Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Preventing workplace violence

Employers need to learn how to spot the warning signs and get help, psychologists and personnel experts say

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some days personnel managers get to hand out "Employee of the Month" awards.

Sometimes they have to intervene when one employee threatens another with physical harm.

Warning signs that an employee might be prone to violence:
• Erratic behavior
• Making threats
• Obsessive behavior about perceived wrongs
• References to guns or other weapons
• Outside triggers, such as divorce or child custody dispute
Not addressing threats or bullying is a mistake, says Dr. John Kennedy, a psychiatrist and clinical director of the Center for Threat Assessment at the University of Cincinnati. It's all too easy for an argument to spiral out of control.
Five steps can be taken to cut down on the risk of violence in the workplace:
• Educate workers and supervisors on warning signs that an employee might be prone to violence.
• Establish policies for handling threats or violent incidents. Outline who hears and investigates allegations and what steps will be taken to address those allegations (suspension, termination, counseling).
• Establish an "emergency plan" in case of an incident. Employees should know who to call for help and how to protect themselves.
• Make resources for counseling, anger management training or substance abuse treatment available to employees.
• Conduct background checks on prospective employees to find out if they have a history of violence or erratic behavior.
Steve Browne, president of the Greater Cincinnati Human Resources Association, got the call when a man threatened to shoot his co-workers after a dispute at the coffee machine.

Browne, then the personnel director at a manufacturing company, checked the man's vehicle "and there was evidence that he hunted. So we went and confronted him to ask him if he did say it and what the context was and could we talk about it."

No one was hurt; no one was fired. Browne and the angry employee met regularly to keep talking.

Employers need to learn how and when to intervene to keep workers from turning their discontent into violence, Browne and other experts say. Recent workplace shootings in Texas, Mississippi and Missouri point up the need for training workers and managers to recognize when an employee is about to snap and to get that person help.

"The people who tend to blow up are those who've been a bad apple and had a problem again and again, and then someone sits them down hard and they're surprised, because no one's ever done that before," says Linda Gravett, a human resources consultant in Anderson Township. "Those are the ones who are going to blow up and retaliate."

Co-workers see it coming

His co-workers later said they weren't at all surprised when Doug Williams opened fire at a Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, Miss., July 8. When the shooting stopped, Martin had killed five colleagues, wounded nine others and then killed himself.

"In more cases than not, coworkers see it coming," says Dr. Alan A. Cavaiola, a New Jersey psychologist and co-author of Toxic Coworkers (New Harbinger; $14.95). "They usually can see this person becoming more and more agitated. They become more restless. Every conversation will center around their gripe or their complaint. Often they become obsessed with whatever situation has them upset or they feel they've been wronged."

The office can be dangerous: In 2001, 639 American adults died on the job as the result of violence. Thirteen percent of those slayings were committed by co-workers, former co-workers or clients of the victims.

Check backgrounds

Dr. Michael McIntyre, an occupational psychologist at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, helped develop a test to identify aggressive people.

"We encourage employers to do as much front-end work as they can," McIntyre says. "I say do all that background stuff. I guess the issue is it costs some money. It may cost $100, $200, and it may delay the process a few days, but it's a good investment on the part of the employer, and if the applicant doesn't appreciate it, then you don't need that person."

Eventually, the angry employee Browne confronted did attack a coworker - after Browne left the manufacturing company for another job.

Now the human resources director for CDS Associates in Blue Ash, Browne says addressing potential violence in the workplace is critical.

"The days of bravado, that's just na‘ve, because it could be your best employee who has this happen and they could snap," he says.


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