of nearly 2 million American workers report having been a victim of violence at work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of annual workplace homicides at about 400.

“You can’t go a week or two without some sort of incident,” says Bethany Holliday, SHRM-CP, human resources director at Cornerstone Insurance Group in St. Louis.

“HR professionals need to recognize that this is the world we live in right now,” adds Bob Kolasky, acting deputy undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for protecting the nation’s physical and cyber infrastructure.

Recognition is only the first step. In most organizations, it’s HR’s responsibility to make sure workers know how to stay safe in the face of a threat. And with a steady stream of violent workplace episodes occurring, it is more important than ever to train employees to respond appropriately. Their lives may depend on it.

Training Workers

The most effective prevention plan is one that is put in place long before trouble occurs. Employees need to understand what to do in an emergency and what the company’s response will be. “No one responds well to a situation that they aren’t prepared for,” says Martha L. Boyd, shareholder at the law firm Baker Donelson in Nashville.

While there aren’t any formal government standards in place for training workers, it’s a good idea to provide instruction. Most experts recommend teaching people to run, hide or fight—in that preferred order.

“We train people to do whatever they feel they can do at the time, so they feel empowered,” says Jeff Owens, SHRM-CP, assistant director of human resources at Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma. “We tell them to assess the situation. If they feel there is a path to escape, it’s always better to run to safety.” If they don’t believe they can get out safely, they know to hide.

If they can’t hide and are exposed, they should pick up whatever is nearby—chairs, books, a fire extinguisher—and throw it at the assailant, Owens says. While the guidance used to be to stand down, most trainers today encourage anyone caught in the open to say “we’re not dying today” and put up a fight—an approach endorsed by the Homeland Security Department a few years ago. The exception typically is workplaces in which there are other people who can’t fight back and who may be put at risk, such as hospitals and assisted living facilities. Yet many schools adopt this approach, which is why at least once a year, Tulsa Community College employees can take training that includes discussions of potential threat scenarios, a graphic instruction video or role-playing with campus security staff.

The training may be disturbing to some people, but Owens believes it is helpful. “In the instance of violence, workers may never know how they are going to react,” he says. Some may sit down and cry, for example, while others run straight for the exits. Role-playing could help people prepare for how they might respond by exposing them, in a safe environment, to what may take place in a time of crisis, Owens explains. While the training is not mandatory, it is encouraged.

“The phenomenon of active assailants is frightening and understandably uncomfortable to discuss,” says Kolasky, whose office offers free resources to help companies prepare their workforces for violent incidents. But, he adds, preparation is about “giving people the knowledge to make the right decisions, before help arrives, to protect themselves and their co-workers if they suddenly find themselves in a bad situation.”

Looking for Red Flags

Use pre-employment background checks to make sure your organization isn’t hiring people with recent histories of aggression, says Danna Hewick, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at USSI Inc., a Bethesda, Md.-based cleaning and janitorial services company. Hewick won’t hire anyone who has been charged with or convicted of a violent crime, including domestic cases, in the last 12 to 24 months.

Domestic incidents are often harbingers of more-widespread violence. A past domestic violence conviction, Boyd says, “might give me pause that [the individual has] unresolved anger issues that I don’t want to bring into the workplace.”

Shooters in several recent workplace incidents had histories of domestic abuse. For example, in February 2016, Cedric Ford opened fire on his co-workers at the Kansas lawn mower factory where he worked after being served a court order to stay away from an ex-girlfriend. He killed three people and wounded 14 others. Lewis Starkey III is accused of killing his girlfriend at their home in Wendell, Mass., in July and then driving to the trucking company where he worked and shooting and injuring a colleague.

Work can be a danger zone for those with an abusive partner because often it’s the only place a perpetrator can confront his or her victim, says Bert Alicea, a licensed psychologist and executive vice president of the employee assistance and work/life program at Health Advocate, a company in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., that helps people navigate the health care system. Make sure workers understand it’s their responsibility to notify HR if they have a protective or restraining order against someone and to provide HR or security with a copy of the order, Alicea says.

He and other experts recommend adopting a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy that defines acts of aggression and the circumstances under which employees are required to notify HR if they have a court order against an individual.

Knowing that information helps HR and security to proactively protect staff, says Jack R. Plaxe, founder and managing director of Security Consulting Alliance LLC in Louisville, Ky. He recalls a time when a woman came to work and told the security department that her husband had threatened to kill her. He was a hunter, had a stockpile of weapons and had beaten his wife in the past, Plaxe says. Security personnel determined that he was a credible threat and developed measures to keep her and her co-workers safe. The team circulated his photo along with the type of vehicle he drove and his license plate number, and they stationed a guard near the woman’s work area. Fortunately, her husband didn’t try to confront her at work, but if he had, the company was ready to act.

Preventing Threats from Within

When you’re concerned about the behavior of someone within your own ranks, the first step is to establish whether the individual poses a direct threat to others. If he or she does, the employer can lawfully exclude that person from employment for safety reasons under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “If there is a potential of an immediate threat, that situation has to be quickly assessed and the violent employee needs to be removed,” Owens says.

Since HR typically relies on others to alert them when a person is acting out, teach your workforce to recognize the warning signs of potential violence, which may include angry outbursts, direct or indirect threats, and sudden changes in behavior and work performance. It’s also important to ensure that workers feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you.

“Listen for employees coming to you and using words like ‘bullying’ and ‘intimidation,’ ” says Ria Glenn DeMay, a lawyer and the labor relations manager for the University of Maine System, a network of public universities. The minute someone says, “I don’t feel safe,” it’s time to investigate, she says. It’s unlikely that a person will suddenly come to work brandishing a gun without first acting out in some way, she adds. Often their erratic and intimidating behavior has been building up for days or weeks and then escalates.

Many companies set up a confidential hotline to allow workers to report what they see and hear without fear of retaliation. If you go that route, be mindful of the possibility that people could target others for the wrong reasons. “If employees say they are concerned about an employee [primarily] because he’s Muslim or a veteran, HR is responsible to make sure we’re not letting stereotypes and fears govern our actions,” Boyd says. Ask questions to determine if there is a legitimate threat based on something the person has said or done, she says, such as a worker expressing a desire to hurt himself or others.

Showing Respect and Empathy

Whether you’re talking with an employee about changing his or her behavior after an angry outburst or you’ve determined that the individual should be terminated, treat the person with respect and consideration. “The best thing you can do in those cases is listen to them, let them feel like they are being heard, empathize with them and try to understand their situation so you can best help them work through it,” Holliday says. But also be firm and unequivocal so they understand that displays of anger aren’t acceptable in the workplace.

Think about who should speak with a worker who has displayed anger issues. Generally, it’s a good idea to have both the manager and an HR professional present so that one can do most of the talking and the other can listen and empathize, Alicea says.

If you’re dealing with someone who is prone to angry outbursts, don’t block yourself behind a desk without clear access to an exit. The best place to meet is an empty conference room where there is nothing on the table that could be used as an improvised weapon, Plaxe says.

Involving Law Enforcement

If an employee has made a direct threat or gives you reason to believe he is dangerous, don’t be afraid to contact the police or bring in paid security.

At a previous job, Holliday says management decided to fire someone for failing to show up for work. Company officials were nervous because the employee was a gun collector who had a history of erupting at work. After he was let go, the HR team asked local law enforcement to patrol the parking lot.

Boyd describes a similar situation where a worker who was slated to be terminated for a performance issue told HR he had a gun in his car. HR called the police, and they sent over an armed officer in uniform to monitor the situation. In cases like this, she prefers having the police on hand, as opposed to standard security personnel, because it sends a clear message to the employee and other workers that the company takes the situation very seriously.

​Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for a person with a short fuse to take matters into his or her own hands, says Lawrence Kane, who frequently has to deal with threatening and violent behavior at his workplace. Kane is a security supervisor at the University of Washington football stadium. In his 26 years there, he has been drawn into more than 300 violent altercations, including once when a patron pulled a knife on him after he broke up a fight. Kane was surrounded by 70,000 fans and several TV cameras at the time, and two law enforcement officers were standing 20 feet away. “If someone is mad enough, has a mental disorder or is passionate enough about things, it doesn’t matter if there are cameras, witnesses and … policies in place that say you can’t bring weapons in,” he says.

In other words, while you can—and should—take steps to ensure workers’ safety by hiring good people and raising awareness, you can never eliminate risk entirely. While no one wants to contemplate the possibility of horrific violence, preparing employees for the worst could help them make it through with the only thing that truly matters: their lives.

When Does Disrespect Become Harassment?

By Christina Folz | SHRM Conference Today

To promote a safe and respectful workplace, HR should take both seriously

There is no law against being a jerk—but that doesn’t mean employees waive their right to function in a respectful environment when they come to work every day.

“The line between disrespect and harassment is very thin,” said Matt Verdecchia, a senior trainer with Health Advocate’s EAP+Work/Life division, during a concurrent session at the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition. “We need to be more sensitive to insensitivity.”

It’s up to HR professionals to build cultures of tolerance and kindness, because doing so is the best way to ensure that bad behavior doesn’t turn into illegal harassment, Verdecchia said. He spelled out the following differences between harassment and disrespectful behavior.


Harassment is unlawful conduct focused on “what” a person is, based on the protected factors laid out in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Verdecchia said. These include race, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, military status and sexual orientation.

The classic example, in which a manager tells an employee that his or her job is contingent on engaging in sexual activity, is referred to as quid pro quo harassment. But the second form—wherein an employee is made to feel uncomfortable by another worker’s discriminatory behavior—can be difficult to distinguish from garden-variety disrespectfulness.

“Hostile work environment is far different and far more frequent [than quid pro quo],” Verdecchia said. He cited the example of someone telling a racist joke within earshot of another employee. “Where’s the line? Is it reasonable that someone could think that type of behavior could have an impact on somebody’s ability to do their job?”

To meet the legal requirement for harassment, the conduct must be both unwelcome (and the offender must be made aware that it is unwelcome) and pervasive, Verdecchia noted.

“Most one-time incidents do not constitute harassment,” he said. For example, one employee telling another that she is “hotter than Atlanta asphalt in July” is not necessarily harassment—if the offender makes no additional remarks after being told the comment was inappropriate.

Other important facts about harassment:

  • Men can harass men and women can harass women.
  • Harassment doesn’t have to be directed at a specific individual.
  • Offenders can be supervisors, co-workers or nonemployees.
  • The conduct needn’t be intentional; what is offensive is in the “eye of the beholder.”
  • Harassment can be verbal, nonverbal, physical or written.
  • Age-related harassment is the fastest growing form in the U.S.
  • Any employee can go to any manager with a harassment complaint.

Disrespectful Behavior

Verdecchia defined disrespectful behavior as a lack of consideration or regard for co-workers, including their privacy, physical space, belongings, viewpoints and philosophies. It can become bullying when people pick on particular individuals. “Bullies usually have very specific targets,” he said.

Examples of disrespect include malicious gossip, threats or intimidation, giving people the silent treatment, and the unwelcome use of profanity.

While not unlawful, disrespect saps employee morale and is typically the first step toward harassment and possibly even workplace violence. “If you want a safer work environment, start promoting a more respectful work environment,” Verdecchia said. “The two are connected.”

That’s why HR should have clear policies and procedures spelling out the disciplinary actions that will result from behaving badly—and work with managers to ensure they are enforced.

“Behavior doesn’t change without consequences or incentives,” he said. “An ant doesn’t leave a picnic.”

Employee Assistance expert to share how employers can  respond to and prevent harassment

Plymouth Meeting, PA, June 6, 2017 — West’s Health Advocate Solutions, a leading independent clinical healthcare advocacy provider, announced today that Matt Verdecchia, M.S., CEAP, Senior Trainer/Organizational Development for EAP+Work/Life Services at Health Advocate, will present a session during the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Annual Conference and Exposition, to be held June 18-21, 2017, in New Orleans.

Verdecchia, who specializes in workplace training programs and has more than 30 years of experience in the behavioral health field, will discuss the critical issue of “Insensitivity or Harassment: Where Is the Line?” on Tuesday, June 20 at 7:00 AM CT.

Harassment in the workplace continues to make headlines across the country, but understanding how to appropriately address this issue can help organizations prevent incidents from escalating and reduce risk.

“Understanding what constitutes harassment is the first step toward stopping it,” said Verdecchia. “Harassment can have negative repercussions throughout the organization, but it is possible to take steps to proactively prevent inappropriate behaviors from becoming harassment.”

Verdecchia will share an overview of this issue as well as offer important information about how session participants should effectively and appropriately respond to incidents to protect their employees and decrease liability for their organization. Attendees will also learn the difference between disrespect and harassment, why employees have a difficult time reporting harassment, and how to avoid frequent mistakes when addressing issues of harassment and discrimination.

The SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition is the largest conference for human resources professionals, drawing thousands of participants each year to learn more about the latest developments and strategies from renowned industry experts.

For more information about Verdecchia’s session and the SHRM 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition, please click here. Attendees can also stop by the Health Advocate’s booth #355 to learn more and view a demo of Health Advocate’s new member engagement website and mobile app.

About West’s Health Advocate Solutions

West’s Health Advocate Solutions makes healthcare easier for over 11,500 organizations and their employees and members nationwide.

Our solutions leverage a unique combination of personalized, compassionate support from healthcare experts using powerful predictive data analytics and a proprietary technology platform including mobile solutions to provide clinical support and engage members in their health and well-being.

Our members enjoy a best-in-class, personalized concierge service that addresses nearly every clinical, administrative, wellness or behavioral health need. Our clients benefit from high levels of engagement, improved employee productivity and health, and reduced medical costs, while simultaneously simplifying and upgrading their health benefits offerings.

For more information, visit us at www.HealthAdvocate.com