Workplace Violence: Awareness & Prevention

There is nothing more basic to the safety and well-being of the workplace than keeping it violence-free. This truth has been tragically spotlighted over the past months and while human behavior is inherently difficult to predict, it is within our ranks where we have the greatest opportunity to prevent such attacks on the peace, safety, and well-being of our workplaces.

According to OSHA, the risk for violence is higher for jobs with extensive public contact in the community. Other high risk workplaces include health care, social service, where money is exchanged or deliveries made, and where late night or early morning hours are worked, particularly in high crime areas.

Over 7,000 workplace homicides occurred between 1997 and 2007 (the most recent U.S. Labor Data available). Of those, over 1,000 involved work associates, which is the focus of the remaining portion of the article.

Although most incidents don’t involve a death, they can none-the-less be scarring for the individual and collective psyches of your team and organization. In addition to any physical injuries, the toxic fallout from violence can include cognitive distraction, fear and anxiety, increased absence, turnover, emotional exhaustion, more accidents, performance deficiencies, and lower production.

According to the Workplace Violence Research Institute, workplace aggression also takes a heavy toll on the financial health of businesses. An Institute study estimated the aggregate cost of workplace violence to U.S. employers to be more than $36 billion as a result of expenses associated with lost business and productivity, litigation, medical care, psychiatric care, higher insurance rates, increases security measures, negative publicity, and loss of employees. Problems in any of these areas can create a difficult financial environment for companies, especially those that are in the small to mid-sized range.

Investigators in the aftermath of violence by employees often reveal that warning signs were missed or unreported, either by employees to management, or by supervisors up the line. For supervisors, there are some common reasons why warning signs aren’t addressed:

  • Aversion to conflict
  • Discomfort with emotion
  • Not knowing or lacking confidence in the company’s safety policy and procedures
  • Reluctance to spend time on non-bottom line issues
  • Fear of retaliation

Given the legal duty of employers and their agents (everyone in a position of authority) to create and maintain a safe workplace, companies are much more likely to train supervisors on workplace violence than the rank and file employees. Yet employees are a powerful piece of the violence prevention puzzle when educated, enlightened and engaged in protecting their turf.

Harassment is at the beginning of the violence continuum which can escalate into warning signs of potential violence. These include:

  • Threats of harm or suicide
  • History of violence
  • Physical or verbal intimidation (example: harassing phone calls or stalking)
  • Unwarranted paranoid behavior
  • Excessive conflicts at work
  • Inability to take criticism about job performance
  • Carrying or fascination with weapons
  • Fascination with news about violent incidents
  • Approval of violence to solve problems
  • Despair over personal problems
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Disregard for employee safety
  • Obsessive involvement with the job with no apparent outside interest
  • A loner romantically obsessed with a co-worker who doesn’t welcome or share the interest
  • Extreme changes in behavior

Employees overwhelmingly want to be good workplace citizens – do the right thing for themselves, the team, and the company. At your company:

  • Are employees empowered and committed to take action if they see a risk?
  • Is there a culture of compassion, respect and professionalism up and down the line?
  • Are employees informed about the proper action to take regarding potential violence?
  • Is there an atmosphere of trust in which employees feel comfortable coming forward?
  • Are employees confident they will be protected from retaliation?
  • Has it been demonstrated that concerns will be taken seriously and information handled with maximum confidentiality?
  • Are supervisors aware, informed, and engaged with management in helping trouble employees, including support through EAP?
  • Have you thought about providing reference cards to employees with warning signs and prevention tips?

Even if the workplace is copacetic over-all, we can’t necessarily jettison outside stressors at the door. Workplace Training Network is hearing about an uptick in hostility in client workplaces as staff members deal with such things as caring for older parents, children returning to the nest, spouses losing jobs, and financial worries. This is a time to engage your entire team in being compassionate, watchful, and proactive in preventing violence from ripping at the fabric of your workplace community.