This article was originally published in 2001 for Executive Update Magazine. It was written in the wake of two workplace shootings that happened then. I am republishing it today in response to the shootings at a local news station in Virginia. I dream of the day when articles like these are no longer needed.
The recent shootings in Hawaii and Oregon are stark reminders that every organization needs to devise a plan to reduce workplace violence. The remedies proposed here to organizations create an atmosphere that will promote safer surroundings. The applications are not expensive. The benefits will lead to a positive environment for employees and will also result in a more productive workplace.
Much of the media attention regarding violence on the job has been devoted to identifying individuals who might be prone to violent acting out. The work done in this area is extremely important but limited in scope. Focusing on a “deranged” individual who is to blame is tempting and agrees with the value that we, as Americans, place on individual responsibility. It is, however, naive to believe that we would be able to accurately identify and remove all who might, but have not yet, violently acted out. In fact, this would clash with another deeply held American value that protects the rights of individuals who have yet not committed illegal acts.
There are individual risk factors that we have been able to identify. All of those who possess these factors will not act violently, but when the risks factors are present there is a higher likelihood of aggression. In the same manner, there are workplace risk factors that also must be understood. Although no single factor “causes” violence, reduction or elimination of these factors will decrease the probability that a violent act will occur.
One in six violent crimes occur in the workplace. An estimated seven percent of all rapes, eight percent of all robberies, and 16 percent of all assaults happen on the job. These startling statistics come from the 1994 U.S. Department of Justice report on workplace crime.
Three workplace conditions that are associated with a higher risk for workplace violence have been identified: 1) perceived unfairness, 2) punitive disciplinary styles, and 3) job insecurity.
Risk Factor: Perceived Unfairness.
A highly stressful job condition occurs when employees perceive conditions as unfair, according to J. Greenberg, writing in a 1990 article of the Journal of Management. This can be independent of the actual workplace conditions.
What we are dealing with here are employee perceptions. One of the most common complaints I hear when I talk to employees is a belief that they are being treated unfairly. Sometimes this occurs because the employee has a very limited perspective on the overall goals of the company. At other times, employees point out inconsistencies in management or favoritism to other employees. Intimidation by management is also commonly cited as unjust. When employees perceive an inequity in the workplace, they engage in attempts to restore their sense of justice. Employees that do not understand the goals of the company, or experience inconsistency coming from management are likely to explain the conditions at the company as “unfair.” As the level of threat increases, in the judgment of the employee, the likelihood of an aggressive or violent attempt to equalize conditions also increases. Individuals who have a history of resolving issues using physical or verbal aggression will be more likely to use aggressive means in their attempts to establish fairness.
Remedy: Consistency, Clear Goals.
It is important for an organization to provide consistent and clear goals for its employees as a remedy for perceived injustice. This effort originates at the top levels of management and is implemented by the immediate supervisors of the employee. If the top levels of management do not set clear and consistent goals, immediate supervisors cannot compensate for this deficit. Consistency provides an employee a reasonable opportunity to accurately predict potential benefits or risks inherent in the workplace. This becomes “the way things should be.” For example, when an individual arrives at work on time, meets quotas, and completes a full week of work, he or she expects a certain amount of pay. It that paycheck is altered because the company cuts wages due to an economic crisis or the cost of benefits rises, this is experienced as “unfair.” It seems even less fair if no reasonable explanation is offered or the wages are changed unexpectedly. Other policies or work rules are also judged “unfair” if they are applied inconsistently or without clear reason. Policies and procedures that are both clear and consistently applied are necessary because they form a basis for expectations in the workplace. Meeting expectations increases the sense of justice in job conditions.
Another tool for establishing a workplace environment that will be judged fair is to set and communicate clear goals in the organization or at the association level. Human beings are driven to make “meaning” out of the events of their lives. When an individual has limited vision about organizational goals, there is a tendency to become self-centered in thought. Events are interpreted as “good” if they provide comfort and as “evil” if they are the source of discomfort. In the presence of a larger goal, people are able to sacrifice immediate comfort for the sake of a larger benefit, and sometimes even exert effort of “heroic” proportions, if the vision is strong enough. Those organizations and associations able to put forth a strong and clear vision are able to unite employees in a common goal. This not only decreases the perception of unfairness, but increases the effort people will put forth to accomplish the tasks set before them. Once clear goals are set, a process of open communication that provides effective feedback at all levels of the organization continues to reduce the perception of unfairness. It is in this feedback process that employees begin to discover conditions on the job that address and correct injustices and fosters the experience of fairness.
Risk Factor: Punitive Discipline
J. Barling, in a 1996 publication, Violence on the Job, notes that an overly close and punitive style of supervision has characterized many workplaces in the 20th century. Many organizations, as well as many individuals, view punishment as an essentially corrective process. When I discuss remedies for problems with individuals in authority, punitive measures are often the only remedy the person knows to suggest. This view results in reactive attempts to control other individuals. There are several problems with this view. It is virtually impossible to control behavior by reacting to it after the fact. Punishment as a primary means behavior control does not work! Punishment temporarily suppresses behavior until the punishing agent is no longer present. This creates a very labor-intensive form of behavior control. The punishing agent must continually monitor behavior. When the punisher is absent, the behavior will reappear, stronger than before. Punishment also sparks the emotions of anger and fear, which are direct behavioral pathways to aggressive behavior for some individuals. Individuals who have a history of past aggressive behavior, who abuse alcohol or other drugs, and who personalize behavior as a direct threat to them are particularly at risk to act out in reaction to punitive discipline.
In addition, the emotional cost of anger and fear saps important energy necessary for the completion of job tasks. This emotional energy remains unfocused, and is unavailable to the organization as a result. Performance drops. Additional energy is used to escape punishment and is also unavailable to the organization. Performance drops again. Not only does punitive discipline increase risk for violence in the short run, it decreases work performance in the long run.
Remedy: Balanced Incentives, Emotional Control
What is needed is a more balanced incentive plan. Corrective action does need to take place. But effective control, and increased performance, is the result of clear expectations and effective incentives for the accomplishment of work tasks. Wages and benefit packages do not substitute for acknowledging and promoting talents of workers. Human beings need to feel good about their lives and about what they accomplish. Efforts to help them improve skills, and recognition of work that is high quality is encouraging and energizing. Blending personal goals with organizational goals is a very powerful means of motivating workers to perform it top levels. When employees are highly motivated and acknowledged for their contributions, energy is spent improving the organization. This dramatically reduces the risk that employee will act out in an aggressive or violent manner.
Using incentives to elicit effective behavior requires managers who exercise emotional control. Reactive negative responses are most characteristic of individuals who lack control over their psychological states. The managers who are effective in establishing top performance have highly developed skills to regulate emotions, so that emotional reactions they have to problems are informative, but not “in control” of decision-making. This allows managers to think clearly and calmly when problems occur, and (perhaps even more importantly) allows them to plan ahead to prevent future problems. It is easy to understand why a preventive approach would be far less likely to be associated with violence than a reactive and punitive confrontation with an employee.
Risk Factor: Job Insecurity.
Job insecurity is a fact of life in the modern economy. Job insecurity may also precipitate violence. According to S.J. Ashford, C. Lee, and P. Bobko, in 1989 article of the Academy of Management Journal, job insecurity leads to feelings of powerlessness and loss of control. Many researchers point out that violent incidents sometimes occur after an employee has been laid off or believes he or she is about to be laid off (for example, see P. Stuart, writing for the Personnel Journal in 1992).
Things have changed in the modern workplace. A lifetime career with a single organization is now uncommon. The same company rarely employs workers for many years. At the same time, when job insecurity is combined with perceived unfairness and punitive discipline on the part of managers, it is a potentially volatile factor in the eruption of workplace violence. Insecurity is experienced as powerlessness and loss of control. Lack of control is the most important factor contributing to destructive forms of stress. Individuals take action to reassert their power and control as a means of de-stressing. When the reassertion is directed toward the company, and it is delivered aggressively, it can have devastating consequences.
Remedy: Honesty, Frequent Feedback.
Companies sometimes unnecessarily withhold bad news from employees. It is difficult to be honest with employees because some of the news will be disappointing to them. But it is more devastating when the bad news comes without any forewarning. The withholding of information adds to the emotional impact of the bad news. The employee is likely to believe they have been lied to, and he or she may in fact be correct. This is one situation where honesty is the best policy. Having some advance notice increases the perception of control. As noted above, the ability to reasonably predict the potential benefits or risks of situation can be helpful to us. We are more likely to be able to identify active and effective problem solving strategies when we can anticipate potentially negative circumstances in advance. There is a risk to this kind of honesty; it could lead to an employee leaving a job prematurely. There is also a potential benefit for the company; it also may lead to creative problem solving that might benefit both the employee and the company, negating the need for a layoff or downsizing.
In addition, supplying frequent feedback to employees, both positive and negative, will assist them in identifying areas of strength and weakness. This also adds to a sense of control. While employers may worry that this strategy will also cause workers to leave prematurely, if the information is given directly and honestly, it may in fact result in a worker who is more committed to the goals of the company because he or she will better understand what is required to be successful. This increase in employee commitment to the job would result in improved job security for the worker and improved productivity for the company.
Individual risk factors, such as the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, a history of past physically aggressive behavior, self-esteem problems, and use of verbally abusive or aggressive language interact with the workplace risk factors to increase the likelihood of violence. Comprehensive strategies for reducing risk will include an analysis of conditions on the job, as well as vigorous policies to provide intervention for individuals who demonstrate dangerous behavior patterns. It should be pointed out that the application of each of these remedies for reduction of risk of violence in the workplace also has the potential for dramatically improving productivity within a company. It is not only good safety policy. It is good business policy. As a result, by a creating a safer workplace, both the worker and the organization benefit. It is a true win-win situation.
Prevention efforts reduce the risk of violence. Unfortunately, they do not eliminate the risks. According to the FBI’s Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Profiling, and Behavioral Assessment Unit these are signs of potential danger:
– Direct or verbal threats of harm;
– Intimidating, harassing, or other inappropriate aggressive behavior;
– Numerous conflicts with supervisors and employees;
– Bringing a weapon to the workplace, making inappropriate references to guns, or fascination with weapons;
– Statements showing fascination with incidents of workplace violence, approval of the use of violence to resolve a problem, or identification with perpetrators of workplace homicides;
– Statements indicating desperation (over family, financial, and other personal problems) to the point of contemplating suicide;
– Drug/alcohol abuse, and
– Extreme changes in behavior.
There are no reliable “profiles” of individuals who may be violent and “early warning signs” have generally proven to be inadequate to predict risk for violence.
OSHA recommends these components for a program to reduce violence:
– Management commitment and employee involvement to establish a safe working environment. A threat response team that includes representatives from all levels of the association should be established to investigate and resolve any reported threat.
– Worksite analysis to identify high-risk situations. This can be done through employee surveys, workplace walkthroughs, and reviews of injury/illness data
– Hazard prevention and control efforts. This includes alterations in design of physical structures or administrative procedures to reduce the risks or limit the potential of violent incidents.
– Training and education for all members of the association. Training topics should include: review of workplace violence policy, instructions for reporting threats or incidents of violence, methods for preventing or diffusing potentially volatile situations, and reminders of security procedures.
– Record keeping and evaluation. Procedures for violence reduction prevention programs, data about investigations of threats and follow up efforts need to be collected.
Violence on the Job (1996), edited by Gary R. VandenBos and Elizabeth Q. Bulatao American Psychological Association.
Violence in the Workplace (1995), Raymond B. Flannery, Jr. Ph.D. Crossroad.
Dealing with Workplace Violence: A Guide for Agency Planners (1998). U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Combating Workplace Violence: Guidelines for Employers and Law Enforcement (2000). International Association of Chiefs of Police.