Safety and Security
As much as it is casual, today's workplace has become cautious. Workplace safety is a perpetual issue. Most safety concerns relate to work hazards — falling objects, exposed blades, relentless gears, fires, fumes, toxins, and other dangers. These days there is yet another workplace risk: violence.
Our times might have no more negative, angry, frustrated people than any other period in history, but they are more apt to take their feelings out on others. Everyone has bad days, of course. Maybe it's because the pace of modern life is so hectic — even frantic — that people sometimes feel they've lost control of their lives. Maybe it's because the line between work and the rest of life has become less defined. Maybe it's a consequence of global warming.
Whatever the reasons, angry people are more likely to vent their ire at work — and at coworkers.
Only motor vehicle accidents claim more lives and cause more injuries than incidents of workplace violence. Sometimes the connection is personal, such as a spouse or significant other who also works at the same company. Sometimes the association is symbolic, such as when a boss behaves in the same way an abusive father used to. Most often, there is no link at all: Two-thirds of all workplace violent deaths occur during robberies and other acts of apparently random violence at the hands of strangers.
The potential for workplace violence is frightening for employees and managers alike. No matter how rare deaths resulting from such violence may be, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 1 million people a year are victims of workplace violence — accounting for 15 percent of reported acts of violence nationwide. “Desk rage” is both a familiar term and a familiar experience to many employees. Experiences range from threatening language to acts of aggression.
NIOSH recommends that all companies develop policies for identifying and addressing the signs of potentially violent behavior, as well as procedures for dealing with acts of violence if they occur. Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. Attitudes and behaviors are often subtle and difficult to discern as “across the line.”
Studies of recent workplace violence incidents have given psychologists new insights into early warning signs. Would you recognize these warnings in your workplace? In the following situations, which do you think poses the greater threat?
The person who slams things around when he's angry, or the one who believes federal agents read all of his e-mail messages?
The person who brags about his bar fights, or the one who continually complains about the idiots who make his life miserable?
The person who has a restraining order against a spouse, or the one whose spouse has a restraining order against him or her?
Though it's impossible to know with certainty which people are blowing off steam (a healthy response) and which people are about to blow (decidedly unhealthy for them and potentially for others), in each of these scenarios most experts would bet that the second situation is more likely to lead to violence. Aggressive attitudes and behaviors are often subtle and easy to dismiss, at least in the beginning or at first glance.
These become warning signs when they become a pattern that emerges over time. Psychologists say managers should be alert to employees who do the following:
Are chronically late or frequently miss work
Speak with and show contempt for authority and people who have positions of authority
Are paranoid or cynical (believe others are watching them or are out to get them, or that events such as economic downturns, layoffs, or even computer problems happen because “they” planned them)
Are hot-tempered, easily fly off the handle, argue when given directions to do something a specific way, or walk out of meetings when others disagree with them
Talk about how nobody appreciates their abilities, dedication, knowledge, or power
Delight in the misfortunes of others, laugh inappropriately, or fail to laugh at jokes and situations that others find humorous
Are awkward in social situations to the extent that they make others uncomfortable or others make fun of them, or create environments of isolation for themselves
If your company has policies and procedures for dealing with potentially violent employees, know what they are and follow them. It's essential to document your observations, including comments and complaints that other employees bring to you. The earlier there is intervention, the better.
The potential for workplace violence is a tricky issue for managers. It's hard to know when and how to take action. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and many employee assistance programs (EAPs) offer advice, materials, and even workshops about recognizing and handling aggression in the workplace. Take advantage of these resources.
Many companies have employee assistance programs (EAPs) that can provide advice for managers as well as counseling for employees. Is the employee someone new to your department or company? If so, is the person still on probationary status? Or is this someone you inherited when you became the work group's manager? In either case you need to step in, but the circumstances could influence what you do and how you do it.
Some states have laws that regulate how companies may approach, discipline, and fire employees based on how long they've been working in the job or for the company. Research the laws, regulations, and company policies that might apply to the situation so you know what you can and cannot do. Talk with your HR department and your manager so they know what's going on and can support your choice of response.
Companies often fail to recognize when a situation crosses the line of the law. Notify the police if an employee hits or in any other way physically assaults someone, makes specific threats or threats that are particularly scary to you or others, or damages property.
Then, meet privately with the employee to discuss your observations and your concerns. Do this in a calm and non-confrontational manner. If you are concerned that the employee might become violent toward you, have this meeting where others can see you or have another person (such as an HR representative or your manager) present. Explain, explicitly and clearly, what behaviors are problems, why those behaviors are unacceptable, what it will take for the employee to rectify the situation, and what will happen if the problems continue. Offer the employee consultation with your employee assistance program (EAP) consultation or other forms of assistance.
Other issues of workplace caution involve safety of another sort: information. The underground market in stolen identity makes customer data a hot commodity — and electronic storage systems make its theft alarmingly easy. Personal information about employees and proprietary company data may also be at risk.
Many companies are implementing internal tracking mechanisms and access safeguards to help prevent theft of data. Employees must wear identification badges and use security codes to gain access to computer records. Unfortunately this is an area of continuing challenge for managers, who must balance the need for employees to access and work with sensitive data with the needs to protect that data from inappropriate use and outright theft.