Kevin Ian Schmidt

Workplace Violence Awareness

workviolenceWorkplace violence involves any negative behavior that is disruptive to either another employee, customer or against the company itself. The reason I use such a broad term of definition is because most cases that end in violence begins with a negative behavior. It is at the inception of this behavior that action should be taken and not later, once things have gotten out of hand.

Often Supervisors and Managers find themselves in a frustrating situation. Lack of awareness training leaves them feeling frustrated and uncertain. Workplace violence is not always obvious and therefore often managers do not know how to recognize a problem at its onset, let alone know what to do to stop it. It’s a legitimate concern because if the problem is real, one is dealing with a time bomb and action needs to be carefully planned and handled delicately. If there isn’t a problem, and the situation is handled poorly, the accused employee is embarrassed or forced to leave the job, then you have civil action to worry about.

Company culture is a determining factor in acceptable employee behavior. Compounding the problem is weak or nonexistent policies regarding harassment and workplace violence, which hold just as much liability as apathetic management who choose to look the other way when a problem threatens escalation.

Violent events at the workplace don’t just happen out of the blue. There are always warning signs that something is wrong. Ultimately, it is the coworkers who usually first notice the change in behavior of one of their teammates. If awareness trained, these coworkers will know the importance and necessity to report their observations to management who can take immediate crisis intervention action. This is where a company finds excellent use of a “hotline” service. Anonymity is essential because if the employee fears that the potential aggressor will know who to go after, he or she will not report the activity. In that same light, employees who have undergone such awareness training know that their timely action could not only save their own life, but the lives of their coworkers.

Managers should take all threats seriously. Many times it’s one employee’s word against another, and when the offending employee is questioned s/he often remarks that – s/he was just kidding around or blowing off steam. Even if the offending employee was just blowing off steam or kidding around, keep in mind that the action was enough to cause concern to one employee – and that is one employee too many.

The warning signs of potential workplace violence include:


  • Lowered productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Behavioral outbursts such as arguing, yelling or arguing with coworkers
  • Displaced aggression [kicking desk or punching walls]
  • Talk of destruction or making someone pay
  • Depression
  • Family problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Preoccupation with violence through movies, magazines and weapon collecting

preventing_workplace_violenceIt’s important to remember that our anticipation of violence can inadvertently perpetuate violence. For example, a termination is already a tense and emotional situation and it’s crucial that the employee be given a chance at a dignified exit. Having security in the same room at the time of termination is a show of force, and this alone can antagonize the employee into a hostile reaction. How you terminate someone should be carefully thought out and planned ahead of time with your safety in mind as well as the rest of your staff. If you think you are dealing with a volatile employee, pay the few extra dollars and have a counselor attend the dismissal meeting.

What a manager or business owner doesn’t realize is that responsibility or liability concerning the safety of its employees does not end when they leave the company property. In the U.S., and Canada is not so far behind, lawsuits are being filed against employers for failing to take responsible and due care to prevent a foreseeable injury which the manager or company had a duty to prevent.

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The Common Forms of Workplace Violence Incidents is as follows:

• 54% – Inappropriate language
• 13% – Verbal abuse
• 7% – Verbal threats of violence
• 6% – Sexual harassment
• 5% – Burglary
• 4% – Pushing/Shoving
• 3% – Fist fight
• 2% – Threatening emails received by employees
• 2% – Stalking
• 1% – Robbery (holdup)
• 1% – Threatening emails send by employees
• 1% – Bomb threat

Some employers have not yet fully addressed the issue of workplace violence; their negligence has not necessarily been purposeful. It has been due to a lack of awareness of the problem coupled with a preoccupation with everyday work and management pressures. This has caused employers to ignore some of the organizational factors that have contributed to workplace violence.

Some of those factors include:1. A weak, misunderstood or non-existent policy against all forms of violence in the workplace
2. Failure to educate managers and supervisors in recognizing early warning signs or symptoms of impending violence and their responsibility to take action
3. No appropriate and safe mechanism for reporting violent or threatening behavior
4. Failure to take immediate action against those who have threatened or committed acts of workplace violence
5. Inadequate physical security
6. Negligence in the hiring, training, supervision, discipline and retention of employees
7. Lack of in-house employee support systems

Employers who have addressed workplace violence have often overlooked domestic violence and how this plays a part in the workplace.

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Myths about Workplace Violence That Cause It to Be Ignored

Myth #1: Workplace violence incidents are rare.

Unfortunately, we can find ourselves living in a bubble of complacency. And, unless we’re shaken out of our sleepwalking state by a terrifying news story, we tend to not notice less horrific things around us.

While it is true that the number of murders occurring from a workplace violence attack have lowered over the past few years, we shouldn’t be limiting our focus to just homicide. In fact, according to OSHA, there are over 1 million reported incidents of assault each year, just in the United States alone. And, since it’s estimated that only about half of all incidents are ever reported, that the total is closer to 2 million. And, this doesn’t include the approximately 1,000 homicides and 51,000 sexual assaults!

Myth #2: It will never happen here.

I call this the “Ostrich Syndrome.” You know, the belief that, “if I bury my head in the proverbial sand, I can make danger disappear.” The truth is that workplace violence can happen in any business, at anytime, and anywhere. And, it does. In fact, I’ve consulted with executives, business owners, and employees from, not only the US, but also Canada, Germany, England, France, Japan, and Thailand. And… the story is the same: Today’s workplaces are the most violent environments in which you can find yourself.

Myth #3: Postal employees have more to worry about than I do.

Unfortunately, due to a few incidents which occurred decades ago, the post office and it’s employees have garnered a much undeserved reputation for violence. Even the phrase, “going postal,” is still popular after nearly four decades of it’s creation. The reality is that only about 3% of all incidents occur within all government agencies – combined!

In fact, post office employees, as with any government workers, are probably some of the “least” likely to encounter violence in the workplace. While occupations like nursing and other healthcare, teaching, and psychiatric counselors have some of the highest incidents.

Myth #4: Workplace violence is a guy thing and women shouldn’t worry about it.

Murder is the number one cause of death for women killed on the job. And, as I said before, this is paled by the 13,000 rapes, 51,000 sexual assaults, and about 35% of the 600,000 simple assaults that occur in American workplaces every year. In other countries, like India, the Middle East, and the East, the percentages are even higher.

Men may perpetrate more of the attacks involving the use of guns, but women share the field almost equally when it comes to being the attacker and the victim. In addition, over 65% of all non-fatal workplace assaults occur in nursing homes, hospitals, residential care facilities, and other social service environments – places where women make up the vast majority of the work force.

Myth #5: Security guards and metal detectors will prevent workplace violence.

As a former police officer, I learned very quickly that security measures can do little to stop a determined perpetrator of a crime. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a burglar, a rapist, murderer, or even a terrorist – the newest threat to workplace safety.

In fact security guards and detection devices can do little more than cause an attacker to think more creatively. And, even if they do prevent the outsider from entering your company, they can do little to stop current or former employees, friends, family members and visitors that would have both knowledge of your facility, and a reason to be there in the first place.

Myth #6: The only cost we’ll have to worry about is attorney fees.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to my share of human resources managers, administrators, and executives about the need for a workplace violence prevention plan and crisis response training program in their facility. In that time, one of the most disturbing comments that I’ve ever heard was, “that’s what our attorney’s are for.”

Not only can your attorney’s, or the police for that matter, “not” take away the damage, injuries, death, and destruction that can occur, but their fees will be the least of your problems. The true cost of workplace violence incidents are estimated to be between 55 and 2 million US dollars every year. Costs associated with your company’s recovery in the post-event aftermath include not only attorney’s fees, but also lost work time, the effects of negative press and public image, property repairs, increased insurance premiums, and fines or judgments entered in favor of any plaintiffs suing you for liability. To give you an idea about just one of these areas, OSHA reports that American companies pay for over 1,700,000 sick days annually due to lost time resulting directly from violence in the workplace.

In many cases, the financial strain resulting from just one incident has put more than a few companies out of business for good.

Myth #7: He just “snapped.” We can’t prevent it because there are no warning signs.

Reports show that in 80% of all incidents of workplace violence, the assailant gave warning signs that went unheeded. In all of the programs that I teach, regardless of whether we’re talking about basic self-defense, street survival for law enforcement professionals, or workplace violence prevention and defensive tactics, “awareness” heads the list and is the easiest and most successful means for surviving a workplace violence attack.

The reality is that managers and employees alike can learn to anticipate, assess, and even manage the risk from internal causes by identifying, monitoring, and addressing employees who exhibit high-risk behaviors and characteristics before they can escalate into actual violence.

While not all situations can be prevented, and this is where a good, solid, self-defense and attack avoidance program comes in, early awareness and action can save property, lives, money, guilt and the embarrassment which can arise out of knowing that action “could” and “should” have been taken to prevent or minimize it.

Myth #8: We have insurance to cover the cost of damages.

Most workers and managers, as well as business owners wrongly believe that they are covered completely by whatever insurance coverage is in place to protect the company. When, in fact, supervisors, managers, and others in an authority or leadership position can be held personally responsible and sued in civil court for their actions or failure to act, and the conduct of others over which they had authority.

And, while most companies carry some sort of liability coverage, you may find that your insurance policy may have clauses that exclude damages from certain types of actions. Like hospitals, universities, and other open, “porous” entities, your company can be left holding the proverbial “bag” in the case of injuries, damages, or harm that comes to visitors, guests, and family members caught in the cross-fire of an event but who are not actually employees of your company.

Myth #9: We have a workplace violence prevention policy so we’re safe.

In light of all the evidence, most companies still do not have workplace violence plans, policies, or training programs. I have found that those who do, are still missing critical elements from these plans and leaving themselves open to the same or greater liability issues that their plans were supposed to eliminate in the first place.


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