Your employees are your most valuable asset, and their safety is your paramount concern. According to the US Department of Labor's most recent Census of Occupational Injuries, workplace homicides increased by 2 percent to 417 cases nationwide in 2015, with shootings increasing by 15 percent. Workplace violence is an unfortunate reality, but training and preparation can make all the difference if—and when—a situation arises. All businesses, but banks in particular, should regularly review their policies and training practices as well as work to develop a mindset of preparedness. "For the protection of your employees, customers and community, it is imperative that bank preparation and training, as well as policies and procedures, align with today's reality," said Rose Oswald Poels, WBA president and CEO. It can mean the difference between stopping an incident before it escalates to violence.

Effective Policies

Bank incident response policies can look good on paper, but if they don't take real human reactions into account they won't be effective, says Terry Choate, president & CEO of Blue-U Defense. Blue-U is a defense company that offers training and information to assist employees during incidents of workplace violence. "Incident response policies have to be practical and effective," Choate said. "They must take into account an understanding of what is going to happen to both the victim and the perpetrator. If they don't have those things, they're not going to work." For example, many bank lobbies now have free-standing teller pods or similar customer service stations. During a robbery, a typical policy will require the teller stationed at the pod to punch in a code on a keypad to retrieve any cash the robber demands. However, Choate points out that during a high-stress situation the heart rate spikes, inhibiting the fine motor control required for such a task, making it incredibly difficult. In fact, the bank employee may not even be able to recall the code under duress. "When the teller can't do what is expected of them, the situation escalates quickly," Choate explained. "The policy should not expect employees to do something they won't be able to do."

It is also common for banks' incident response policies to attempt to cover many different types of incidents under one large, complex policy. However, a good policy for responding to robberies or active shooter situations should be separate from the incident response policy addressing other types of scenarios. "The active-shooter policy should be stand alone," said Joe Hileman, executive vice president at Blue-U. "That situation and the responses it requires are different from any other situation at the bank." Due to regulatory requirements, often banks' incident response policies focus on computer-related incidents such as disaster recovery and data breaches, according to Debra Bartolerio, CAMS, AVP – compliance & security at Citizens Bank, Mukwonago. "You need to incorporate customer and employee safety in your incident response plan," she advised, also recommending that the policy include an annual requirement for training. 

Practical Training

Like a good policy, proper training also can have a tremendous positive impact on the outcome of an incident of workplace violence. Unfortunately, most bank employees only receive training focused solely on bank robberies, which doesn't meet today's needs, according to Hileman. "You also need to train for incidents that have nothing to do with a bank robbery," he advised. "We need to train people for today's needs and today's threats." Hileman explained that during an incident, people will always revert to their training, and the responses required for a bank robbery are very different from those required during an active shooter situation. "There is a fine line between a bank robbery and an active shooter," Choate said, explaining that not all bank robberies become active shooter situations, and not all active shooter situations are bank robberies. "The bottom line is, bank employees need training for both situations," he said. 

Helping bank staff distinguish between a robbery and a violent incident and respond accordingly is an essential, yet often overlooked, component of training. "Skills at recognizing signs of violence and de-escalation techniques are critical skills that bank employees need but very few of them get," said Choate. Those skills can event help prevent a situation from becoming violent. "Not every incident will turn into an active shooter situation," Hileman explained. "If you don't give your tellers those tools to de-escalate the situation, it may become a more violent encounter. So, training can actually prevent violent situations."

Bartolerio, Choate and Hileman all recommend bank staff receive workplace safety training at least annually, due to both turnover and the fact that the skills involved are perishable. Bartolerio recommends supplementing that training, as well. She explained that citing incidents of violence that bank employees hear about in the news (even if it didn't happen at a bank) helps drive home that "it can happen here." She uses a monthly article in the bank's internal newsletter for this purpose. "Whenever there's an incident, especially if it's local, send out a communication to staff about how they should react if something similar were to happen at your institution," she advised. 

Alert Mindset

Perhaps the most important and effective thing bank management can do to help keep their employees safe is to foster a culture of awareness. "The reason a lot of banks don't spend the proper time on policies and training is the same reasons why people don't prepare as individuals," said Choate. "They just don't think it's going to happen to them." Promoting a culture of awareness may involve updating policies or simply enforcing current ones. It's also important for bank staff to receive reminders when they're exposing the bank (or themselves) to the possibility of an incident. Bartolerio used the example of encouraging staff to leave lights on in unoccupied offices as a deterrent to criminals, and reminding tellers to be cautious with cash. "Tellers become immune to the value of money because they work with it every day," Bartolerio explained. "Make sure you call them out if you see them with a pile of money on their counter. That looks very inviting to potential criminals." 

Another effective deterrent is to take away potential criminals' ability to surveil the bank by having staff visibly check their surroundings periodically. "We tell our clients all the time, the absolute best way to prevent a bank robbery is to send someone out into the parking lot every so often and have them look around for possible threats or people surveying the bank," said Choate. Blue-U often provides similar low-cost, practical recommendations as a result of their physical site security assessment services, available to WBA members at a discounted rate. "The association is committed to offering tools our members can use to make their institutions safer for their employees and customers," said Oswald Poels.

A culture of awareness also encourages employees to internalize what they learn during their incident training. "A culture of safety is not something you can expect employees to turn on when they come to work," Choate explained. "It has to be a culture change in general that we all become more aware and more prepared. If you don't truly believe it could happen to you, any training is a waste of time." Ultimately, that's the key to bringing awareness and preparation to an incident workplace violence: believing that it can happen to you, no matter how unlikely it seems. "Especially at community banks, our staff tend to feel like 'that happens in downtown Chicago, not here,'" Bartolerio said. "But it can." 

WBA has partnered with Blue-U Defense to bring member banks free education offerings and steeply discounted services related to workplace safety. Three complimentary seminars are being held soon: 

June 6 | Pewaukee
June 7 | Wisconsin Dells
June 8 | Rice Lake

Sign up your bank's attendees today! 

Additionally, Blue-U Defense provides several services to financial institutions to help them protect their employees and customers, including in-bank training. Visit to learn more or to register for one of the free seminars.