The sick organization: The systemic contribution to the workplace violence problem

This is Part III of a five-part series on workplace violence which appeared in the February 2002 issue of Workplace Today. Reproduced with permission from Workplace Today® Inc. ©2002 All rights reserved.

Experts who deal with aggressive people and violence know that the inquiry after a violent incident doesn't stop and start with the shooter. Perpetrator variables, or in the workplace violence context, worker variables, only one piece of the equation. A potential victim or pool of victims is important, as are the environmental variables that serve as the accelerant; the acute situational stress provides the spark.

Psychiatrists and psychologists readily concede, as should anyone, that no one can ever precisely know what's in the mind of another person.

At best, another person's thoughts and feelings can be surmised through clinical and other clues.

If the organization can't know exactly what its workers are thinking, it should at least be intimately familiar with what its own contribution to the workplace violence problem is.

The proposition is simple. A person who is susceptible to engaging in violence may do so only in certain environments.

Take a predisposed worker, who, for example, is stressed in his or her personal life, resourceless in terms of dealing with interpersonal conflict, and provide him or her with a highly conflictual environment and provocative management, and just the right situation (a poorly carried out termination that shames him or her and robs him or her of their work-based identity), and tragedy is at hand.

Put the predisposed person into a working environment that has carried out the kind of critical self-appraisal that organizations should undertake to reduce their risk, and the chances of something happening are cut down significantly.

Many organizations want "a quick fix" when the possibility of imminent violence or destruction is looming. The issue for them becomes bluntly: "How do we get rid of this employee as expeditiously, inexpensively, and 'cleanly' as possible?" While there may be exceptional circumstances where this strategy is a conceivable first response to a dangerous situation, the "ouster" manoeuvre can be short-sighted, counter-productive, and unduly punitive. This type of thinking fails to take hold of a potential opportunity to create profound and lasting organizational change of the kind that will help avert future tragedies.

It is with respect to its own physical plant, its rules and regulations, and above all, its our milieu or culture, that companies can be most incisive, and take the much needed proactive approach to reducing their risk for workplace violence.

Some workplace violence consultants have maintained their focus on perpetrators, as has the media and the public; the people who go "postal" are understandably the more newsworthy topic. Perpetrators get the attention for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, they're the lead actors in the tragedy. The public's fascination with the strange twists and turns of human behaviour get satisfied when the media digs into the life of the killer to demystify his behaviour.

Secondly, and this too is obvious, the shooter is the most easily identified part of the problem. Other organizations, mindful of the role of organization based factors in workplace violence have set themselves to the task of figuring out what it is about their workplace environment that makes them susceptible to an incident. One organization (workplace.calm, inc.) has developed a workplace risk assessment tool (WRA-20), specifically with a view to helping organizations identify the most significant risk factors on their premises and within their working environment that makes them more susceptible to an outbreak of violence.

Organizations that already have a history of aggression, disability claims, more than the expected amount of grievances, and other indications of chaos and a devil-may-care attitude about workplace safety are at higher risk.

This idea follows a well-settled principle that the past (especially where violence is concerned), is to a great extent predictive of the future.

Organizations that have never focussed on security, on screening potentially aggressive applicants (to the extent that the law permits), on developing a workplace harassment and violence policy, and on providing assistance to employees in need are also at risk.

Aside from potentially stressing employees to their breaking point (assuming susceptibility), some organizations have developed a poor ethos around the way they value their employees.

Some workplaces may not only fail to prevent the display of aggression, but the workplace culture may play a permissive role by over-subscribing to a macho mentality.

Public and private sector organizations who are alive to the issue of workplace violence have taken deliberate steps to reduce the risk.

Aside from having a threat assessment team, many organizations have provided leadership, conflict resolution training and an alternate dispute resolution system to handle conflict, as well as specific training to their staff about workplace violence. Organizations of this type foster a work environment where people feel safe disclosing concerns about themselves or co-workers, and appropriate representatives within the company pick up the ball and closely follow up every sign of a problem.

The more closely employers look at the workplace violence problem, the more they come to realize that there are steps that they can take to either eliminate or significantly reduce the risk of a workplace violence incident on their premises.