Workplace violence touches everyone. It affects the way we think, feel and behave. The threat of workplace violence affects the emotional stability and productivity of our employees, and ultimately our profitability. Although the incidence of actual physical violence at work is relatively low, workplace violence affects the lives of thousands of innocent Americans each year. These unfortunate and often preventable crimes can destroy people, families and businesses. Even when the act of aggression is only psychological, it can be painful and costly.
More locks and guards are not the answer, however. Employers need strong policies, effective security protocols, and a well-conceived strategy to confront the potentially violent employee and prevent workplace violence.
Employers have a moral duty and a statutory obligation under federal and state laws to provide and promote a safe and non-violent work environment. Illustrative of these responsibilities are the requirements under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and state workers’ compensation laws. Employers also have responsibilities to the public. Either vicariously or directly, employers may be liable for the harm brought to others by workplace violence. Moreover, employers have additional legal obligations to job applicants. This intricate web of statutes, standards, rules, and regulations creates a legal minefield for supervisors and managers. Wading through that minefield is precarious at best; employers must protect those employees and other parties without infringing on anyone’s rights. Rarely has the challenge for employers been greater. Fortunately, there are solutions.
Characteristics of an Aggressor
Research shows that workplace aggressors follow a typical sequence of behavior, called a progression, which in many cases ultimately leads to violence. They usually suffer a traumatic, insoluble (or so they believe) experience and they project the blame for that experience on others. Egocentric by nature, they typically believe that everyone is against them and the world is out to get them. Unable to resolve personal, interpersonal, and work-related problems, these individuals usually resort to violence.
Progressions can be detected, though predicting an aggressor’s behavior is a considerable challenge. Experts agree that without careful evaluation and analysis it is reckless and dangerous to attempt to predict future violent behavior. Without the help of an experienced clinician or other qualified professional, it is impossible for the typical supervisor or manager to psychologically assess an emotionally troubled employee and determine his or her fitness for duty. However, many workplace aggressors share certain characteristics. They often relate poorly to people, have difficulty getting along with others, strongly believe they have been wronged, have recently been adversely influenced by something or someone outside of their control, and have a history of violence (domestic, public or workplace).
Though no two aggressors are alike, they share some common characteristics and behaviors:
- Withdrawn and considered a loner
- Has few interests outside work
- Self-esteem depends heavily on job
- Strong sense of injustice to self or beliefs
- Externalizes blame, projects
- Poor people skills, difficulty getting along with others
- Has a history of substance or alcohol abuse
- Has a history of violence (domestic, public and work)
The Motivation Toward Violence
We are a culture steeped in violence and a society burdened with enormous economic pressures. The threat of corporate downsizing, restructuring, or potential layoff looms over many of us. As a result, many have rid themselves of traditional values and chosen to accept less personal responsibility while expecting more from their employers and government. People are afraid and angry. Truly, the sanctity of the workplace is being challenged.
Research reveals that perpetrators of workplace violence generally fall into six motivational typologies. They include:
Economic–The aggressor believes the target is responsible for undesirable economic conditions affecting him, his family, or a particular group.
Ideological–The aggressor believes that the target is endangering principles the attacker considers extremely important.
Personal–The aggressor possesses distorted feelings of rage, hate, revenge, jealousy or love.
Psychological–The aggressor is mentally unbalanced or clinically psychotic, a condition often exacerbated by drugs or alcohol.
Revolutionary–The aggressor obsessively desires to further political beliefs at any cost.
Mercenary–The aggressor is motivated by opportunity for financial gain.
Those who commit workplace violence do not simply snap without warning. Research has shown that aggressors tend to exhibit inappropriate and disruptive behavior prior to committing an act of violence. To the observant supervisor or manager, this behavior serves as a warning sign and allows time for preventative action. Listed below are characteristics and behaviors that might signal a potentially violent employee:
- Inappropriate emotional outbursts
- Intense mood swings
- Overreaction to criticism
- Unusual paranoia
- Inappropriate statements or comments
- Rambling, incoherent speech
- Isolation from others
- Volatile, antisocial personality
- Obsessive-compulsive personality
- Uncontrollable romantic obsession
- Distorted values
- Devaluation of other people
- Reckless impulsiveness/ destructiveness
- Exaggerated self-importance and value to the organization
Aggressors generally exhibit several of these behaviors over a period of time. The aggressor tends to display a progression toward a violent outburst, with his or her behavior becoming increasingly inappropriate. This incremental escalation, or ramping up, is typical and should serve as a warning to the observant supervisor or manager. Once set in motion, rarely does a progression reverse without intervention. Supervisors and managers must recognize inappropriate behaviors and interrupt the progression before it is too late.
Recognizing and Overcoming Denial
Supervisors, managers, and even organizations engage in denial. Supervisors and managers may deny that an employee has a problem, even in the face of irrefutable proof. They may refuse to admit that someone for whom they are responsible could be violent or dangerous to others and excuse or overlook the employee’s inappropriate behavior. By denying the existence of a problem, they are also denying the employee help.
Companies engage in denial by failing to create sound policies, failing to enforce the policies they have, and failing to respond to incidents suggesting the potential for violence when they occur. Out of fear and unwillingness to confront the truth, employers deny the troubled employee the help they need. In so doing, they not only participate in the progression toward violence, but also incur what may be immeasurable liability.
Recognizing danger, supervisors and managers must act appropriately and quickly. That action is called intervention.
Intervention is the process of returning the employee to a structured work environment and helping the employee regain control of his or her life. To successfully intervene, management must have the will to redefine boundaries and overcome the aggressor’s base of power. The intervention process must be well planned and executed. Nothing should be left to chance.
Upon recognizing inappropriate or disruptive behavior, management must act immediately and put the employee on notice. If a progression is identified early enough, the first warning by the organization is usually oral. Verbal warnings often suffice to cause behavioral changes and halt further aggression. When such warnings are not enough, written warnings should follow. If the progression continues, the aggressor may be referred to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or an outside resource for counseling. Monitoring performance and addressing behaviors is called performance-based management. It provides structure to the work environment while at the same time, offers the employee choices.
In extreme cases, progressive discipline and professional counseling may not be enough. Under these circumstances, termination, temporary restraining orders, hospitalization or prosecution may be the only solutions available.
Intervention is not possible without a well-conceived plan. That plan or strategy is developed and implemented by what is often called the threat (or incident) management team. Depending upon circumstances, the threat management team will consist of professionals from the following areas or disciplines:
- Executive management
- Human resources
- Security/executive protection
- Employment/labor law
- Public law enforcement
- Clinical psychology/psychiatry
- Incident/crisis management
Though each member of the team has an important role, the role of the clinician is probably the most critical. The clinician provides powerful insight into the psychological and emotional makeup of an individual. They will typically be a licensed psychological or psychiatric professional, preferably at a Ph.D., Psy.D., or MD level. He or she should have experience in dealing with the psychology of criminal behavior, conducting hostage negotiations, and facilitating trauma management.
Once the members are identified, the team will meet and decide on preliminary objectives based on available information. Lacking adequate information, the team is often unable to make decisions. When this situation occurs, one or more team members will be assigned to collect the necessary information. That process may involve discreetly interviewing the target, witnesses, co-workers, supervisors, former employers, or family members.
A proper background investigation of the aggressor may also be in order. The typical background investigation includes the detailed examination of the following records:
- Criminal history
- Driving history
- Civil indices
- Notices of default
- Tax liens
- Ownership or registration of weapons
Additionally, the aggressor’s personnel file (if available) should be reviewed. Treating physicians, law enforcement officials, and other professionals can also be contacted for collateral data whenever possible. As in all employment situations, the privacy of all parties should be respected. To ensure that the balance between need and privacy is adequately struck, the team attorney will be consulted during the entire information gathering process.
After gathering all reasonably available information, the incident management team should review it and make an assessment. That assessment will form the basis for the strategy to deal with the aggressor. With the information available, the team will determine the seriousness of the threat, an appropriate course of action, and possible outcomes.
If termination, hospitalization, or prosecution is appropriate, the team will strategize and do all that is practical to achieve that result without provoking a violent response. Even if management intends to work with the troubled employee, the threat management team must still create a workable strategy. That strategy should redefine performance and behavior boundaries for the aggressor, as well as tolerance thresholds for management.
In summary, the threat management team will, whenever practicable and possible:
- Conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation of the aggressor and the allegations against him (or her).
- Have the aggressor professionally assessed and determine the potential for violence.
- Decide the best course of action with the information available.
- Implement all appropriate safety and security precautions, making sure to protect people before property.
- Coordinate with local law enforcement and access all available outside resources.
- Review, rehearse and refine the plan.
- Review legal implications and potential liability.
- Make contingency plans and communicate with the intended target.
- Meet face-to-face with the aggressor and disclose actions intended by management.
- Determine future safety and security needs.
- Notify law enforcement of outcome.
- Take appropriate legal action (e.g., obtain a restraining order).
- Debrief target and tie up loose ends
- Provide professional counseling to those in need.
- Hold employee communication sessions that are forthright, but respectful of the rights of the target and the aggressor.
The Five Step Safety Plan
Employees can help protect themselves and their co-workers by exercising the following simple steps:
- Plan head and prepare for the unexpected
- Treat co-workers with respect and dignity
- Respect clients and customers
- Be aware of strangers and their surroundings
- Report inappropriate behaviors and activities
Though an employer can not be expected to provide an impenetrable island of safety for its employees, supervisors and managers are expected to do as much as possible to promote safety and prevent workplace violence. Supervisors and managers must enforce company polices fairly and consistently. The organization also has an obligation to implement an avenue in which employees’ can voice complaints and grievances. When unstable individuals are not able to resolve personal, interpersonal, and work-related problems, they turn to violence as a solution. In order to prevent this escalation, supervisors and managers must provide employees the opportunity to resolve their problems in a safe and confidential manner.
Training and education are also important in creating a safe and non-violent workplace. Employees must understand what is expected of them to create a violence-free work environment. Every employee must also understand that violence or the threat of violence will not be tolerated and that policy violations may result in immediate termination and/or prosecution.
According to the 2004 Federal Bureau of Investigations report on Workplace Violence, the majority of workplace incidents are not multiple homicides, but lesser cases of assaults, stalking, threats, harassment, and physical and/or emotional and psychological abuse that occur on a daily basis. More alarmingly, homicide is still the leading cause of injury death for women in the workplace, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2005.
In conclusion, supervisors and managers must:
- Treat all people with respect and dignity
- Listen to those who come and seek help
- Recognize and document inappropriate behaviors
- Properly enforce company policies
- Hold subordinates accountable
- Document performance
- Keep management and human resources informed
- Never hesitate to call for help