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Preventing Workplace Violence

April 7 2014 - Employers should positively engage a small but dangerous minority of employees, supervise them closely and make sure they get the help they need, according to a paper from professors at the the University of Texas at Arlington and Oklahoma State University. The researchers analyzed FBI reports, case studies and HR records focused on the estimated 1-3% of employees prone to aggressive behavior such as homicide, suicide or destruction of property in the workplace.

"No Accident: Health, Wellbeing, Performance - and Danger," published in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance was written by James Campbell Quick and M. Ann McFadyen of UT Arlington College of Business management department and Debra Nelson, Spears School of Business Associates' Chaired Professor of Business Administration and Distinguished Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University.

The researchers examined actual cases in which dangerous employees took action ending in a wrongful death, sexual assault or management harassment. They also looked at one positive organizational case where harm and death were averted. They argue for "mindfully observing" employees, arguing that HR professionals and workforce supervisors can advance health, wellbeing, and performance while simultaneously averting danger and violence by identifying and managing high-risk individuals. This requires anticipation of their needs and the provision of support and resources. According to James Campbell Quick:

"The causes of these problems are understandable and predictable and many times these violent incidents shouldn't be viewed as random or surprises. Corporations need to plug troubled employees into the social network immediately so they don't store up these negative feelings whenever and wherever they get them."

UT Arlington College of Business Dean Rachel Croson feels that this type of research is adding insight for real world businesses:

"Businesses often look at these problems only after they occur. This research offers companies action steps they can take to prevent such tragedies from occurring. It not only helps people but could save lives."

Ann McFadyen looked at positive and negative deviant behaviors among employees. While positive deviant acts - such as going out of your way to help someone else - often benefit organizations, negative deviant acts are likely to have an adverse impact on the organization, putting it or other people in danger. She notes that a low intensity negative deviant act of incivility often escalates to more dangerous and violent behavior:

"Incivility toward another includes gossiping, texting in meetings, withholding information, ignoring or simply a general lack of respect or regard for others. What is concerning is that incivility is on the rise in the workplace, with the majority of employees reporting that they have been the target of incivility by another."

She notes that while organizations have training on ethics and diversity research shows that few provide training on incivility. Supervisors can be trained to recognize and monitor incivility:

"Incivility, left unchecked, may lead to more dangerous acts. Research indicates that, while not all acts of incivility lead to violent acts, all violent acts in the workplace were preceded by acts of incivility."

James Quick observes that employees often cannot be pre-screened for these tendencies. Interviews do not reveal the inclination for dangerous behavior. "It's often something that those employees get once they're in a job," he says. "That's why socialization and making sure employees air out what's bothering them are two big factors in whether the behavior eventually becomes an incident." He argues that it is imperative for organizations to keep employees talking about what's bothering them:

"You can't allow the dangerous employee to bury the issue. And sometimes organizations have a problem in wanting to see the issue come to the surface. Organizations have to admit they be part of the problem."

What should an organization or its people do if the worse should happen? James Quick outlines a four-step approach from the study:

  • Contain problem or perpetrator.
  • Provide physical/mental caregiving for victims of the incident.
  • Encourage forgiveness of dangerous employee - this not mean that a wrong should be condoned, excused, denied, minimized or forgotten.
  • Learn from the dangerous employee's incident.

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