WORKPLACE VIOLENCE: STEPS TOWARDS PREVENTION
By James S. Graves, Ph.D.
NATURE AND SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
A fist-fight breaks out on the factory floor. An employee loses control and flies into a rageful, abusive diatribe against his
supervisor. An upset office worker throws a lighted match into a waste basket filled with paper. A male employee grabs the arm of a
female co-worker with amorous intent that is neither solicited nor desired. A former employee strides into the worksite firing a
handgun, killing and/or wounding former co-workers. All of these vignettes are examples of employer-directed violence.
Running the gamut from rageful verbal abuse to the homicidal use of weapons, all forms of employer-directed workplace violence display a common effect.
They cause adverse emotional consequences to the direct victims, onlookers, and other employees who associate with the perpetrators or victims.
These emotional consequences of violent acts may range from a lingering anxiety toward a perpetrator or the workplace environment to extreme emotional damage, such as posttraumatic stress disorder.
Thus in any case, these acts of violence result in both human suffering and lost productivity for the employer. In the extreme cases, the financial risks of prolonged medical/mental health care, workers' compensation claims and civil law suits are very real.
Most acts of workplace violence are "triggered" by some issue in the perpetrator's life. Relationship problems off the job, financial difficulties, hostile conflict with a co-worker or supervisor, substance abuse, a poor performance evaluation, job termination are common triggers.
In today's business environment, rampant with reorganization, restructuring, downsizing and other changes, emotional upheaval is almost the norm. Potential triggers for violence are prevalent.
Violence in all its forms is a growing problem in the American workplace. The news media understandably focus on incidents of homicidal violence in the workplace.
Coverage of such incidents in the U.S. Post Office alone are sufficient to enhance our sensitivity to this issue. We know that in recent years there have been 700-800 workplace homicides per year, with about 80%-90% of these committed by external perpetrators according to the National Safe Workplace Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
While the majority of homicide victims in the workplace are men, nonetheless, homicide is the number one cause of workplace death among women. But homicidal violence, while clearly devastating to the victims and the work environment, is only the tip of the iceberg. When considering all forms of workplace violence, an estimated two million American workers were directly affected in 1993.
About six million employees were exposed to threats of harm according to a study conducted by Northwestern Life Insurance Company in 1993 on workplace violence.
Violence in the workplace comes with a high cost. For incidents of homicidal violence the financial impact typically ads up to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars.
Violence In Our Schools, Hospitals And Public Places by Wheeler and Baron stated the financial burden of a 1993 shooting at the Dana Point, California Post Office reached $600,000 in the year following the incident. Organizationally, the impact of extreme violence may be felt for years.
In less catastrophic (and more common) incidents the cost may run easily into tens-of-thousands or more.
In one case of non-homicidal violence on which the author consulted, a supervisor was struck (backhanded) by a former employee immediately following the termination meeting.
Considering only the identifiable direct expense of several prudent steps taken during the month following the attack, this incident (one punch) cost this small company over $20,000.
A PREVENTATIVE APPROACH
Most employer-directed violence is preventable, but a preventative approach requires that the employer organization conduct a serious effort in planning, policy development, and education to minimize its vulnerability. This process is summarized in the following "Six-Step Guide."
SIX-STEP GUIDE TO
- Evaluate current level of vulnerability and preparedness
- Develop and transmit written policies and procedures concerning violence and employees' role in prevention
- Create hiring procedures that adequately screen applicants
- Develop Crisis Management and Threat Assessment Teams
- Train at least managers and supervisors-ideally all employees-in awareness and prevention practices
- Develop a plan for post-incident management and services
The foundation for preventing violence in the workplace is a clearly stated organizational policy that is communicated to all employees.
The entire workforce needs to know where management stands on aggression and violence. What behaviors are not tolerated? What should a target employee or an observer do when confronted with such behaviors? What procedures will the organization follow? Are weapons allowed at the worksite? What do potential perpetrators risk by acting out?
One of the first lines of defense against workplace violence is in the hiring process. Job candidates should be thoroughly screened, with background checks including an eye out for any history of violence. Personality characteristics should be assessed either verbally or with a written tool. Candidates exhibiting "vengefulness traits", such as a tendency to transfer blame and lacking a social support system, may be considered higher risk not only for violence but also for being difficult to supervise, filing bogus worker's compensation claims, and other vengeful behaviors.
Incidents of workplace violence are almost always preceded by aggressive or threatening behaviors-the "warning signs."
A potential perpetrator is an emotionally troubled employee, with the signs of a troubled psyche being apparent usually weeks, months, or years before an act of violence is committed.
The employee gunman, Larry Jaison, who killed two (including himself) and seriously wounded two co-workers in May 1993 at the Post Office in Dearborn, Michigan, was known by his co-workers as "an eccentric and embittered person." Seven years earlier, Jaison had gone to his supervisor following a Post Office massacre (14 dead) in Oklahoma with the following message: "You're going to be next".
The warning signs that precede violent acts come in a variety of forms. Some of the more common and identifiable behavioral warning signs are as follows:
- Behaving belligerently
- Use of harassing or abusive language
- Making verbal threats to do physical harm
- Known substance abuse
- Obsessive romantic attraction
- Angry threats of suicide
- Remarks about access to weapons
- Revealing a weapon
Although this article is concerned primarily with internal threats and violence, any of these warning signs coming from customers, suppliers or other outside sources should also be viewed with concern.
What should an employer do when an employee or former employee exhibits threatening or bizarre behavior?
The answer to this question has become virtually a mantra of workplace violence prevention: "Take all threats seriously!" Taking threats seriously means having mechanisms in place to communicate, evaluate and follow up on every threat. All employees should know to whom to communicate any threatening behavior and how the report will be handled.
An internal Threat Assessment Team (TAT) is one useful approach for the evaluation of and follow-up on the report of a threat.
The TAT can be a subgroup of a larger Crisis Management Team, which would function in the management of any crisis situation, including natural disasters and human-induced business crises.
Composition of the TAT would likely include managers from human resources, health and safety, security, legal, and employee assistance program (if internal). This team of professionals can be trained to perform a "dangerousness assessment", evaluating the historical, behavioral, and environmental factors related to a given threat.
Once a dangerousness assessment is performed, the team would recommend a course of action.
Consider how history might have been altered if the Post Office in Dearborn, Michigan, had engaged in such a threat assessment process in 1986, seven years before Larry Jaison committed his tragic act.
Communication is an indispensable element of violence prevention. Not only does the organization need clear communication related to the violence issue, but also a working atmosphere of open and honest communication will go a long way in eliminating the seeds of discontent and hostility that may ultimately germinate into acts of violence.
Creating good lines of communication between supervisors (or team leaders) and employees is paramount to developing a productive workforce with high morale. The organization with a healthy, communicative work climate will also be able to better identify and intervene in a caring way with the truly troubled employee.
Or perhaps the most infamous day in U.S. Post Office history, May 6, 1993, fatal shootings occurred in both the Dearborn facility and in Dana Point, California.
On the following day, the Postmaster General stated on national TV his recognition that supervisory practices in the Post Office were outdated and created a work climate that may have contributed to these and other tragic acts of violence in the Post Office.
This is a remarkable statement by the CEO of a gigantic organization; it speaks to the importance of healthy communication in supervisory practices in the prevention of violent acts.
Education is the key to implementation of planning, policies and procedures, as well as improving lines of communication and other aspects of the work climate. The essential elements of violence prevention should be disseminated throughout the organization.
At least managers and supervisors should be trained in the elements of violence prevention, detecting the warning signs, intervening with troubled employees, activating the threat assessment process, defusing hostile conflicts, and refining supervisory practices.
Whether through training or written communication, all employees need a clear understanding of policies and procedures and what their roles are in violence prevention. For a violence prevention program to be successful, education is vital.
In the real world it is impossible to forestall every incident of workplace violence.
When an incident does occur, the target employee(s) and any onlookers will experience adverse emotional consequences.
In those forms of violence involving physical harm or death, the employees directly involved in the incident and observers of it are likely to be traumatized.
For some people with emotional trauma the symptoms will not abate spontaneously but rather will "concretize" into a long-term psychological disorder (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder).
Even for those who will recover from emotional trauma on their own, without intervention this recovery process can require weeks or months to run its course.
Thus, it is important to provide posttraumatic services to all those exposed to a traumatizing incident.
A group "debriefing" (or critical incident stress debriefing, CISD) is the most time and cost - effective intervention to promote recovery from emotional trauma.
Those who attend such a debriefing will experience the following benefits:
Reduce symptoms of emotional trauma.
Facilitate full recovery to pre-incident mental health and performance.
Enable referral for follow-up counseling, if needed.
Reduce the risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A debriefing should be conducted by a professional trained in using this group intervention to help traumatized individuals. Thus, an integral part of the violence planning process is to identify specialist providers of these services and be prepared to activate the debriefing process. A decade of experience with these types of debriefings demonstrate that they are effective and provide the benefits described above.
Violence in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. But the use of lethal weapons as tools of employer-directed violence was rare only about 15 years ago.
The changing workplace, driven by a more competitive global economy, dramatically increases the risk of violent acts. Those organizations that take the necessary steps toward prevention are far more likely to avoid the potentially catastrophic impact both in human and organizational terms of this increasingly prevalent crisis.
James S. Graves, Ph.D. is president of HealthLines International and heads-up the Crisis At Work project in Pasadena, California.
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