Workplace Violence Myths Explained in Wake of Shootings

Dec. 29, 2000
In light of the post-Christmas office shootings in Massachusetts,\r\nexperts are urging employers to review their workplace violence\r\nprevention policies.

In light of the post-Christmas office shootings in Massachusetts, experts are urging employers to review their workplace violence prevention policies in an effort to save lives and prevent additional acts of workplace violence.

On Tuesday morning, a software engineer blasted through the offices of Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Mass., killing seven co-workers with 37 rounds from a semiautomatic rifle.

Experts say that despite the growing phenomenon of physical and verbal violence in the workplace, companies large and small are clinging to two prevailing myths: it can''t happen here and it can''t be prevented.

GHR Training Solutions, a South Florida-based consulting firm, said it has been conducting an ongoing study of workplace violence in U.S. businesses.

"During the course of our research, with far too few exceptions, both small business executives and corporate executives insisted that there was no need for training or crisis planning to deflect or eliminate violence or even office rage," said Sheryl Grimme, co-founder of GHR Training Solutions.

GHR refers to Myth #1 -- it can''t happen here -- as the "Ostrich Syndrome."

"Executives must be ''burying their heads in the sand'' if they fail to see the potential for violence in their organizations," said Don Grimme, co-founder of GHR Training Solutions. "Across the nation, thousands of violent incidents, ranging from verbal assaults to physical attacks, occur every day -- including in their own workplaces. Unfortunately, most incidents are never reported -- further propagating the myth."

"If the epidemic of anger and violence during the past few years has demonstrated anything, it is that it can strike at any time, in any community, in any workplace," added Grimme.

That''s the bad news. The good news becomes revealed when Myth #2 -- it can''t be prevented -- is exposed.

"You see, workplace violence can be prevented," said Grimme. "In fact, in at least 85 percent of incidents, there are clear warning signs."

ASSE Encourages Stronger Workplace Violence Prevention

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is urging employers to review their workplace violence prevention policies, conduct a risk assessment and vulnerability audit.

A recent analysis of a national survey of safety professionals and risk managers done by the 89-year-old Illinois-based ASSE and the Risk Insurance Management Society (RIMS) assessing the awareness and prevention techniques used to avoid workplace violence found that although the number of incidents in the respondents'' workplaces have stayed the same, employees remain concerned.

In response to those concerns ASSE and RIMS drafted a white paper to outline several steps employers should take to prevent a violent incidents and what can be done following one to help employees cope with the tragedy.

In the "Workplace Violence Survey and White Paper," ASSE suggests that officers and directors establish a workplace violence prevention and security policy that includes the following:

  • Upper management of any organization need to promote a clear anti-violence corporate policy by addressing the issue in a formal written policy that must be distributed and discussed with all employees.
  • Human resource mangers are advised to examine and improve hiring practices, implement pre-screening techniques, utilize background checks, encourage employees to report threats or violent behavior, establish termination policies and provide post-termination counseling.
  • Risk management and safety departments are advised to train all employees in the warning signs of aggressive or violent behavior, train management in threat assessment and de-escalation techniques, review and verify insurance coverage, exclusions and so on.

ASSE also recommends that a supportive, harmonious work environment be fostered which allows employees to be empowered and at the same time empathetic management skills should be encouraged, as authoritarian leadership styles then to promote higher rates of on-the-job violence, according to the study.

It is important to note, the white paper states that legally, employers may be liable for failing to provide adequate on-site safety and security measures after they have been notified of a potential danger.

According to the white paper, the U.S. Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion that stated that "an employer is subject to vicarious liability to a victimized employee for an actionable hostile environment created by a supervisor with immediate authority over the employee."

The Department of Justice found that 21,300 recent assaults and violent acts in the workplace resulted in not only fatalities, injuries, grief stricken family and friends and missed days off from work due to the emotional impact, but estimated that the cost to employer in days missed and legal fees annually was $4.2 billion in 1992.

Workplace violence causes far more than a financial toll, according to the white paper. Employees witnessing violent acts in the workplace report increased levels of stress and lower morale, which can not only affect them negatively in their day-to-day lives, but can lead to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism and turnover.

Workplace violence is more than homicide, the white paper states, and harassment is the leading form of on-the-job workplace violence with 16 million workers harassed each year.

Other violent acts include stalking, threats, inappropriate communication, trespassing, telephone and e-mail harassment, property defacing and invasion of privacy and confining or restraining victims.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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