When Salvador Tapia, a disgruntled former employee walked into the Chicago wharehouse where he worked until six months before and killed six former co-workers, we all were reminded how a crisis can hit any organization at any time.

As is frequently the case, this tragedy may prompt some organizations to evaluate their own policies and procedures. Unfortunately, the review usually focuses on security rather than on the human elements that contribute to workplace outbursts.

If your organization is considering what it can do to prevent workplace violence, I hope you, as the public relations advocate in the room, speak up. Public relations pros have plenty to offer for an organization tyring to assess its vulnerabilities, identify areas for improvement and act on those findings. This is the essence of issues management.

Besides, if your organization determines that changes are necessary, the communication initiatives that you spearhead will be a driving force in having those changes accepted and integrated into the corporate culture.

Perhaps most important is PR''s role in accurately assessing the work environment in order to explore how working conditions, management style and corporate culture are perceived by employees.

For such an assessment to succeed, it should be preceded by clear statements from the organization''s leadership making it clear that the process of self-evaluation is critical for guiding future actions and  total honesty is essential. These statements from leadership should assure employees of the following:

  • Their comments will be given in confidence and with anonymity;
  • Findings will not be associated with any one employee’s remarks; and
  • Employees will never face repercussions for voicing their opinions.

While I strongly recommend engaging the services of a research firm to conceive, develop and field such an internal examination, I''m convinced that doing something with whatever resources you have is better than doing nothing. Therefore, don''t limit yourself to gathering information through personal interviews or written surveys. Numerous organizations have gathered valuable information simply by encouraging employees to respond to a cut-and-send survey on the back of an internal newsletter. Other have used password-protected Web-based surveys.

Regardless of how you collect the information, it is important that you explore several key aspects of your organization''s work environment, including:

  • Working conditions;
  • Coworkers and supervisors;
  • Corporate culture;
  • Management style;
  • Quality of supervision;
  • Policies and regulations; and
  • Training.

To make the information you gather most useful, select employees to participate at random, but also include several questions that can help you lump together the data of employees who fit a particular profile, such as job title, years of service or number of days on sick-leave. When examining possible commonalities, it may even be helpful to group employees by their performance evaluation scores.

The important take-away here is to use the tragic events in Chicago to illustrate the importance of a self-evaluation of your workplace. By doing so, you not only may be playing an important role in making needed workplace improvements that prevent on-the-job violence, you will be proving once again the value of public relations in proactively solving problems and protecting your organization''s reputation.