Do Workers Recognize Warning Signs of Workplace Violence?

Experts claim that workplace violence rarely strikes without warning, but according to a new study on the issue, the majority of the workforce does not recognize those potential warning signs.

A recent study commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN) indicates the need for employee education and training on workplace violence.

"AAOHN's study found that nearly 20 percent of the entire workforce claimed they have experienced an episode of workplace violence first-hand, yet the majority still do not know what to look for when it comes to determining potential offender characteristics," says AAOHN President Susan A. Randolph.

The study findings define a significant need for companies to commit to and implement workplace violence education and prevention programs, she added. "Without employee education," says Randolph, "a company will be far less able to diffuse a potential violent situation before it arises."

AAOHN's survey was designed to gauge employee knowledge around the issue of workplace violence and demonstrate the need for violence prevention education. To help ensure survey accuracy, experts from the FBI's National Center for Analysis and Violent Crime, who are currently developing a workplace violence monograph available to companies later this year, were consulted during the development of survey criteria.

Respondents to AAOHN's survey were asked about their personal experiences, concerns, perceptions and overall awareness of the issue. Following are key findings from those questions:

Recognizing the Warning Signs

The survey found the vast majority of respondents did not recognize many of the key workplace violence warning signs, which have been identified by the FBI. In fact, when given a list of "red flag" behaviors, less than 4 percent of respondents were able to identify some of the most common warning signs usually seen in potential offenders. These warning signs include changes in mood, personal hardships, mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety), negative behavior (e.g. untrustworthiness, lying, bad attitude), verbal threats and past history of violence.

Defining Workplace Violence Men vs. Women

According to the FBI, workplace violence can be defined as any action that may threaten the safety of an employee, impact the employee's physical or psychological well-being, or cause damage to company property. When survey respondents were given a list of examples and asked to flag what they perceived as actions of workplace violence, the majority of respondents were in agreement of what was and was not considered violence. However, when answers were analyzed by gender, there was a significant difference between what men and women considered to be workplace violence, especially when it came to such actions as stalking, threats and intimidation and sexual harassment:

  • Stalking: 73 percent of men in comparison to 94 percent of women agreed that stalking was a form of workplace violence. Threats and intimidation: 76 percent of men in comparison to 90 percent of women agreed that threats and intimidation were examples of workplace violence.
  • Sexual harassment: 83 percent of men in comparison to 97 percent of women agreed that sexual harassment is a form of workplace violence.

The AAOHN survey primarily focuses on employee-on-employee violence, which is the most common source of threats or assaults on the workplace violence continuum. Other important types of workplace violence stem from domestic disputes that spill over into the workplace; robberies or other crimes; or violence committed on an employee by a non-employee (customer, client, etc.)]

Workplace Violence Prevention

In response to findings such as the ones outlined in the AAOHN survey and the overarching prevalence of workplace violence among the U.S. workforce, AAOHN and the FBI offer the following guidance to help companies develop workplace prevention and education programs.

AAOHN recommends taking the following steps to effectively develop and implement a workplace violence education program:

  • Management should conduct a thorough organizational risk assessment and develop workplace violence prevention policies and programs that address potential risks in environmental design (security cameras, key card access), administrative controls and behavioral strategies.
  • Programs should clearly define the spectrum of workplace violence (ranging from harassment to homicide), delineate employee responsibilities for recognizing and reporting signs, and be shared with every employee. All programs should promote zero tolerance.
  • Ask for and integrate employee ideas when developing and implementing a violence prevention program.
  • Create a confidential and seamless reporting system. Encourage workers to report any and all concerns to a single representative, such as an occupational health and safety professional or human resource manager.
  • Incorporate a variety of communications tools such as posters, newsletters, staff meetings and new employee materials.
  • When training employees, review common warning signs, behavioral traits and how to recognize potential problems. Employees should also understand that each case is different, and to not limit at risk behavior to a standard profile.
  • Involve all employees in workplace violence prevention programs. Training should be ongoing and mandatory for every employee.
  • As an employee, actively participate in all education and awareness programs. If you do not have a violence prevention program at work, request information from your occupational health department, human resource department or manager.
  • As an employee, if you recognize that a colleague exhibits at risk behavior, report any concerns to your human resources representative or occupational health professional.
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