Keeping it safe Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002

The front page banner headline shouts the story: A deranged, enraged employee recently fired or passed over for a promotion returns to the workplace to exact his revenge.

He may head directly for his boss’s office with a revolver and a single bullet ... or unload a deadly spray of gunfire at the people who he perceives have slighted him or otherwise participated in his humiliation. He saves the final bullet for himself, leaving behind a grieving family and a workplace forever traumatized.

Incidents of workplace violence were virtually unheard of until the 1970s. Since then, however, cases have more than tripled. But the scenarios of revenge and mass killings are only a small part of what the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health calls an epidemic.

The majority of incidents are not fatal assaults, but everyday occurrences of physical violence, verbal threats and forms of harassment that cost employers millions of dollars annually in litigation, lost productivity and damage control. A recent survey by the Northwest National Life Insurance Co. shows that an estimated 2.2 million employees have been directly affected by violence at work.

According to Jodi Scott, president of Brighton Management Group in Cleveland, every company has a responsibility to implement a workplace violence prevention program. This begins with making sound hiring decisions using behavioral-based interviewing and thoroughly checking the references of applicants. It should also include a complete background investigation of a candidate’s criminal, driver’s, financial, military and other appropriate records. Fair firing practices are also critical.

“Another important part of the plan includes training all employees to recognize the signs and symptoms of violence prone behavior,” says Scott.

Research indicates that suspects will exhibit multiple behaviors or actions before the incident, including:

  • Increase in absenteeism;

  • Decrease in attention to appearance;

  • Depression/withdrawal;

  • Outbursts of anger without provocation;

  • Verbal abuse of co-workers/supervisors;

  • Repeated comments indicating suicidal tendencies;

  • Sabotaging equipment or property;

  • Increased mood swings;

  • Resistance to changes in procedures

  • Unsolicited comments about firearms and other dangerous weapons;

  • Fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit materials.

“It’s also important to evaluate these behaviors relative to the company’s culture. What seems offensive or inappropriate in a professional setting may be ordinary in a less conservative atmosphere,” she says.

Scott adds that it’s critical for employees to feel that if they inform management about the unusual behavior of a co-worker, it will not be construed as tattling.

“It’s always better to be wrong than to overlook the early warning signs.”

Scott identifies factors that can contribute to workplace violence:

  • Being downsized or fired;

  • Witnessing work force reduction;

  • Receiving a bad performance review;

  • Subjection to disciplinary action;

  • Confrontation with the boss;

  • Loss of workplace status/self-esteem;

  • Unresolved or ignored grievances;

  • Change or trauma in personal life/social problems;

  • Financial problems.

Preventing workplace violence means recognizing the common factors identified in offenders:

  • White male, 35-45 years of age;

  • Migratory job history;

  • Loner with little or no family/social support;

  • Chronically disgruntled;

  • Externalizes blame; rarely accepts responsibility for things gone wrong;

  • Takes criticism poorly;

  • Identifies with violence;

  • More than a casual user of drugs and/or alcohol;

  • Keen interest in firearms and other dangerous weapons.

Scott cautions that these guidelines are general.

“It’s hard to say what actually causes a seemingly sane person to go over the edge. I think it’s a mixed bag of genetic, familial and social-psychological factors,” she says. “Above all, employers must establish an environment that promotes respect, dignity and civility.

“American businesses have become so bottom line oriented that we tend to forget we’re dealing with human life.”

Nicki Artese (nartese@reservesnet.com) is vice president of communications for The Reserves Network. She can be reached at (440) 779-1400.