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Offshoring, outsourcing, re-organizing, budget-cutting, downsizing, re-engineering and just in time delivery are up, while loyalty, job security, staffing, dedication and esprit de corps are down. Employees are under-titled, underappreciated, underemployed, underutilized and likely in danger of being unemployed. All these factors plus lean and mean manufacturing, illegal immigration and the threats of mass disaster and terrorism (often on top of increasing mortgage payments and credit- card debt) cause employees to feel overworked, overstressed, overloaded and maybe overmatched personally and electronically (Fleet & Fleet, 2007).
In these kinds of atmospheres, when work life imposes more stress than support, employees and managers can expect to face increasing incidence of interpersonal conflicts, and workplace violence (NIOSH, 2002). Numerous reviewers have commented on conceptual and operational definition of workplace violence (e.g., Keashley & Jagatic, 2003; Synder et al., 2005; Robinson & Greenberg, 1998). OCH (Organizational Health and Safety, New Zealand) defines workplace violence as "Any incident in which an employee is abused, threatened or assaulted by fellow employees or by a member of the public in circumstances arising out of the course of his or her employment".
Workplace violence can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical abuse and homicide and can occur at or outside the work (Jirk & Franklin, 2003). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, US) defines workplace violence as "any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting. It includes, but is not limited to beatings and stabbings, shooting, rapes, suicides, psychological traumas such as threats, obscene phone calls, and intimidating presence and harassment of any nature such as being followed, sworn at, or shouted at."
According to US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace shootings account for roughly 10% of all work related deaths per annum in United States. "Over the past 5 years, 2004-08, an average of 564 work-related homicides occurred each year in the United States. In 2008, a total of 526 workplace homicides occurred, or 10 percent of all fatal work injuries." (U.S. Dept. of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Workplace Violence Fact Sheet, July 2010). In New Zealand, a survey of 62 organizations reported 143 cases of physical and 254 cases of attempted assault on employees (Massey University, 2009). In the same year, 12 percent of all work related deaths were homicides, and out of the total, 18% classified under the assault and violence act category (Lieber, 2011). Statistics show that in U.S. an average of more than three persons dying at the workplace each and every workday of the year excluding the bystanders (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).
While individuals have to incur most of the cost from such incidences, organizations too have to bear the consequences like - low productivity, legal and medical expenses, low quality products, bad culture and poor public image (Fleet & Fleet, 2007). According to U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics, workplace violence is cited as the 10th leading cause of nonfatal occupational injury involving costs of more than $400 million (Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Research Needs, Department of Health and Human Services, U.S.). In addition, violent attacks at work cost US companies a whopping $36 billion a year which doesn't include the losses caused by decrease in productivity, poor public relations and employee turnover (Kirk & Franklin, 2003).
Workplace Violence as Fleet (2007) explains has become one of the most unpleasant realities of the world today. Whether it occurs in conjunction with a separate crime, as a carryover from domestic problems, as a result of work related changes or as a result of toxic organization, the costs and consequences associated are truly significant and long lasting (Paul & Townsend, 1998). Keeping the above facts in mind, it is paramount that the organizations along with the HR personnel must prepare for and must be able to identify the symptoms of violence (Magyar, 2003, page 64).
Employers lack the importance of recognition and prevention of workplace violence says Lieber (2011, page 83). More than 70% of U.S. workplaces have no formal program or policy in place to handle workplace violence issues. Off the 30 percent of the organizations that had policies regarding the workplace violence, 44 percent of them don't take every aspect of the workplace violence into concern (Lieber, 2011). It is critical for employers or organizations to understand the importance of workplace violence as such incidents can bring tragedy and tremendous costs to companies without any prevention programs (Sutcliffe, 1999). With proper training and procedures, situations can be identified and resolved before they end up in any kind of violence act.
One of the most common misconceptions regarding the workplace violence is the thinking of the organizations that "It could never happen to us." (Lieber, 2011; Fleet & Fleet, 2007; DelBel, 2003; Barling et al., 2009; Paetzold et al., 2007). Contract Management Group (CMG Associates) president Bruce Cedar describes a typical offender as the one who is short on impulse control, with inborn temperament or due to learned coping mechanisms. On the contrary, Zager (2003); Leiber (2011); Fleet & Fleet (2007) argue that a violent outburst is the resultant of long term issues. Leiber (2011) regards this as one of the common misconceptions that predators of the workplace violence just snap one day and go on reckless rampage.
Delbel (2003); Leiber (2011), Coco (1998); explains that the workplace predators often show multiple signs that they are in trouble, but management consistently fails to report or identify such instances for implementing early precautions. Various researchers have identified different warning signs that are exhibited by disturbed or disgruntled employees. Some of the signs are: changes in behavior, noted sexual problems, harassing behavior, inappropriate workplace aggression and bullying, unnecessarily screaming, aggressive eye-contact, financial problems like bankruptcy or foreclosure, unresolved debits, irregular sleep patterns, depression and suicidal tendencies, excessive drinking or drug abuse. Organizations have to be careful while identifying these warning signs/red flags and they must make sure that they should not create any kind of profile of an aggressive employee. According to Day & Catano (2006), profiling may sometimes can be useful in personnel selection. On the contrary, Paul & Townsend (1998) and Gladwell (2006) argue that the resultant of the profiling method would likely to be so broad as to be very little practice value along with other legal and ethical concerns.
As Fleet & Fleet (2007) in their research have aptly linked the metaphor "volcano" with workplace and how various factors contribute towards building of the violence. Similarly, Coco (1998) in his research indicated some of the factors that contribute towards violence at workplace. Some of the factors are: Society, glamorization of violence in movies and on television, poor discipline, personal problems, poor economic conditions and authoritarian style management.
Steps to curtail the risk of Workplace Violence
Organizations face potential liabilities whenever workplace violence takes place inside or outside their working boundaries (Paetzold et al., 2007). It's critical for not only for the organization, but also for the employees to understand the seriousness of workplace violence and contribute in making workplace a healthy and enjoyable location to work. It is also important to recognize the potential signs that may indicate that an employee is either the victim of violence or perpetrator of violence at the workplace (Lieber, 2011). While an immense amount of research has been conducted on the factors that prevent workplace violence, yet it has not been determined that which techniques are the most efficacious (Wilkinson, 2001; Howard, 2001).
The following are some of the preventive measures but not limited to that organizations should take to prevent workplace violence:
Articulate a Strong Anti-Violence Policy
Many researchers (Sutcliffe, 1999; Zager, 2003; Coco, 1998; Atkinson, 2000; Kirk & Franklin, 2003; Magyar, 2003) enforce the idea of creating and publicizing a zero tolerance policy. Organizations have to make sure that the workplace-violence prevention policy should be up to date (Leiber, 2011). The policy should be clear in the definition of what constitute an inappropriate workplace aggression and requiring all employees to report violence, threats of violence or other disruptive behavior (Zager, 2003). The message should be conveyed to all the workers including part time or contract workers. Organization can opt different methods to spread the message like: emails, posters, newsletters, talks with management. However, as Fleet et al., (2007) explains that the companies have to be very careful for not alarming employees unnecessarily and make sure that "having an anti-violence policy is not a confession that there is a problem, nor is the failure to express such a policy an indication that the organization has nothing to fear." (Fleet & Fleet, 2007). Atkinson (2000) argues that the organizations have to very sensitive towards the zero tolerance policy, as it should not give an indication that any potential for violence is met with termination. The response must consider and take into consideration the nature of violence and surrounding circumstances.
Establish a crisis management team
Sutcliffe (1999) advocates establishment of a crisis or quick response team. The team should be composed of specialists from within or outside the organization (Atkinson, 2000). The team should have experts from various disciplines like: Human Resource, legal security, Employee Assistance Program and appropriate outside consultants (Spillan, 2003). This team should be responsible for documentation of all threats and developing a crisis plan for identifying and dealing with violent incidents (Fleet & Fleet, 2007).
Examine the hiring process
It is of outmost importance that the HR managers and the hiring officials should be very vigilant while screening prospective employees to ensure that they are doing every possible step to nurture a healthy and positive work environment (Leiber, 2011). A number of tools are available to assist hiring process, like effective interviewing, checking criminal history, financial background, past employer feedback and drug testing. Human Resource personnel can develop a questionnaire which will help them to identify applicants who may be prone to violence (Atkinson, 2000). Business owners should check the criminal history and must perform the credit checks of the potential employees. Organizations have to be very particular about the information based on which they take future decisions says Kirk & Franklin (2003), as Equal Employment Opportunity laws limit the amount of information that can be legally used for job related convictions.
Hiring someone with a criminal background could also be considered a civil negligence says Leiber (2011) resulting in heavy penalties against the organization.
Train Supervisor and Employees
Most organizations acknowledge the importance of training an employee to be cognizant of potential workplace violence activities which would help the employees to defuse the situation before its too late (Kirk & Franklin, 1998). If the employer doesn't have qualified trainer, then it must hire consultant, advises Atkinson (2000). According to Anonymous (2005), in any organization, line supervisors are one the most important link, who stands at the intersection between workers and events that are taking place in and around. The author stresses on training supervisors and preparing them for handling complex issues and dealing with sensitive information. On the contrary Mujtaba (2010) highlights the importance and need of training all employees and not just the front line supervisors in recognizing and dealing with the workplace violence. As Bensimon (1994) says, "you can't just grease the squeaky wheel. You've got to grease the whole machine".
Fleet and Fleet (2007), describes the three main folds that a training program must focus on i.e. prediction, prevention and reaction.
Prediction: Everyone in the organization should be trained to identify potential sources of violence and what signs can employee look for while determining the potential violent person like attitude changes, behavioral changes.
Prevention: As supervisors play a very important role in dealing with workplace violence, many organizations begin their intervention with them, but as the author suggests, that all employees must be given the training as there may be workers who are more comfortable with their colleagues rather than the supervisor.
Reaction: Employees should also be trained as how to react, if trapped in a violent situation. The training should focus on some key aspects like how to calm the other person, what kind of gestures one should avoid, how to converse, how to maintain non-threating body posture, how to converse in soothing but firm tone and ways to use distraction to defuse violent energy (Coco, 1998).
Support Programs for employees
There can be many reasons that can cause an employee to behave in out of the box. Reasons like, family, marital, financial or personal issues have profound effect not only on employee's work performance but on their social interaction at work as well (Northwestern National Life Insurance, 1993). Today, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP's) are widely regarded as one of the most desirable programs. Employees who are facing some kind of issues, or are under immense pressure and stress, should be referred to such programs where they can avail free, easily accessible and confidential resources (Kirk & Brown, 2003; Copper 1997). Employee Assistance Programs are very helpful, as long as it's an early intervention says Zager (2003).
Minimize negative effect of re-organization
All organizational efforts like downsizing, layoffs, re-engineering, re-structuring, should be handled very carefully says Fleet & Fleet (2007). If an employee continues to disregard the policy that dictates termination, in that case its important for the organization to proceed (Atkinson, 2000). The reasons for termination should be well documented and explained to the employee (Zager, 2003). Employees should be notified well in advance so that they make adequate plans. Organizations should also organize different counseling sessions. These sessions will help the terminated employee to focus and work on his negative points.
Unfortunately, while terminations are an effective measure to remove troublesome employees, but organization have a certain amount of risk like lawsuit for wrongful termination or an unstable, more angrier ex-employee (Atkinson, 2000). For protection of other employees, organizations must repossess the badges, keys and other items from the exiting employee.