When employees attack! Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2001
Despite the recent media attention on serious and fatal violence in the home, school and workplace, national statistics reveal that extreme violence in the workplace is declining.

But as positive as this is, there remains an increased problem of low-level, employee-on-employee violence, the seemingly minor incidents of harassment, threats and intimidation that occur in many businesses.

According to the results of the Workplace Practices Survey, at least one of 92 CEOs and HR managers who responded believes his company's biggest challenge is dealing with problem employees. And, while that person is in the minority, more than 10 percent of respondents admitted there had been at least one violent incident in their workplace within the past two years.

Violence on every level is becoming more of a concern for business owners, says Tim Dimoff, a former Akron narcotics officer and president of SACS Consulting Inc. Dimoff specializes in high-risk workplace issues.

"The actual extreme violence, shootings and stabbings and such statistically are down," Dimoff says. "What has happened in the last couple of years is that society has become sensitized to violence and figured that we had to do something."

Extreme violence, harassment, stalking and the like are estimated to cost American business owners $35 billion each year.

"For every incident you hear about, there are hundreds you don't see," Dimoff says.

In fact, low-level violence can destroy morale, increase turnover of good employees and, of course, make a company and its management vulnerable to costly litigation.

"It's not simple anymore," Dimoff says. "We see some unique and concentrated efforts to intimidate and bother."

But, Dimoff admits, most often the reaction to lower-level intimidation and harassment is to ignore it or respond with a slap on the wrist.

"They don't know what to do," he says. "It is alien to them and they are too busy with running the business."

The problem with that approach is that unchecked violence tends to escalate.

"It is like having a little crack in a sidewalk," Dimoff says. "Eventually, it gets bigger and you have more cracks."

Even with this increased sensitivity, Dimoff says he still meets employers hesitant to confront problem employees and situations.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, 'Should we take this guy seriously?'" he says, adding that his rule of thumb is that if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.

There are no easy answers when dealing with workplace violence, but Dimoff has several tips:

  • Train supervisors.

  • Report every incident in writing.

  • Have an organized game plan.

  • Use outside experts to investigate and diffuse potentially violent situations.

But perhaps the most important step an employer can take to prevent violent situations is to create a zero tolerance environment for any level of employee disrespect. Creating a culture of zero tolerance begins with the leadership, but as Dimoff explains, it will quickly be transmitted to the entire organization.

"Employee communication is faster than fiber optics," he says.

Zero tolerance, interestingly enough, doesn't always mean immediate termination. Dimoff suggests a cooling off period and diffusing situations rather than rushing to a decision, especially before hearing both sides of a conflict.

"Don't fight fire with fire," he says.

Dimoff also stresses the need to diffuse potentially violent people. That may mean suspending an employee and sending paychecks in the mail while Dimoff's company does an investigation. The bottom line is that in the end, it is less costly than dealing with the aftermath of a violent ex-employee who feels blindsided by accusations.

Violence is a problem that doesn't look like it's going away any time soon.

"I have had more requests for armed termination this year than ever before," Dimoff says.

And whether it is the pressure of personal lives or simply unstable employees, the incidents are becoming more frequent.

"It used to be that I would get a call about a potential violent situation four times a year," he says. "Now, I get two or three a week."

How to reach: SACS Consulting (330) 628-6393

Kim Palmer (kpalmer@sbnnet.com) is managing editor of SBN Magazine.

SACS Consulting website