Tips for Recognizing and Preventing Workplace Violence

You don’t have to read far into the headlines to realize that workplace violence is still a real and serious issue.

The deadly shooting in a Southern California Immigration and Customs Enforcement office last week conjures up memories of the 1986 shootings at the Edmond, Okal. post office where 14 postal workers were shot dead by a troubled colleague, and made the phrase “going postal” part of the American lexicon.

Workplace violence is a serious problem in this country, particularly when the economy and labor markets are weak. Consider that just this week, the Violence in the American Workplace survey found that 52% of Americans who work outside their homes “have witnessed, heard about or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence at their workplace.” The survey, conducted by AlliedBarton Security Services & David Michaelson and Co., also found that 34% of the 1,030 adults surveyed felt either “somewhat” or “very” concerned for their personal safety at work.

With that said, it is important to remember that homicide at work is a rare form of workplace violence. The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence defines workplace violence as:

“Acts of aggression or violence, that occur in, or are related to the workplace, whether intentional or reckless, including assaults, threats, disruptive, aggressive, hostile or verbal or emotionally abusive behaviors that generates fear for one’s safety or entails a perceived risk of harm to individuals, or damage to an organization’s resources or capabilities.”  

The bottom line is that workplace violence needs to be proactively dealt with. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers do have a responsibility for ensuring the safety of their employees, which includes protection from workplace violence. Preventing workplace violence isn’t always easy, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Take the time to consider the potential risks at your workplace:

Asses the Climate: If you don’t have your finger on the pulse of your team, you are not effectively leading. Prevention begins with knowledge. Ask yourself if there have recently been or will be any circumstances or events that will heighten the sensitivity of particular employees.

Everyone reacts to stress differently, so it’s important that you pay attention to unusual changes in behavior patterns. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommends paying attention to increased or unusual incidents of: outbursts, belligerence, threats, or changes in appearance or attitude that seem inconsistent with what you know about the individual.

Establish Dialogue: A lot of violence comes from frustration and miscommunication. Anyone who has ever had to deal with poor customer service has experienced frustration. The key to dealing with frustration in a positive way is having the right kind of outlet. I’m a firm believer in establishing a culture where open dialogue is the norm. Having an appropriate outlet to vent the mental and physical effects of frustration can prevent the kind of festering and negative self-talk that can ultimately lead to violent outbursts. Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs or hotlines that both employees and supervisors can call if the need arises.

Put Together a Plan: Disputes among customers, venders, and coworkers are commonplace in everyday life. You’ll never be able to stop all disagreements, so the goal is keeping these disagreements below the level of physical violence. Most agencies and organizations that deal with workplace violence recommend having a plan for both prevention and dealing with incidents. For more information on planning and prevention see: The National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence and The Occupational Health and Safety Administration

Everyone deals with stress differently and the fact is we are in stressful times. As a supervisor, manager, or executive it’s up to you to keep your finger on the pulse of your team and create a culture of open dialogue where issues can be readily addressed as opposed to festering in the privacy of your employees minds.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward, PhD is a CEC certified executive coach trained in organizational psychology. Dr. Woody is author of The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy and is the founder of Human Capital Integrated (HCI), a firm focused on management and leadership development. Dr. Woody also sits on the advisory board of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.Follow Dr. Woody on Twitter and Facebook