Unsurprisingly, the workplace has become more complicated for both American employees and employers as they both grapple with finding balance in the chaotic world. Normal concerns like leave policies and marijuana use have been joined by cybersecurity and the threat of violence as the top concerns for employers in 2019, according to a new XpertHR survey of over 800 human resource professionals across the U.S.

Employers that want to retain their skilled staff are turning their attention to new challenges in 2019. Nearly half of respondents (45%) viewed "preparing for and responding to an active shooter or workplace violence incident as very or extremely challenging." This includes how to handle everything from an active shooter situation to threats of violence including stalking in a domestic violence situation.

Employees sitting in a meeting while laughing

Employee safety is a key concern for employers. Image Source: Getty Images.

"The best way to address a threat of workplace violence is to actively prepare employees and supervisors," said Beth Zoller, the XpertHR Legal Editor in a press release. "Put policies in place for visitor safety, workplace violence prevention, domestic violence, and ban weapons from the workplace, to the extent permissible by state law."

Employers should also conduct a safety/security audit to gauge their own preparedness and to identify areas that need strengthening. In addition, Zoller added, companies should "background screen applicants, look out for any red flags indicating potentially violent behaviors and create a zero-tolerance workplace violence prevention program."

What else are employers concerned about?

Marijuana has become a hairy workplace issue, as it has become legal for medical uses in 30 states and for recreational purposes in 10. This changing legal landscape forces companies to create policies about a substance that while legal -- and in some places sanctioned by doctors -- can still impair employees.

While some of these concerns are similar to ones regarding alcohol use at work, there's an added layer of complexity with marijuana because federal law still considers it an illegal Schedule I controlled substance, while states are going their own way. About 41% of the employers surveyed said "managing the conflict of federal and state marijuana laws" is a challenge, while 34% "are challenged by maintaining a drug-free workplace in light of changing laws."

Respondents also expressed a number of concerns in the areas of cybersecurity -- specifically when it comes to protecting employee privacy and confidential data. Respondents ranked their level of concern over various cybersecurity challenges:

  • Preventing cyber breaches and data security (51%).
  • Managing mobile devices/wearable technology and the internet of things (41%).
  • Managing the use of technology and social media while at work (39%).
  • Protecting employee information from data breaches (31%).

In addition, nearly half (47%) of employers surveyed expressed concern over challenges created by "tracking and complying with rapidly changing leave laws across states." A similar amount (46%) had the same issue with local leave laws and 41% "viewed determining what federal, state and local leave law requirements apply to specific employee situations as challenging."

Survey respondents are also worried about finding high-quality applicants (64%), ensuring that employees have the right skills (52%), and creating a succession plan (50%).

"Our survey found that HR professionals are struggling to find balance in all areas and felt overburdened by numerous and often confusing regulations while attempting to meet organizational and employee needs," said Zoller.

What can employers do?

Employers should remain vigilant and increase their active strategies to help employees as it relates to these concerns. That's especially true when it comes to workplace violence and cybersecurity. Those are areas where outside experts should be consulted and efforts to protect employees must be ongoing.

Employee leave remains difficult, as rules are changing in some places and state and local laws can be different. In that case, employers need to err on the side of liberal interpretation. No company ever got in trouble for offering a more generous leave policy than the law calls for.

Marijuana, however, is a less clear issue. In addition to federal and state laws not matching, there are legitimate workplace safety issues to consider. An office worker who comes to work high may not be a danger to others, but a truck driver or security guard who does could very well pose a significant safety concern. In this case, there's no definite answer and the best a company can do is to have a clear policy that's communicated to employees. Ideally, any policy would focus on creating a safe workplace following rules similar to the ones that apply when employees take any other legal drug (a truck driver generally can't come to work when on medication that makes you drowsy). That's not easy -- as there's plenty of grey area -- but it's a needed starting point.