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Workplace Violence on the Rise

What can Employers do to slow the Rising Tide of Workplace Violence?

The issue of workplace violence became a subject of media attention after the series of Post Office murders that occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While such shootings are relatively rare, the impact of non-fatal workplace violence is significant, with the FBI estimating in 2011 that such crimes cost the American workforce approximately $36 billion per year.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines workplace violence as “any threat or act of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at [a] worksite.” The FBI further separates workplace violence into four categories based on victim-perpetrator relationship. These depend on whether a perpetrator: has no prior relation to an establishment or its employees (Type I); is a patron of an establishment (Type II); is a current or former employee (Type III); or is having a personal relationship with an employee (Type IV).

Although men who are victimized while working are more likely to be attacked by a stranger, women are more likely to be attacked by someone known to them. Five percent (5%) of the women victimized at work are attacked by a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. One-sixth of workplace homicides of women are committed by a spouse, ex-spouse, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. For every murder, there are numerous rapes and assaults that often leave victims battered and disabled. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, boyfriends and husbands, current and former, commit more than 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace every year.

Last August, Steven Ercolino died after being shot five times outside the Empire State Building in New York. Police identified the shooter as Jeffrey Johnson. Former co-workers, Johnson reportedly blamed Ercolino for the loss of his job as a clothing designer two years ago. Last September, Andrew Engeldinger was fired from his job -- and returned to the Minneapolis sign company where he worked and according to police shot five people. Reports stated that he was targeting management people.

While these are isolated events, the question is whether there are ways to protect yourself and your co-workers from a potentially unstable peer? I recently read about such advice from Park Dietz, M.D., Ph.D. and president of the Threat Assessment Group in Newport Beach, California, who has testified and consulted on some of the most notable cases of workplace and school violence in recent history, including the attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the massacre at Columbine, and a previous shooting at the Empire State building. His company helps companies, schools and government agencies prepare for and prevent violence in the workplace. Here's what he says we should all know:

According to Park Dietz, short of violence in progress, nothing is a reliable sign that someone is about to "erupt." He says the idea of someone "just snapping" is a media fiction. Every case of an employee or former employee who did serious harm to a coworker has a long history of less serious early and late phase warning signs that were not adequately managed, often because no one reported what they knew to a manager who knew what to do.

Dietz says the early indicators, such as emotional outbursts, secretiveness, or attendance problems are good predictors of poor performance, job loss, and a need for the kinds of services available from employee assistance programs, but they are poor predictors of violence. The late indicators, such as stalking, paranoid accusations of a conspiracy, or overt threats to harm someone are fairly obvious, but even these may not get reported to a manager who knows what to do until it is too late.

Studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations show that employers who implement effective safety measures can reduce the incidence of workplace violence. These measures include training employees on workplace violence, encouraging employees to report assaults or threats, and conducting workplace violence hazard analyses. Other methods such as using entrance door detectors or buzzer systems in retail establishments, and providing adequately trained staff, alarms and employee "safe rooms" for use during emergencies in healthcare settings can help minimize risk.

If you are concerned as a manger about the potential for violence in your workplace, the best way to handle it is to immediately report any behavior of concern to human resources, security, or the manager in charge of your facility. If your company has received competent training, they will take it from there and will do everything reasonably possible to keep your safety -- along with that of other employees and visitors -- paramount in their decision-making. It can make it more difficult for the company to safely manage the situation if someone unnecessarily involves the police, obtains a restraining order, or starts spreading rumors, so report your concerns to management and avoid discussing them with your peers.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 5, 2013