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  • Donald E. Hester

Violence in the Workplace

Academic Paper for Risk Analysis & Loss Prevention


The question as to whether downsizing affects violence in the workplace is easy to answer. Yes, it does affect violence in the workplace. Of course, I do not want to over-simplify the complexity of the violence. Human nature is hard, if not impossible, to predict[1] and there is no one single cause to anger or violence. There are however, a number of factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of violence. Downsizing does not cause violence in the work place but it can and does increase the probability of violence. This raises another question; where does downsizing fit into the cycle that leads to violence?

One of the ways that loss prevention professionals have tried to reduce the risk of violence in the workplace is by profiling employees they feel have a higher risk of committing violent acts. These professionals review case studies of past violent events and try to find commonalities in persons and personalities. Statistically, the profile for an employee who will have a higher probability of committing violent acts is; a white male 25 to 50 years old who is a loner, has a fascination with weapons, is antagonistic toward others, is depressed, paranoid, psychologically unbalanced, tends to be self-destructive, and, possibly, a substance abuser.[2] Of course, profiling employees is not the silver bullet to end workplace violence.


I feel that profiling oversimplifies the complexity of human nature and the mere fact that many psychologists disagree on the factors that lead to violence further proves that what triggers violence is not simple. Using profiles can lead to unjustly judging people and that alone is reason enough not to use profiles as a means to determine which employees are prone to violent acts. You run the risk of violating ADA laws on profiling[3] and possibly even racism by using profiles. It is not fair or right to judge people based on their disabilities or their race or even because they are always grumpy. There is a very thin line that is too easy to cross and will lead to other losses such as civil rights lawsuits for the company.

Profiling is not the answer and it cannot be the answer. Violence and anger are not predictable and profiling does not take into consideration the background of the individual, the environment, and any unforseen factors. As a security professional, I am not employed to trust anyone. So, viewing all people as capable of violence goes a long way to mitigating the risk of violence by reducing the factors that can increase the probability of violence. If you assume, as I do, that all people have the capability of violence, and that it takes a combination of factors to actually lead any given person to violence, you err on the side of caution. I look at the build-up of violence as a combination of positive and negative factors. Positive factors decrease the likelihood of violence and the negative factors increase the probability of violence. The sum of all positive and negative factors either equals or does not equal violence. For the unknown, I also have to consider the factors that I cannot see and overcompensate with more positive factors to reduce the risk of violence.

A new method of determining the people who are at a higher risk of committing violent acts that is gaining in popularity is using personality testing.[4] This type of testing attempts to find personalities that have a higher risk of violence. The problem again is personality alone does not predict violence. It may help determine if some unforeseen negative factors exist, but it cannot be the sole determining factor on the likelihood that an employee will commit an act of violence. I agree it is one of the factors the may lead to violence but is never the only factor. If it is not the only factor, it is not enough to only address personalities as loss prevention professionals. It is also unwise to discount personalities as a factor when we know it can contribute to violence or increase the probability of violence. So, you cannot use personality solely as a test for violence. You cannot ignore the fact that it can be a positive factor in your favor or a negative factor that you must try and mitigate.

There are some general factors that can increase the probability of violence and downsizing may fit in many of these categories. These factors can either be positive or negative. There are the environmental factors such as the work environment and the background of the individual. The trigger event is the turning point and the most critical time for loss prevention professionals to act quickly. The process events help take the anger to the level of violence if there are not enough compensating positive factors that will decrease the build-up to violence. The process events are the most important. This is where the “road to violence” ends in with a violent act or where the trained manager can de-escalate the growing tension and avoid the violent reaction. The important part is in training the manager to recognize the build-up to violence. Finally, there is the violent event. By that time, losses are incurred and it is the duty of the loss prevention professional to minimize and contain the losses and neutralize the threat of violence.

The environmental factors lay the foundation for the violence. Here is where the seeds of violence are planted and is the best place to try and mitigate violence. Violence is like a weed; you have to root it out completely, otherwise it will just grow back. One of my favorite sayings is, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Here, you can go a long way in preventative measures and, hopefully, avoid any and all confrontations by filling the environment with as many positive factors as possible and keeping the negative factors out.

One of the environments that play a role in setting the stage for violence in the workplace is stress. Job stress is one of the most important factors in the work environment.[5] Job related stress can lead to depression, anxiety and illness – trauma related to stress can result in harassment, verbal abuse and physical violence.[6] Stress in the workplace can come from a number of sources including poor leadership and low morale. Stress in the work place can even come from looming layoffs. Stress creates a toxic work environment that spreads across the company and must be controlled by managers. This is why managers need to be trained to notice and control the work environment to keep productivity up and to create a work environment that has a lower risk of violence. This is a lesson I learned in the Marine Corps. Morale is everything and morale can win or lose a battle or a war. You can never underestimate the morale of the employees. Management can help to foster good morale and bad management can lead to lower morale. Management’s ability to influence the work environment is being noticed as courts are increasingly holding employers liable for hostile work environments that lead to violence.[7]

Other environmental factors may be unseen and may be the result of a relationship outside of the workplace.[8] Employees may have negative factors at home from a spouse or lover. These unseen issues can lead to additional stress that is harder to notice for managers than stress in the workplace. You can even have spouses pressuring or nagging employees about losing their job adding to the stress in the workplace. These negative factors may be missed by management and go unnoticed. What you don’t know can hurt you and those unforeseen negative factors that increase the probability of violence only add up.

Other people, or third parties, can also play an active role in increasing or decreasing the likelihood of violence. As an example, unions can instigate and increase negative factors such as fostering the notion of injustice, increasing anger and stress. A perfect example of this influence comes from the college I work for in California. Recently, all permanent staff were given layoff notices because of budgetary issues here in California. The Union responded in a number of newsletters with emotionally load charges against management. There is no question that the comments written in the union newsletter were not a positive factor. The funny thing is, it does not matter if the union is right or wrong in their statements. The fact is, they have no support for their cause if people don’t rally behind them and people don’t rally unless they are compelled to do so. The easiest way to rally people to your cause is to get them angry. This is typical of political campaigns as well and is not limited in any way to unions.

Other employees can and do influence negative or positive factors in the work environment. Goading employees can influence negative factors such as anger in stress or telling them they should not put up with the perceived injustice. Other employees can even gossip and increase negative factors such as anger and stress. Although there is no law or legal precedent that other employees be held culpable when they increase the likelihood of violence, I feel they should be held responsible.

Every manager should be trained to notice changes in behaviors so they can avoid a toxic work environment. Warning signs include substance abuse, sudden social isolation, frequent anger, being easily frustrated, committing acts of insubordination, prior personal threats, police encounters, and recent talk of suicide. While some of these behaviors identify troubled employees, they could also be attributed to workers who are completely peaceful.[9] The key is the change in normal behavior for that particular employee, not so much the behavior itself. Another challenge is to know which changes in behavior are worth noting and training supervisors to identify the warning signs.[10] Just because an employee has a bad day or has a traumatic event happen in his or her life does not mean he or she will commit violent acts in the workplace.


The next stage on the path to violence is the triggering event that escalates to the next level. This stage is the most important as it leads directly to violence if it is not corrected immediately. The trigger is like the straw the broke the camels back. It is the point where the stress and anger become too much to handle. The employee now feels there is no way out; perhaps they are facing layoffs and have a mortgage payments, and may not be able to find employment when they are laid off. At this point it is important to take action. The simple act of management announcing layoffs or even the possibility of downsizing can be the trigger. The layoffs become the last straw for the employee.

The next event in the violence path is the process events that lead to or away from violence. Certain events after the trigger will increase the likelihood of violence. These escalating events can include other coworkers who take an active or passive role in escalating.[11] These events, if not checked, will lead to violence.

To counter these escalating events, managers and others can de-escalate the increasing likelihood of violence. Managers can improve their communications skills[12] and work on improving their violence mitigation skills.[13]

One of the ways employers can help de-escalate violence is having Employee Assistance Programs[14] as a preemptive measure.[15] Management should work to help the employee resolve his or her problem.[16] Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. It will only make it worse as the employee’s anger grows because he feels injustice and as if he has no other alternative to gain justice. The worst thing that can be done is to not do anything.

Zero-tolerance policy for violence does not mean that you treat all situations the same. You can’t have a “one size fits all” zero-tolerance policy.[17] You have to have a certain amount of leeway to deal with the unique situations. Zero tolerance mean there will be action taken. It does mean that it will be dealt with; employees need to know that there are consequences for their actions; otherwise there will be no control.

The result of a fully escalated event is violence. It is usually the tool of last resort,[18] used when the employee sees no other way to resolve his or her problem or perceived injustice.

The actual violence that can result is a spectrum of violence. This continuum is a level of aggressive or threatening behavior on an ascending scale. The HARM model stands for harassment, aggression, rage, and mayhem.[19] The first level of harassment is behavior that is inappropriate in a work environment and may or may not make a hostile work environment. Aggression, the next level, is comprised of hostile actions that cause harm and discomfort to the victim and other employees. These types of actions include slamming doors, spreading damaging rumors, and damaging the victim’s property. The next level, rage, is made up of actions that result in physical or emotional harm to the victim. The difference between aggression and rage is rage shows visible actions inappropriate for the workplace. The final level is mayhem, which is physical violence to the victim to destroying property.

One of the infesting side notes I ran across in my studies is the fact that there is a growing trend in the court system to hold companies liable for work environments that foster or contribute to violence in the workplace.[20] Businesses should have seen this coming; lawyers have always tried to include or sue employers for the actions of employees because the company has deeper pockets. Right or wrong, the company should be held liable if they willingly ignored the warning signs. Executives are being held liable even if they did not know certain things were happening in their companies, like accounting fraud, for instance. They are responsible for everything that happens in their companies. They cannot say they did not know and they cannot pass the responsibility to anyone else. The buck stops with them.

The interesting point is, how do they deal with downsizing when it can increase the likelihood of violence? The key is that downsizing alone will not cause workplace violence. Other factors need to be added to the threat or reality of layoffs to lead to violence. Executives must do what they can to reduce the probability in other actions and foster a high morale. The more factors management has in place to reduce violence, the less likely layoffs will result in violence.

I do admit that increasing and decreasing violence in the workplace can be influenced but others outside of management. Unions, other employees and family managers can help to increase or decrease the probability of violence. Awareness programs and assistance programs maybe able to help control or influence those external influences.

Bibliography

Carrison, Dan & Walsh, Rod, Semper Fi; Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, (New York: AMACOM, American Management Association, 1999)

Ciampa, Mark, Security Awareness: Applying Practical Security In Your World, (Boston: Course Technology, 2004) ISBN 0-619-21312-4

Duffy, Daintry, “Putting an end to Violence, Workplace Violence” cover story CSO Magazine, February 2004

Freedman, Davis H., Corps Business; The 30 Management Principles of the U. S. Marines, (New York, Harper Collins, 2000)

Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002)

Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002)

Purpura, Phillip P., Security and Loss Prevention, (New York, Butterworth Heinemann, 2002) ISBN 0-7506-7437-7

Rudewicz, Frank E., “The Road To Rage” cover story Security Management, February 2004



Foot Notes

[1] Purpura, Phillip P., Security and Loss Prevention, (New York, Butterworth Heinemann, 2002) pg 411

[2] Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002) pg 236

[3] Purpura, Phillip P., Security and Loss Prevention, (New York, Butterworth Heinemann, 2002) pg 471

[4] Duffy, Daintry, “Putting an end to Violence, Workplace Violence” cover story CSO Magazine, February 2004 pg 38

[5] Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002) pg 82

[6] Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002) pg 237

[7] Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002) pg 237

[8] Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002) pg 233

[9] Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002) pg 81

[10] Rudewicz, Frank E., “The Road To Rage” cover story Security Management, February 2004 pg 42

[11] Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002) pg 84

[12] Ortmeir, PJ, Security Management an Introduction, (New Jersey: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002) pg 237

[13] Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002) pg 83

[14] Rudewicz, Frank E., “The Road To Rage” cover story Security Management, February 2004 pg 42

[15] Rudewicz, Frank E., “The Road To Rage” cover story Security Management, February 2004 pg

[16] Purpura, Phillip P., Security and Loss Prevention, (New York, Butterworth Heinemann, 2002) pg 472

[17] Duffy, Daintry, “Putting an end to Violence, Workplace Violence” cover story CSO Magazine, February 2004 pg 37

[18] Gill, Martin; Fisher, Bonnie; & Bowie, Vaughan, Violence at Work, Causes, patterns and preventions, (Portland, William Publishing, 2002) pg 77-78

[19] Rudewicz, Frank E., “The Road To Rage” cover story Security Management, February 2004 pg 42 SM

[20] Purpura, Phillip P., Security and Loss Prevention, (New York, Butterworth Heinemann, 2002) pg 471


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