From an early age, we’re taught to be nice to people and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you’re responsible for the safety of your organization’s employees and premises, that’s a lesson you might want to rethink.

The "welcome" mat is a symbol of hospitality that’s guided most businesses and organizations for the past century. Companies welcomed potential customers and vendors with open arms. Schools allowed parents and volunteers free access to hallways and classrooms, and churches assumed that anyone coming through the door must be there to share the Lord’s love.

Then came what feel like an endless series of highly-publicized shootings in which angry and/or unstable people simply strolled into workplaces, schools, and even places of worship with the goal of hurting and even killing others. Suddenly we didn’t feel quite as welcoming, as we looked at strangers with a questioning eye. Who is that, and why is he here?

Nor is it limited to shooters. Is that parent who’s offered to chaperone your 7th-grade dance there because he wants to help, or because he’s a sex offender who’s attracted to young girls? Is that woman who wants to look around your warehouse really a prospective customer, or is she actually a convicted thief who’s studying the place for a future break-in? Is the guy who’s visiting his wife in your accounting department a devoted husband, or is he an abuser who’s sending her a subtle reminder that he can get to her at work?

I’m not suggesting that you should become paranoid and treat everyone from the outside as an evildoer. What I am saying is that protecting your people and places these days demands a realistic and practical attitude about visitors. Instead of an open-door approach to people who want to walk into your facilities, I’m recommending that you give serious thought to managing visitors, and that may include having to tell some of them that they aren’t welcome.

Why would your company or organization want to exclude visitors? Safety is the most immediate reason. In addition to protecting your team from someone who wants to do harm to them, and protecting your assets from a visitor who intends to walk off with them, it’s important to protect the visitor, too. A person from the outside probably isn’t familiar with your operations. A distribution center, as one example, is a constant flurry of activity, with forklifts and other equipment moving from place to place. Employees know the hazards and how to avoid them, but a visitor doesn’t and could get hurt.

Yet another reason is the impact visitors can have on productivity. If someone’s buddy shows up for an impromptu chat, or if a department’s entire staff spends a half-hour oohing and ahhing over a new baby, the work that would normally take place during that time isn’t happening. A parent who drops by to check on Junior may interrupt the day’s math lesson, pulling the students’ attention away from the teacher. Your business, your school, or your church has a purpose, and an unplanned visit may interfere with that purpose.

The first step in managing visitors is to develop a policy. Start by outlining the reasons your company or organization needs to control visitor access. Think about how visitors come into your facilities and how they’re greeted. Determine which parts of your facility are open to visitors and which areas should be off-limits. Ask yourself what would happen with those visitors in the event of a fire or severe-weather situation. Then consider how you’ll enforce those restrictions.

Don’t use an off-the-shelf policy. Instead, develop something for the unique needs of your people, facilities, and operations. For example, a school might need a visitor management system that uses government-issued IDs to electronically check visitors against criminal registries and issue a pass that every visitor must wear. For a church, it might be a matter of stationing a couple members outside the door to greet visitors, but also look for things that don’t make sense, such as someone wearing a long coat on a warm day. A business might want a rule that visitors must be escorted by employees at all times.

There’s no need to be hostile to people who have good reason to enter and use your facilities. But it doesn’t make sense to welcome everyone with open arms, either. A clear policy built upon a realistic assessment is a great start for protecting your people and your places.

Mike McCarty is CEO of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions.

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