Workplace violence is an act of aggression, physical assault, or threatening behavior that occurs in a work setting and causes physical or emotional harm to customers, coworkers, or managers. Broad definitions of workplace violence also often include acts of sabotage on work-site property.
Workplace violence has emerged as a subject of considerable interest to both small and large businesses in recent years. Some small business owners deny that this grim issue is a concern for them, but in reality, workplace violence can strike even tiny startup firms. And as many analysts and business owners have charged, even the threat of violence can have a dreadful impact on the culture and productivity of a small business. Whereas employees of larger firms generally have more avoidance options to choose from when forced to share workspace with a volatile employee, the more modest facilities and resources of smaller businesses do not provide the same level of protection.
Certainly, recent statistics indicate that workplace violence is an issue that all businesses need to address. A U.S. Department of Justice survey indicated that 709 workplace homicides took place across America in 1998 alone, and that nearly two million violent incidents occurred in U.S. businesses from 1993 to 1998, including one million simple assaults and 400,000 aggravated assaults. A 2000 study conducted by Northwestern National Life Insurance, meanwhile, stated that 2,500 of every 100,000 American workers have been attacked on the job, with a full 30 percent of those assaults made by coworkers, supervisors, or ex-employees. In addition, most experts agree that these statistics do not adequately convey the scale of the problem, for most incidents of workplace violence and aggression are never reported. As Donald W. Myers' observed in Business Horizons, murders and suicides are the only categories of workplace violence that have been documented in any meaningful way: "Similar categories of data on other types of violent acts committed against employees, such as aggravated assaults, simple assaults, and rape, are not available. In addition, data on these acts are not recorded on a consistent basis, so yearly trends cannot be determined. Furthermore, information is not maintained on workplace violence involving property, such as arson or sabotage. In sum, with the exception of workplace fatalities, no one really knows the magnitude of workplace violence."
According to the Workplace Violence Research Institute, workplace aggression also takes a heavy financial toll on 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, increased 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 or mid-sized range, but prohibitive legal expenses and penalties have become a source of particular concern in recent years. "Workplace violence has become a breeding ground for litigation wherein victims seek compensation for their injuries," explained Kari Johnson in Business North Carolina. "Gone are the days when businesses were able to have such claims dismissed as a matter of course based upon the unforeseeable criminal acts of third parties. Today, victims of workplace violence are recovering substantial jury verdicts and hefty settlements."
Small business owners can take several steps to address the spectre of workplace violence. Hiring and interviewing practices should reflect the company's desire to establish and maintain a good workforce, and the owner should do his or her best to establish a company culture that does not tolerate non-violent forms of intimidation. After all, insulting and intimidating behavior—which may lead to physically violent behavior if left unchecked—can wreak significant mental harm on its victims, and may even provoke a violent response by victims who feel that they have no other recourse. Indeed, some studies have indicated that victims of harassment actually become less productive than employees who suffer from physical assaults. "The best solution to avoiding workplace violence is to discuss it with your employees and have a plan to deal with it—before you need it," stated business writer Jane Applegate. "Business owners should have a written workplace violence-prevention plan to show they are dealing with the problem." Other options, albeit unpleasant to contemplate, include boosting security precautions by adding security personnel or installing metal detectors. Some security consultants urge their clients to make it clear that employee desks and lockers are company property that can be looked through at any time, and they should be encouraged to report all violent acts to legal authorities. Finally, business consultants and security experts counsel small business owners to recognize that workplace violence does not always stem from internal sources. Indeed, the majority of homicides that take place in workplace settings are actually perpetuated by non-employees (angry customers, robbers, irate spouses, or romantic partners).
Experts believe that businesses can take a number of steps to dramatically reduce their likelihood of an employee carrying out an act of workplace violence. Many of these are proactive in nature, designed to minimize the business's exposure to violent acts by employees:
Maintain and disseminate detailed policies on workplace behavior. "Adopt a zero-tolerence policy that addresses signs of potential violence," counseled Security Management' s Michael Gips. "Such a policy should clearly state that threats, intimidation, destruction of company property, and violence in any form will not be tolerated and provide for progressive disciplinary action for such conduct." These guidelines should also clearly delineate violations that may result in discharge or other disciplinary action so that workers are cognizant of behavioral boundaries. In addition, these policies should explicitly state the company's determination to protect victims and/or informants of violent acts against any form of retaliation.
Maintain and disseminate workplace violence prevention programs. This plan should cover everything from investigatory steps to take when an employee exhibits questionable behavior to the manner in which problem employees are dismissed. "These training programs should focus on teaching employees how to recognize and report suspicious activity and should provide written information on whom to contact in an emergency," wrote Gillian Flynn in Workforce. This aspect of the program needs to be addressed with particular care, for staff participation will only occur if they can express concerns about coworkers in a safe and confidential way. Other elements of these programs typically include disciplinary training for managers, security plans, pre-employment screening, and media relations of an incident of workplace violence does take place.
Screen applicants. Every company's workplace violence prevention program should include a thorough investigation of applicants' background (including employment history and possible criminal record) and qualifications for the job opening. Many experts believe that incidents of workplace violence are more likely to occcur when an employee is struggling with his/her responsibilities, so ability to fulfill the responsibilities of the position in question is a particularly relevant consideration. In addition, interviews should include questions that can help identify potential risky hires. According to Gips, such questions include: "What would you do if a fellow employee called you a bad name? Embarrassed you in front of others? What did your previous boss do that made you mad? Tell me about a past supervisor you admired. It is a clear warning sign that a person has problems getting along with others if he can not identify a single past supervisor he liked." In addition to the above background and interviewing techniques, many companies have also adopted drug and alcohol testing, aptitude testing, and honesty testing as part of their overall interviewing process.
Recognize warning signs. Law enforcement and security experts agree that employees who engage in violent acts often—though not always—exhibit behaviors that serve as "red flags" indicating potential problems. These include: engaging in direct or veiled threats against coworkers, paranoid behavior, unreciprocated romantic interest in a coworker, obsession with weapons, pronounced mood swings, excessive anger over company policies or decisions, decreased productivity, and deteriorating relations with fellow staff, customers, or vendors.
Be cognizant of potential trigger events . Business owners should remember that workplace violence does not erupt for no reason, and that if it takes place within the walls of the company, the chances are pretty good that it was triggered by a workplace issue or event. Demotions, critical performance appraisals, layoffs, disciplinary actions, and other professional disappointments can all trigger violent behavior.
Counseling. Employee assistance programs can be very valuable to workers who are struggling with stress at home and/or in the office. Applegate noted that "when confronted with a volatile employee, the nature tendency is to fire the troublemaker, which often exacerbates the situation and can provoke a violent episode. The better approach is to suggest the troubled employee get professional counseling. Paying for it out of your own pocket, if necessary, is worth it, if it will avert a disaster." In addition, some employers have instituted policies designed to give employees an outlet for them to relay their grievances and concerns. These avenues range from regular meetings with managers to comment boxes or surveys.
Terminate with dignity. Employers can reduce their exposure to workplace violence by instituting and carrying out policies that treat terminated employees with respect. In addition, some consultants encourage companies to offer outplacement counseling for ex-employees as part of their severance packages. Before doing so, however, business owners and managers should discuss possible legal ramifications with a qualified attorney.
Address ex-employees who pose a potential threat. Many businesses erroneously believe that once an employee has been discharged and is no longer in the workplace, the worker no longer poses a threat. But this is not necessarily the case. A study by North-western National Life Insurance, for example, stated that 3 percent of the total number of reported incidents of workplace violence were perpetrated by ex-employees. Restraining orders, password changes, and other special security measures may be necessary in some situations.
"The mere act of helping a violent or potentially violent ex-employee gain new employment raises problems, according to legal experts," wrote Gips. He noted that according to legal consultants, "there is no legal duty to warn a prospective employer of another company's experiences with an employee. But if the company purports to say something positive about the employee without revealing negative information, [it] might be interpreted as an endorsement of that employee, which could trigger the duty to tell the whole truth—including the violence or threatened violence." Other potential legal pitfalls await business owners who are asked to comment on ex-employees who engaged in questionable behavior that nonetheless never became violent in nature. Business owners and managers can not simply speculate that an ex-employee might be a violence risk, if there is no confirmed behavior upon which to base that opinion. Statutes governing defamation liability in this area vary considerably from state to state, so business owners who are asked about ex-employees who are seen as security risks should seek legal advice before responding.
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Flynn, Gillian. "Employers Can't Look Away from Workplace Violence." Workforce. July 2000.
Fogleman, Dannie B. "Minimizing the Risk of Violence in the Workplace." Employment Relations Today. Spring 2000.
Gips, Michael A. "Transitioning Problem Employees." Security Management. November 2000.
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Myers, Donald W. "The Mythical Work of Workplace Violence—Or is it?" Business Horizons. July-August 1996.
Neville, Haig. "Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies." Memphis Business Journal. September 8, 2000.
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SEE ALSO: Workplace Anger