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Danger Zone

Workplace violence

With workplace violence on the rise, companies must institute policies that stress zero tolerance for rude, offensive, and aggressive behavior.

Dear Nan,
I’m nervous because I feel my office atmosphere is a potential time bomb. Stress is catching up with all of us and I’m afraid someone (probably my boss) will go nuts. We’re in the media business, so everyone is used to being “always on” – you know, “look perfect, sound perfect be perfect.” And we are used to facing impossible deadlines. But lately, everyone seems to have a short temper and a curt word. How can I help diffuse this situation? Or, am I just overreacting?

You aren’t overreacting, and I commend your concern. Your boss’ short fuse and the hair-trigger atmosphere you’re working within have created a potentially violent situation. You have an obligation to do something about it to protect both your company and yourself.

There are two potentially explosive situations here: the creation of a hostile work environment that can translate into an expensive lawsuit against the company and the possibility someone (perhaps your boss) could commit a violent act. You sound like your company’s best early warning signal.

The simplified view of workplace violence is the employee or client who shoots up an office because of passion, anger, or revenge. However, the Workplace Violence Research Institute (WVRI) states: “Workplace violence is any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically. These acts include all types of physical or verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation, and all forms of harassment.”

You aren’t being paranoid. Workplace violence continues to grow and its potential should be taken seriously. Last year’s multiple murders in an Atlanta brokerage office, shootings in the Hawaii office of Xerox Corp., and the Seattle workplace murders brought workplace violence to the top of the list of major concerns among today’s employers.

Consider these other alarming statistics:
  • According to 1998 U.S. FBI statistics, about 350,000 incidents of violence occur each year in the American workplace; however, the actual number would double if unreported cases were documented.
  • Every work day in the U.S., 16,400 threats are made, 723 workers are attacked, and 43,800 are harassed (WVRI).
  • One in four employees will be victimized by workplace violence, specifically harassed, threatened, or attacked on the job, leaving the victim angry, fearful, stressed or depressed (separate studies by the U.S. Department of Justice and Northwestern Life Insurance Co.).
  • One in four employees has “office rage,” a condition of being “generally at least somewhat angry at work,” usually because of a supervisor (1996 Gallup survey).
  • 50 percent of companies have experienced incidents or threats of workplace violence in the past four years (survey by American Management Association).
  • In Canada, 3.9 percent of men and 5 percent of women believe they have been victims of workplace violence, according to an International Labour Organization report, Violence at Work, released in 1998.
  • 61.2 percent of surveyed members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees said they experienced at least one situation involving actual or threatened physical harm on the job during the past two years.

In addition, every incident has a long tale of supervisor’s time, employee absences, and legal fees and settlement costs. That’s not even counting the intangible costs of lowered and lost productivity in the affected office. Out-of-pocket costs for U.S. businesses are estimated to be as high as $35 billion.

Preventative Steps

What can your company do? Be proactive. Talk with your company’s management about initiating the following simple steps to prevent a culture of potential violence:

  • Designate a committee to study this topic and become your company’s in-house expert. Plenty of information is available at no or modest cost. Start with the Internet and your favorite bookstore.
  • Review and update current policies and training. What information do your supervisors and employees currently receive about recognizing the symptoms of office rage?
  • Open the lines of communication. Every employee should feel confident he or she has a mechanism for reporting concerns confidentially.
  • Institute a rigorous system of pre-employment screening to keep potentially dangerous individuals out of your organization. Put all candidates under the microscope. Develop a zero-tolerance reputation with regard to a hostile work environment. Follow up on all references, test for substance abuse, check law enforcement and court records, and conduct at least two interviews with plenty of open-ended questions.
  • Follow up all incidents immediately with a consistent approach that gets the facts and imposes appropriate consequences. This will probably include warnings and monitoring.
  • Institute a by-the-book and very simple termination procedure manages must follow. The proper procedure will get the dismissed employee out the door with his or her dignity intact.
  • Secure the premises. Do you know who is in the building at all times and why? Are identification badges necessary? Could any blind or isolated corridors and parking lots benefit from a security monitor or escort? Is every entrance, including the loading dock, secure?
  • Write a crisis response procedure and make all employees aware of its existence. If the worst happens, does everyone know what to do?
  • One additional preventative method is to consult with (and possibly retain the services of) a behavioral psychologist to whom you’ll have easy access should a need arise.

No employee should ever feel threatened on the job. Besides the obvious safety issues, more than 40 percent of the managers in the FBI survey report the threat of violence alone negatively impacts employee morale and productivity. Your company has a responsibility to ensure a safe work environment for all employees. Policies should stress zero tolerance for rude, offensive and aggressive behavior.

What You Can Do Personally

What can an individual employee do? You are not a powerless victim. A few tips to take action on a person basis:

  • Do not respond to violence with violence. Wait until your aggressor cools down. Pick a good time (you’ll know when that is), bring her a cup of coffee, sit, and start a discussion. It might sound something like this: “Susan, I understand your frustrations lately because we’re all under a lot of pressure. But do you know how your behavior is affecting me (other employees, etc.)?” In other words, tell her that her behavior is making you and others feel nervous and uncomfortable and affecting job performance.
  • Document incidents of objectionable behavior, including the dates and a description of what occurred. Include names of witnesses.
  • Report the behavior confidentially to an appropriate company representative (human resource department or your boss) along with the documentation. Describe how this person’s behavior is affecting you and others and ask the company representative to intercede on your behalf. Describe how the situation is creating a hostile work environment for all employees, that you have been unable to resolve it despite a concerted effort, and that you are now requesting help to stop the behavior. Be specific, firm, and concerned.

On a lighter note, Tami Loughman, executive administrative assistant for The Stansley Group in Sylvania, Ohio, offers some helpful hints that have helped her alleviate stressful periods at work. “Make an extra effort to smile or say a kind word to your colleagues,” she suggests. “Humor also helps diffuse a tense office environment. Establish a certain area in the office like the lunchroom for fun gadgets/toys and books to lighten up the atmosphere. It’s contagious; people will start having fun with it. Have a dress-up day when employees can wear evening apparel, or a funny hat day, a favorite sports team day, etc. You’d be amazed how this can ease tensions.”

During pressure-cooker times, companies must seriously consider the potential for workplace violence. If the company fails to curtail potentially violent behavior, it could (and should) lose valuable employees (including yourself). Why would anyone want to stay in an uncomfortable and threatening workplace?

“You can try to change the (threatening person), try to change yourself, try to get help, or get the hell out,” suggests Rob Rosner, author of Walking Wounded. I couldn’t agree more.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars