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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Preventing Workplace Violence

Most disasters are caused by fire, water, explosions, or forces of nature, but employee conflict and stress can result in disaster if incidents escalate into violence.

In the movie “Office Space,” an employee is obviously not okay. He is ignored, shunted off into a corner, and eventually sets fire to the office. Warning signs need to be addressed, not ignored, but most managers and employees lack training in identifying and dealing with potentially damaging situations.

In Connecticut, a man being escorted out of the building pulled a gun out of his lunchbox and killed several people. The employer probably had some indication that the perpetrator was a risk.

The Department of Labor (OSHA) Web site states:

“Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 564 workplace homicides in 2005 in the United States, out of a total of 5,702 fatal work injuries.”

Not all forms of violence are life-threatening, but can disrupt productivity, create stress in the workplace, and tarnish a company’s reputation. A flight attendant, having dealt with too many difficult people, insulted a passenger over the loudspeaker and slid down the emergency exit. Perhaps if the flight attendant’s coworkers had heard his frequent grumblings or saw signs of impatience and reported them, the incident might have been avoided. All airlines probably train flight attendants on how to deal with difficult customers, but maybe not how to spot a troubled co-worker.

Signs That Something Is Brewing

Some of the more common warning signs of violence are easy to detect.

  1. An employee’s performance or behavior changes. He becomes very quiet, almost to the point of being reclusive, or becomes more aggressive and belligerent, sometimes without cause. The transformation could be due to many reasons – personal problems, substance abuse, or emotional instability.
  2. An employee complains excessively, overreacts to problematic situations, or makes what appear to be idle threats.
  3. Customer complaints about an individual begin to mount. If customers are complaining about a team of employees, it could mean that the employees are not working well together, with increased conflict and discord.
  4. An individual reports issues to human resources that seem to be exaggerated or perhaps made up.
  5. A manager is having a hard time getting someone to be part of the team or convincing the employee to acknowledge his errors. When the manager points out shortcomings, the employee responds with anger that is disproportionate to the situation.
  6. An employee’s attendance becomes erratic without any explanation.
  7. At meetings, an employee’s behavior is disruptive or seriously inappropriate for the situation and the culture of the company.
  8. A monitoring of an employee’s e-mails, documents, and internet surfing discovers inappropriate or disturbing activity.

Ways To Prevent Violent Behavior

  1. Periodically review reward systems. Do salaries, bonuses, promotions, or perks encourage destructive competition among the employees?
  2. Implement and enforce a no-weapons policy. Consider installing well-placed security cameras or metal detectors.
  3. Thoroughly screen all job applicants to be certain you weed out people who are potential threats to the workplace.
  4. Train managers to spot and effectively deal with employees who might become violent.
  5. Establish a professional Employee Assistance Program (EAP) so you can refer employees for counseling when needed.
  6. Ensure that all employees have a way to alert management or human resources if they suspect that someone might be harboring violent behavior.
  7. Develop a step-by-step discipline procedure and adhere to it. Use it to quickly deal with issues of behavior, and carry it out equally and fairly.
  8. Establish a random drug testing policy. If someone’s behavior or demeanor has changed and you suspect substance abuse, test him or her quickly and quietly.
  9. Train managers how to engage belligerent employees. Belligerent employees often are not dealt with, giving them the illusion of power and encouraging more bad behavior. Even star performers should not be allowed to exhibit hostile behavior; they set the tone for others to follow.
  10. Train all employees in conflict resolution and mediation.

Programs to Help Troubled Workers

Critically evaluating employees and disciplining them is not the only way to address problem employees. With temperamental individuals, it can make matters worse. Show concern and a willingness to help them resolve or cope with their issues.

Provide coaching or anger management for individuals who are overly aggressive, argumentative or disruptive. Take this action if you believe that they can change, are willing to change, and have a good track record of performance. These employees should not get positive performance reviews unless they change.

Employees who are timid might be fearful of confronting difficult co-workers, or might be powder kegs about to erupt. Offer assertiveness or conflict resolution training.

After training is provided, ensure that there is reinforcement and follow-up. Too often trainers and supervisors fail to make sure that individuals are beginning to exhibit new behaviors.

As mentioned earlier, an employee assistance program (EAP) should be available for troubled employees, and should be recommended as soon as antisocial behavior is displayed.

With introverted people who appear unstable, approaching them with statements like, “Are you okay?” or, “You seem troubled?” might backfire. Instead, deal with the person’s performance: “I notice you have not been speaking up at meetings. We miss your participation — please try to contribute.”

While such programs and methods demonstrate that a company cares about its employees, bad behavior needs to be addressed immediately, even if the person exhibiting it is a manager or a highly productive employee. Hostile employees tend to be given too much room. Companies choose not to give them feedback, allowing them to become isolated and angrier. Someone has to take them aside and lay down the law.

When certain antisocial individuals remain ticking time bombs no matter what you do, termination might be the only solution. Treat them professionally. If they are capable of violence, take precautions. Use security to usher them out, do it at a time that is safe (fewer employees around), and take the most direct route out of the building.

Addressing the More Subtle Organization Aspects

The above information covers what can be done to minimize risks. Also, if you are a business owner, manager, or leader, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is morale? Do you receive repeated complaints about favoritism or unchecked bad behavior? Monitor this closely. A culture with these components can be a breeding ground for greater bad behavior and, ultimately, even violence.
  2. Do your managers provide constructive criticism when necessary? Or is there too much avoidance?
  3. Are your customers happy? Consistently unhappy customers are a direct reflection of poor management practices.
  4. Does your culture allow and even promote bullies (not to be confused with demanding managers)? That could lead the employee population to believe that it is okay to explode.
  5. Are there appropriate channels for employees to pass information about unusually difficult co-workers to you? How are they dealt with?
  6. Is your HR function viewed as professional and up to the challenge of dealing with difficult employees? Are the HR professionals viewed as effective, compassionate, and astute?
  7. Why do people leave the company? Do you conduct exit interviews?
  8. How long are people staying? How long do you want them to stay?
  9. When they are fired, what are the most common reasons? If you see a pattern that is alarming (e.g., outbursts, unethical behavior), determine how management practices can be modified
  10. Take a look at your recruiting practices. Do you do background checks, drug testing?

This quote comes from the FBI website:

“As the attention to the issue has grown, occupational safety specialists and other analysts have broadly agreed that responding to workplace violence requires attention to more than just an actual physical attack. Homicide and other physical assaults are on a continuum that also include domestic violence, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, emotional abuse, intimidation, and other forms of conduct that create anxiety, fear, and a climate of distrust in the workplace. All are part of the workplace violence problem. Prevention programs that do not consider harassment in all forms and threats are unlikely to be effective.”

The more that there is a climate of trust, the less likely that workplace violence will occur. Prevention is worth a lot: the more well trained the managers are, the more effective they will be, not only in preventing violence, but in carrying out the goals of the organization.

Diane L. Katz, Ph.D., is president of The Working Circle Teambuilding, Inc., a consulting firm based in Tucson, AZ. Her book, “Win at Work! The Everybody Wins Approach to Conflict Resolution,” was published by Wiley in June 2010.