Avoiding Workplace Violence

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OVERVIEW [top]

It's easy to dismiss workplace violence by thinking, "That'll never happen at my company." That thinking may put you in danger.

If you assume your business is immune — because it's too small, family-oriented or full of nice people — you could be right. Experts point out, however, that violence can explode at any time or place. Fortunately, outbreaks rarely occur without warning. By learning how to spot potentially violent behavior in its infancy, you can prevent tragedy.

You may prefer managing the technical details of your business rather than playing amateur shrink and diagnosing who might resort to violence; but by educating your team to identify and respond properly to threats, you raise awareness and create a more supportive workplace.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Four behaviors that may indicate potential violence.
  • How to handle high-risk employees.
  • How to shield yourself and your business from liability.

SOLUTION [top]

Learn to recognize violence-prone behavior patterns. While none of the following behaviors guarantees an individual will turn violent, the more of them that someone shows — and the more frequent the person exhibits them — the riskier the situation:

  • Makes impulsive outbursts. When employees demonstrate rather than discuss negative emotions, from fury to hurt, they're less apt to control their violent urges. They may habitually inflate a minor annoyance into a major source of anger.

  • Disregards consequences. These individuals show no sign that they realize the results of their indiscreet or destructive actions. They lack understanding of the effects of their words and deeds. As a result, they fail to learn from their mistakes and wind up repeating them.

  • Claims victim status. People who refuse to take responsibility for their actions because they're self-proclaimed victims can convince themselves that violence is justified. Such individuals cannot give an honest self-assessment; they're sure the fault always lies with others.

  • Exhibits manic mood swings. Someone who shifts abruptly from yelling to laughing to crying unpredictably can pose problems. The sudden onset of depression is a red flag, especially if accompanied by an expectation of failure or a strict either-or perception based on extremes of good-bad or right-wrong.

In some cases, heated arguments precede physical assaults. Oral or written threats can also lead to violence. And anyone who pushes, shoves or otherwise bullies an employee might ratchet up the violence in the future.

When you observe such violent behavior, respond promptly and consistently. Never ignore it. Take these steps:

  1. Describe, define and document. Let the employee know the precise behavior that you or others witnessed; avoid judging the person. "You yelled and cursed repeatedly from within an inch of Rob's face" is better than "You carried on like a madman and acted threatening." Then define how the actions you've described are inappropriate. "Yelling and cursing keeps everyone from doing their work" is better than "We can't run a business with you storming around like that." Provide the feedback while the incident is fresh in mind; don't wait until the next performance review. Document the discussion in the employee's personnel file.

  2. Provide outside counseling. Invite the individual to seek professional counseling. If your company has an Employee Assistance Program, use it; if not, retain a consulting psychologist who can treat the employee. Never give advice. Some hands-on entrepreneurs like to do everything themselves, including suggesting how a troubled employee can improve. You're not a licensed therapist, so don't act like one.

  3. Use discretion. In your effort to shut down the rumor mill, you may keep other workers apprised of a high-risk employee's status. Tread carefully. If people express concerns about their safety, reassure them that you're taking steps to manage the situation. But don't remark on why you think the employee acted out or guess what might happen next. With courts declaring that employers have a legal duty to protect their employees, you may face liability if violent acts are deemed reasonably foreseeable. That's why it's wise to educate employees to spot risky behavior, create a zero-tolerance policy against workplace violence, and designate a human resources manager who can steer potentially violent employees to get proper counseling.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

Two weeks after John Smith (not his real name), founder of Smith Furniture Co., hired a warehouse employee, all hell broke loose. His new employee yelled at a co-worker and insulted a customer. Later that day, someone deliberately damaged a piece of furniture in the warehouse; no one saw who did it.

Smith terminated the employee the next day, telling him that yelling hurt teamwork and insulting a customer hurt business. Both behaviors violated company policy; Smith had explained this written policy to the employee upon hiring him.

Smith wisely stuck to these two behaviors as the grounds for firing, without trying to prove this employee destroyed the furniture or predicting the employee might commit violence in the future. Smith figured that the longer this high-risk employee stayed on, the greater the risk of workplace violence.

DO IT [top]

  1. When discussing an employee's inappropriate behavior, stay calm. Speak in a soft, nonthreatening voice. Give eye contact, avoid folding your arms across your chest, and ask lots of gentle, open-ended questions.

  2. Get counseling for individuals who exhibit sustained anger. Workers who remain excessively angry for months on end need help.

  3. Consistently follow your zero-tolerance workplace violence policy. If someone makes threatening comments, don't ignore them. Because most violence starts when employees resort to mild intimidation and get away with it, put a stop to it early.

  4. Maintain one personnel file per employee. As your company grows, a line manager, a human resources administrator and an Employee Assistance Program counselor may keep separate files on a troubled worker. Ensure all personnel data flow into the same file; this helps your team manage a violent employee. Don't forget to review these occasionally.

  5. Word your workplace violence policy so that you don't create a legal duty to protect. Example: Replace "the firm will take all reasonable steps to guard employees from harm" with "every employee shares responsibility for bringing violent acts or threats to the designated manager's attention."

  6. If your employees make house calls to clients, have them stay near the door or windows so that they're not cornered in any room. Equip them with pagers or cell phones as a means to get back up, and encourage them to take a co-worker along any time they fear a confrontation.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Fear and Violen ce on the Job: Prevention Solutions for the Dangerous Workplace by Steve Albrecht (Carolina Academic Press, 1997). The first half of this textbook is a workplace-danger situation report. The second half offers guidance to employers.

The Violence-Prone Workplace by Richard V. Denenberg and Mark Braverman (Cornell University Press, 1999). After a series of case studies with discussion of managerial options, Chapter 19: "Designing a Violence Prevention Program" and Chapter 20: "Dispute Resolution as Violence Prevention" provide guidelines for a violence prevention program.


Internet Sites

Workplace Violence Awareness and Prevention. U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 1996.

Sample Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

Workplace Violence Research Institute; (800) 230-7302


Article Contributors

Writer: Morey Stettner

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