Workplace Violence – Acknowledge, Anticipate, and Act

Part I–Acknowledge that workplace violence will happen

The workplace has become a dangerous place. Just ask staff and faculty at Virginia Tech University or the people at NASA. People prone to committing violent acts are in fact mentally unstable, and they work alongside us every day. Organizations of all kinds must develop policies and contingency plans to deal with the potentialities of workplace violence.

Unbalanced people cause disruptions

Many Americans are mentally ill. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older–close to 60 million people–suffer from an identifiable mental disorder. The killer at Virginia Tech clearly fell under this category, and while mass murder at work or elsewhere remains a rare event, worker-against-worker violence and on-the-job homicide happens all too often. No matter who studies the matter, the numbers are gloomy. Statistics from the Occupational Health & Safety Association claim that 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, each year about 1.7 million workers in the United States are injured during workplace, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2005 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), the years 1992 through 2004 saw an average of 807 workplace homicides annually. While the most recent of these years, according to the CFOI, have seen a modest drop in incidents in the United States, the problem is growing worldwide, as found by a United Nations’ International Labour Office study released last year.

Guidelines restore order and prevent violence

Officials cannot control the behavior of others, but they can incorporate guidelines to follow. They just need help. Faced with a range of threats, such as disgruntled employees, domestic violence, stalkers, and, of course, robberies, rapes, and assaults, American businesses and organizations are hiring consultants in record numbers to design programs that train employees and employers in how to predict and prevent violence on the job. By developing official policies that include safety procedures, hiring and firing practices, threat management, crisis intervention and supervisory training to address the “red flags,” the organization and security consultant can join forces to reduce the risk of violence.

Understanding human behavior is a key ingredient in countering this violence, and management must learn this skill, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Bosses Have to Learn How to Confront Troubled Employees.” The same article points to major corporations that have implemented programs that train managers in how to spot troubled, potentially violent workers and have instituted hotlines employees may use to report workplace violence.

A study by the Society for Human Resource Management finds that 68 percent of employers have a formal workplace violence policy. A survey by the American Society of Industrial Security finds 25 percent of firms turning to employee training, 15 percent to zero-tolerance policies, and 13 percent to limited building access in their attempts to prevent workplace violence.

What’s clear is the need for intelligent anticipatory strategies. The next installment of this series will look at the behaviors employers must anticipate in determining who might be a perpetrator of workplace violence.

Part II–Anticipate workplace violence before it happens

In the previous installment of this three-part series, “Workplace Violence: Acknowledge, Anticipate, and Act,” we acknowledged the problem by looking at statistics on workplace violence worldwide and touching upon the prevalence of various guiding policies that organizations have already put in place to counter the trends. We will now explore how organizations can anticipate workplace violence before it happens.

Anticipate problems

As mentioned last time, zero-tolerance policies are among those gaining in popularity. Behavior that was at one time looked at as harmless is now considered hazardous, and it is possible to create psychological profiles of people most likely to commit a potential act of violence. Causes for concern are any employees who:

o Constantly make slighting references to others

o Consider themselves superior

o Are never happy with what is going on

o Exhibit a need to constantly force own opinions on others

o Have a compulsive need to control others

o Seem paranoid (convinces that other employees are “out to get them”)

o Are consistently unreasonable

o Makes coworkers feel uneasy just by their mere presence

o See a conspiracy to all functions of society

o Own firearms and share what seems to be obsessive interests in military, law enforcement or underground military groups

o Don’t take responsibility for any of their behaviors or faults or mistakes (always “someone else’s fault”)

o Take legal action against the company, constantly filing one grievance after another

o Blow everything out of proportion

o Have many hate and anger issues on and off the job, whether with co-workers, family, friends, or the government

o Applaud certain violent acts portrayed in the media such as racial incidences, domestic violence, shooting sprees, executions, etc.

o Make statements like “he will get his” or “what comes around goes around” or “one of these days I’ll have my say”

o At once lack people skills and are good at their tasks, paying attention to the details

o Are sometimes sexist or sexually harass others

o Have had trouble with the law, even just a minor incident

o Might be addicted to alcohol, prescription or street drugs

Any combination of these is enough to lead to workplace violence. Even just one is a red flag. In days or weeks prior to a violent act, significant emotional events may push questionable employees to commit violent acts. They might feel humiliated as a result of being proven wrong, or lose out on a promotion or pay raise. Love interests might reject them. Marriages might end. The ensuing emotional storm and physical symptoms (e.g., trouble sleeping, fatigue, sudden weight loss or gain, and other maladies) resulting from any of these scenarios can overwhelm the fragile soul, one prone to acts of rage in the absence of a social safety net; managers, therefore, should encourage employees to maintain strong social networks at work. Peers have a way of anticipating disaster before it happens.

Downsizing might upsize aggression

Organizational downsizing may be a major contributor, too. Employee termination can cause a significant degree of trauma. We equate our “selves” with our job titles. We introduce ourselves to others by give both our name and job title: “Hi, I am Robert; I am a personal security consultant.” Being a personal security consultant is what I do, but it is not who I am. While layoffs alone are traumatic, most of us ultimately see the difference between what we do and who we are; take away a mentally unbalanced person’s job title, however, and the loss of identity may seem, to him, much more profound and lead to violence.

The next, and final, installment in this three-part series will look at the actions we can take to prevent full-blown workplace violence if aggression has already escalated conflicts to the brink.

Part III–Act to prevent workplace violence

The previous, second installment of this three-part series, “Workplace Violence: Acknowledge, Anticipate, and Act,” included tips organizations can follow to anticipate workplace violence. Ideally, anticipatory strategies will stop workplace violence long before it happens. But aggression in the workplace has a way of becoming difficult to manage. If anticipatory strategies have failed to catch potential violence before it has begun to escalate, organizations can still act to quell the aggression before becoming a statistic.

The University of California, Davis’ Division of Human Resources identifies a number of tactics that managers can use to respond to aggression at work. Many of these are mainstays of conflict resolution that others have developed, on their own, and adopted.

o Respond quietly and calmly. Sudden movements or outburst may provoke retaliation.

o Ask questions. The aggressor may simply want attention, which he or she interprets as respect.

o Consider offering an apology. It’s a tactic to create a sense of calm.

o Summarize what you hear the individual saying. There’s a better chance that the aggressor will understand that you’re actually listening.

o Calmly and firmly set limits.

o Ask the individual to stop the behavior and warn that official action may be taken.

o If the disruption continues, reiterate the possibility of legal action and involvement of law enforcement.

o Direct the individual to leave the office.

At this point, if the situation has yet to diffuse, signal for assistance. You will, most likely, need to involve law enforcement.

Random acts of violence hold their own

Disgruntled employee syndrome is just one form of workplace violence. High risk professions such as taxi driver, gas station attendant, grocery clerk, liquor store cashier, and jewelry store merchant remain. It is estimated that 85 percents of assaults and 55 percent of murders happen in service industry worksites or retail trades. Those whose occupations find them handling money or engaging in person-to-person contact with the public should exercise caution. Random acts of violence continue to hold their own in these spheres, and physical assaults are common in health care and social service-type agencies.

Any company whose workforce’s duties fit the abovementioned descriptions can improve its security by incorporating or utilizing the following:

o High-watt external premise lighting (paying special attention to visibility in high-risk areas)

o Timed drop type safes and signs explaining that a “timed drop type safes in use”

o Robbery response training

o Violence in the workplace consultants

o Silent alarms

o Video cameras everywhere

o Guards, badges, and checkpoints

o Employee assistance programs

o Crisis intervention training

Onus of responsibility falls upon the employer

Ultimately, every organization needs a prediction-prevention plan that incorporates elements of anticipation and action. Proper hiring and firing practices are essential, too; employers must know what to look for when prescreening potential employees–and what signs to look for in long standing employees. Without taking proactive measures, the company risks huge losses in lawsuits, reputation, and, of course, human life.