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When Words Fail : Workplace Violence and Communication

When Words Fail : Workplace Violence and Communication

Is your facility at risk for an outburst of workplace violence? The only way to know is to talk to employees.

A concerned brother and the quick reaction of a police officer probably saved lives on May 2, when Mulugeta Ejigu nearly beat his wife to death and then headed for Hewatt Co., a property management company in Lawrence-

ville, Ga. Ejigu, disgruntled with the company that had leased him a convenience store, told his brother he had killed his wife and had a gun and was heading for Hewatt Co.

The brother called 9-1-1, and an officer who was nearby heard the call from dispatch and responded. When he approached Ejigu in the parking lot, Ejigu turned the gun on himself.

Fortunately for the people working at Hewatt Co., police had some warning about what was about to unfold and were able to stop it. Other workers across the country have not been so lucky. However, experts say incidents of workplace violence often have warning signs that have been ignored or dismissed.

Half of Employees Impacted by Violence

Workplace ViolenceAccording to the survey “Violence in the American Workplace,” conducted by AlliedBarton Security Services, over half of Americans employed outside their homes have witnessed, heard about or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence at their workplace.

“Workplace violence often starts as verbal assaults or harassment and can escalate into threatening behavior, bullying, physical assaults and even deadly encounters,” says Bill Whitmore, president and CEO of AlliedBarton Services. “With the significant increases in unemployment in the past several years and other downturns in the economy, there is every reason to believe that these incidents may be increasing.”

Even with high levels of concern for their personal safety, most employees who have witnessed or experienced workplace violence did not report the incident or take other action. When they did take action, they most often reported the incident to a supervisor or human resources. Very few employees contacted company security or the police.

A Pervasive Problem

The objective for the survey was to determine if American workers have personally experienced violence in the workplace, witnessed violence while working, been threatened with violence, have concerns about workplace violence, have taken actions to ensure their own safety and their attitudes toward their current employer. Over 1,000 adults employed outside of the home participated.

These events include open hostility, abusive language or threats and can escalate to significant physical harm to someone by another person. Even more significant is that 28 percent of workers report a violent event or one that can lead to violence happened to them at their current place of employment or they have been personally affected by this type of event.

According to Whitmore, senior leaders must take a proactive stance against workplace violence. The survey found that while almost all employers (94 percent) take some action as a result of workplace violence, the most likely type of action taken is meeting with employees. Three out of four workers who witnessed, heard about or experienced workplace violence report their employer held an employee meeting, and most said the employer met with the employee who experienced workplace violence.

However, employers appear much less likely to take other actions when these events occur. Only half took disciplinary actions and even fewer implemented training for employees or supervisors. Changes to physical environments or revisions to company policies were even less common. Increasing security through the involvement of police or other authorities or contracting with a security provider were the actions least likely to be taken as a result of workplace violence.

Most people believe that violence occurs when someone is angry about certain circumstances. The truth is, they get angry over what they believe about the circumstances, says Mike Staver, creator of the audio and video series “21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down.” When a person gets angry, says Staver, it’s because at least one of three primary triggers is in place. The person feels:

1. This situation is unfair.

2. This situation is out of my control.

3. This situation is personal; it’s happening to me.

For some employees, these feelings might result in a drop in performance level. Or, it could escalate and he or she might make threatening comments to another employee or about the company in general. Or, in extreme circumstances, the employee might resort to violence, as in the case of Mulugeta Ejigu.

“The more intensely the person feels these factors, the worse the violence can get,” says Staver. “Naturally, if you see these triggers in a coworker or employee, you should be very concerned. ”

Employee Morale Suffers

While employees who potentially might act out often are feeling negative about their workplace, coworkers or supervisors, workers who have experienced or are aware of violence or the conditions leading to violence at their workplace definitely are down on the workplace. They rate their current place of employment lower on every key measure than those who did not experience, witness or have awareness of these types of events.

When a violent act occurs in the workplace, nearly half the employees working at that facility no longer feel they are valued, says Whitmore. And while many of us make jokes about how we’re not paid enough to put with (fill in the blank), the reality is that most of us feel we are fairly compensated. That changes dramatically for employees who have experienced a violent incident at work: only one in three of those employees feel they are fairly compensated.

Workplace violence appears to be a significant contributor for workers in seeking a new position. Twenty-eight percent of those who experienced or are aware of workplace violence are looking for or are seriously considering looking for a new job. By contrast, only 17 percent of those who have not had this experience are considering new employment, says Whitmore.

Recognize the Triggers

The real tragedy, says Staver, is that so many of these violent incidents could be avoided if employees and leaders understood how to recognize violence triggers and how to defuse them in the workplace.

“Most people who act out violently at work indicate what’s going to happen through their words and behavior beforehand,” he says. “When people can recognize the warning signs, they can do more to prevent these terrible situations.”

The key to preventing workplace violence is knowing what to do when you see that a coworker might be susceptible to these triggers or is displaying other warning signs, such as bullying, substance abuse, frequently discussions of marital or other non-professional problems, making idle threats, etc.

Staver says all warning signs must be taken seriously and should be reported right away. Often, as the study from AlliedBarton Services showed, employees don’t report the incidents when they occur.

“It happens for many reasons,” says Staver. “They believe the popular myth that people who make threats don’t act on them. They don’t want to seem like alarmists. They fear they’ll become a target.”

Or, he added, often there isn’t a sufficient workplace safety and incident reporting system in place. But when you suspect something is wrong, you should report it right away. If the leadership at your organization isn’t taking it seriously, then go to the authorities.

Employers should not place the burden of reporting such incidents fully on workers, added Staver. “All organizations should make sure that they have workplace violence policies in place, that all employees have a clear understanding of the policies, and that all employees know how to take action and what to expect when they do report an incident,” he says. “Managers and leaders should also be well trained in how to defuse anger in the workplace and also what kinds of situations are out of their control and demand that law enforcement be involved. There is simply too much at risk to avoid taking these actions.”


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