Our recent North American history certainly shows us that people are capable of violence in the workplace. We have heard too often in the media of workers, customers or students who have returned to an organization to kill themselves, others or both. Yet interestingly enough most of us will regard these examples as nothing to be concerned about “because it wouldn’t happen here”, “the people who end up doing this were crazy to begin with” or “would never get hired here to begin with.”
In a way, I appreciate how nice it would be to live life in such ignorance or naivety. To truly believe one’s environment is impenetrable to the possibility that someone may one day pose a risk to the safety of others in any way might actually be comforting. In reality however, many of us know this is not the case, but the question remains, what are we doing about it?
In most workplaces, often through the course of compliance to legislation, we create and implement a well crafted policy. This policy normally stipulates what constitutes as violence and how much it will not be tolerated. It also outlines the consequences that will ensue should anyone pose a threat to others. In most workplaces it’s through the compliance of this legislation that others are expected to feel safer within their workplace. Some believe the idea is with such a good policy in place employees can rest assured that if anyone is contemplating any act of aggression they will remember these words and these words alone will stop this person from pursuing their aggressive feelings any further. Well, I don’t think it actually works that way but the policy is still required none the less; however it takes more than a policy to protect yourself and others from violence.
I recall one of my first experiences with violence in the workplace. I was working in the food services area of a Winnipeg hotel. I was returning to the kitchen to drop off some dishes and overheard some yelling as I entered the room. When I went to see what was going on, I saw some staff standing back watching a cook and a waiter arguing in a language I didn’t understand. It was clear by their body language however that the argument was escalating and both men were passionate about what it was they were saying. Suddenly the cook reached through the window where he would normally put the food waiting to go to the dining room and grabbed the waiter. He pulled the waiter right through it and stuck his head into the steam table! That is when I ran to get help.
This image has remained burned in my mind for nearly 20 years now as a reminder that policies don’t stop violence, but they can give us direction in how to recognize it and what we should do if it occurs. It reminds me of the very real possibility that violence can and does occur. It also reminds me of how important it is that we learn how to recognize the potential for violence and react to it before it escalates into a situation where someone is injured.
So what should we do? Well the reality is, no matter what we do to prepare ourselves the possibility of violence in the workplace will always exist. There is no way we can eliminate the possibility of it. We can however take steps to reduce the risk associated to violence in the workplace. Here are some suggestions:
1) Leadership staff must role model and provide a working environment to the greatest extent as reasonably possible that is free of workplace violence. If there is a leader within the organization that uses violence to subjugate their staff it should be addressed immediately.
2) Have a clearly worded policy and procedure regarding violence in the workplace. Although it may not stop someone from being violent it does provide clarity as to what is considered violence. It also provides direction to others regarding what steps they should take should they witness or experience any violence in the workplace. A clear plan of action that includes what outside partners to contact such as police will leave little room for subjective decision making that is prone to emotional responses or worse, lack of response.
3) Encourage employees to communicate openly and appropriately regarding violence in the workplace. If this subject becomes “taboo” and people feel uncomfortable discussing it, they will feel just as uncomfortable recognizing it, reporting it and addressing it. Allowing violence in the workplace to remain undiscovered can lead to an escalation of the violence. Don’t let that happen.
4) Training should be provided to all staff regarding what constitutes violence and what they should do if they witness or fall victim to threats of violence. I would also recommend threat risk assessment training for all front line supervisors, security, human resource, leadership and any other staff relevant and able to recognize the possibility of a threat and how to react to one. Threat risk assessment training provides people with great insight into the progressive nature and behavioural changes one might notice of someone who are at risk of becoming violent. This is a great proactive measure that may reduce the risk of violence and potentially save lives.
5) Provide counselling. Counselling is often available through most organizational EAPs. In light of an employee’s exposure to violence or perhaps an avenue to seek assistance during stressful moments in life an EAP may be useful in reducing or managing the impact of violence in the workplace.
6) Know your staff and coworkers. If your work environment is one where nobody seems to know anyone else then you run the risk of never noticing when someone’s behaviour changes. It can sometimes be events unrelated to work that add the stressful conditions which may lead to an act of violence. If you notice changes in behaviour that are concerning and out of the ordinary this is often a good indicator that more information should be collected or emergency services should be contacted if the risk is imminent.
Here are some resources that can help:
HRDC – Violence Prevention in the Work Place
Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response
Occupational Health and Safety Council of Ontario – Workplace Violence Prevention Series