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Work by agencies against harassment, threats and violence (2018:19)

Statskontoret (The Swedish Agency for Public Management) has been commissioned by the government to analyse the work of agencies to prevent and manage threats, violence and other risk factors aimed at their employees. By 'other risk factors' we mean harassment, which may be, for example, subtle threats, abusive language or unpleasant advances. We have also identified success factors and challenges in the work of agencies.

There is a major risk of harassment, threats and violence towards agency employees. About 90 per cent of the 165 agencies included in our study consider that there is a risk that their employees might be subjected to harassment, threats or violence while performing their duties. Employees in agencies with a high level of contacts with citizens are particularly vulnerable, as are employees in parts of the activities of seats of learning and county administrative boards. It is more common for agencies with more than 100 full-time equivalents to consider that employees can be vulnerable compared with smaller agencies.

The work of agencies against harassment, threats and violence

Statskontoret has mapped out how agencies organise work against harassment, threats and violence and the action taken to prevent and manage incidents.

Most agencies have analysed the risks

According to our questionnaire-based survey, seven out of ten agencies have analysed the risks of harassment, threats and violence towards employees. It is often only some of the agency's employees who are at risk of abuse. Harassment and threats are conveyed primarily by phone and email, but also occur in personal meetings at the workplace and in field work, for example during inspections. Almost 70 per cent of the agencies also state that employees can be abused online and in social media.
Our investigation also shows that around one quarter of the agencies have mapped out their safety culture, i.e. how the organisational culture at the workplace affects their employees' values and attitudes to safety. Knowledge of the safety culture can give an agency a better understanding of the risks and how the agency can manage them.
Responsibility for preventing and managing is often divided, but coordinated
Responsibility for preventing and managing harassment, threats and violence is often divided between two or more functions in an agency. Ultimate responsibility usually rests with both safety and HR functions. Operational responsibility, however, often rests with managers in the core activity. When responsibility is divided, the agency often coordinates work between the different areas of responsibility. Our investigation shows that there are variations between agencies in how coordination works in practice. At some agencies, for example, personnel from both safety and HR functions are involved when an employee has been abused.

Several kinds of preventive measures

The agencies use several different kinds of preventive measures to reduce the risk of employees being subjected to harassment, threats and violence. The most common initiative is various forms of training. Many agencies also adapt the physical environment, for example by introducing entrance control systems or equipping meeting rooms with alarms and dual evacuation routes. Just over 60 per cent of the agencies have also introduced various procedures to reduce the risks.

Agencies provide support to a person who has been abused

Almost 90 per cent of agencies offer some kind of support to a person who has been subjected to harassment, threats or violence. These may involve various measures to protect the employee or to improve security, but there is also direct crisis management, for example counselling. The abused employee's manager may also contact the aggressor to explain that harassment or threats are unacceptable. The agency will often adapt the measure according to the victim's needs. Some agencies we interviewed offer support around the clock. In more serious threats and incidents of violence, the agency can offer measures such as a personal alarm and surveillance by security staff. It also happens that an agency will rotate staff to make an employee less vulnerable.

We have not been able to map out how employees themselves perceive the support available from their employer. But other studies in the area show that most employees who have been abused are satisfied with the employer's support measures. One third, however, state in the study that they have received less support than they needed.

Agencies collaborate with each other to some extent

One agency in three states that they collaborate or are members of networks with other agencies to share experiences and knowledge of preventing and managing harassment, threats and violence. Agencies with similar activities collaborate to a greater extent than other agencies.

We can also confirm that agencies use some of the support material available on work against harassment, threats and violence. At the same time, over half of the agencies would like more support material, especially material aimed at managers.

Success factors and good examples in the agencies

Statskontoret has identified some success factors and good examples in the work of agencies to prevent and manage harassment, threats and violence.

Training courses are the most important tool

Regular and customised training courses for employees and managers are the initiative that most agencies mention as a success factor. Training and practice in interaction and communication are particularly valuable. Yet just over 30 per cent of the agencies have trained managers in issues relating to harassment, threats and violence.

A visible safety function contributes to raising awareness of the issue

Many of the bigger agencies consider it important that the safety function is visible and present in the core activity. There are agencies where some of the safety department's employees do not have a fixed workplace, but circulate between head office and a number of local offices. According to the agencies, this contributes to the issue of threats and violence gaining more awareness and to reducing the thresholds for reporting incidents or contacting those responsible for safety.

Procedure to improve safety can increase peace of mind among employees

The agencies also emphasise the importance of reviewing processes in the organisation in order to identify tasks that may result in risky situations and then to change the procedures. Procedures and policies do not eliminate the risk of harassment, threats and violence, but they do make it easier for an employee to handle difficult cases or situations. Some agencies have, for example, introduced procedures to rotate cases or have reviewed how employees who deal with sensitive cases can be less exposed. We have also seen examples of agencies that have produced checklists that an employee can follow if he or she has been harassed or threatened.

Challenges facing agencies

Statskontoret has identified some areas where agencies feel that there are challenges in work to prevent and manage harassment, threats and violence.

Agencies find it difficult to convey knowledge

The agencies state that it is difficult to convey information about guidelines and procedures to all employees. This is a challenge highlighted by both larger and smaller agencies, and by agencies with different kinds of activities. Many agencies feel that employees' knowledge of how to protect themselves against threats and violence needs to be kept updated constantly. Some agencies make the point that a lack of time among employees results in their not getting round to studying information.

Abuse via the Internet and social media is difficult to manage

Many agencies consider that threats and harassment on the Internet and in social media is particularly difficult to prevent and manage. Just over 40 per cent of agencies have drawn up recommendations or advice on how employees can protect themselves in social media. But the agencies feel that demarcation between the role of the private individual and civil servant is complex. We see agencies interpreting this differently. In their role as employer, agencies cannot control their employees' private activities on the Internet. Our investigation shows that an agency can perform an important function by discussing issues relating to the use of social media and providing advice on how employees can protect themselves.

There are high numbers of unreported cases of harassment

Many agencies in our study make the point that it is difficult to predict and prevent various forms of harassment, for example suicide threats, subtle threats or abusive language. The difficulties are partly due to there being high numbers of unreported cases in the reporting of incidents at agencies. This results in it being difficult for agencies to assess the scope of harassment, even though according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention this is the most common form of non-permitted behaviour towards agency employees.

High level of responsibility placed on managers in the core activity

Our survey shows that the line manager has a high level of responsibility towards the employee in their role as the person responsible for HR and health and safety. The manager must make sure that employees have sufficient and necessary knowledge of risks in the activity and that the employee is given the support required if he or she is threatened or harassed. But managers are also responsible for many other areas, which can mean that there is a risk of issues relating to threats and violence disappearing in the volume of other issues.

Some incidents are reported to the police, but few result in prosecution

In our interviews and in the questionnaire responses, many agencies mention that few of the incidents that are reported to the police result in prosecution. The agencies feel that many police investigations are closed down and that the processes take a long time. According to the agencies, this can reduce the incentives for employees to report harassment, threats and violence to the police.

Our investigation also shows that employees can find it uncomfortable to be the plaintiff in a court case. Even if an agency can assist and support an employee in reporting a case to the police, the individual has to appear during the trial, which makes it difficult for the agency to protect the employee. Some agencies feel that the agency should be the plaintiff all the way, as the employee has been abused in the performance of their work and not as a private individual.