If you read the newspaper, listen to the radio or watch television, you are probably aware that workplace violence is increasing and it’s having a negative effect on corporate America. Every week seems to bring a new incident involving death or serious injury in the workplace. But aside from the obvious acts of physical aggression, reports of less dramatic workplace violence and conflict are also on the rise.
“People’s tolerance for it has become smaller and people’s education and awareness about it has become greater,” says Bonnie Michelman, Director of Police, Security and Outside Services at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The kinds of activity that people ordinarily wouldn’t have either defined as workplace violence or complained about have changed significantly”, she says.
Michelman, who was a speaker at the ASIS Conference and Exhibition held in Philadelphia last week and also a past president of ASIS, spoke to me about the increasing problem of workplace violence and what can be done to stop it from escalating.
Whether it’s actual violence or just conflict, it has a grave impact on an organization and on the people who are victimized by it, says Michelman, adding that even low-level conflict can lead to more egregious or physical acts of violence. That’s why it’s so important to focus on awareness and prevention before conflict escalates.
Zero Ignorance Policy
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Michelman believes that a zero tolerance policy for violence is unrealistic; instead, she talks about a “zero ignorance policy”.
“People need to know that their employer has policies, has training, has education and awareness around all aspects of workplace conflict or violence, whether perpetrated by customers, or employees or managers,” she says. “People have to know there are resources within the company, hopefully corporate security, employee assistance programs, human resources, perhaps even psychological services and maybe even legal services, that will help them deal with issues they are facing both in the workplace and outside the workplace.”
Aside from the risk of physical injury, workplace conflict can affect employee attendance, cause illness, invite Workers’ Compensation claims and translate into physical and psychological effects from stress, all of which cost a company. “Those financial impacts are enormous,” says Michelman, “and most corporations do not know how to quantify them.”
Reading the Signs
The good news is that corporations are making huge strides in proactively educating their workforces, managers and leaders to recognize signs of dysfunctional behavior that may escalate to violence.
Signs to look for include:
- A previously social person who has become anti-social
- Someone who becomes extremely angry and full of rage
- An employee who is unable to accept changes at work
- A person who blames others for the issues that they are facing
- An employee who has become short-tempered all the time
- Someone who exhibits brief acts of violence, such as hitting a wall or stomping his or her feet
- Someone who start fights frequently, even verbal arguments
- A previously calm employee who has suddenly become irrational
When an employee is exhibiting one or more of the signs, Michelman says that management should address it immediately, and possibly send the employee for a “fitness for duties evaluation”, which is a physical and psychological evaluation to ensure a person is safe. “That’s not only for everyone else’s protection, it’s for the person’s own protection,” she says, since there’s always a possibility that there is a physical or psychological problem that is causing the behavior.
What to Do
Give a troubled employee options, advises Michelman. These can include:
- Internal resources
- Time away from work to get help
- Sympathy and support from the person’s manager
- Decreasing the person’s workload if her or she is overwhelmed
“All of those factors can make people feel more supported and not alone and isolated,” says Michelman. But, she advises, set limits and make it clear that the behavior cannot continue.