Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Employee Retention

Violence in the Workplace

He had been known as a hothead, even a racist hothead. Some witnesses said that he had talked about wanting to kill people and had bragged that he was capable of doing it. Tragically, on the morning of July 8, 2003, he proved that these were not idle threats.

Doug Williams left a business ethics and sensitivity class, walked out the back door of the building, got his guns from his vehicle, walked back into the plant, and started shooting. Before the gunfire was silent in the Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, MS (some 90 miles from my home), Mr. Williams had killed five of his co-workers and wounded nine others before turning the final fatal shot on himself.

Should someone have seen it coming?

Could this tragic event have been prevented?

Is there anything that can be done to make all of our workplaces safe from such senseless violence?

Toxic Work Environment or Toxic Individual?

The first issue to explore is whether these violent workplace incidents result from negative elements within the work culture or from the soul of a psychologically unbalanced individual. Most often, it’s usually a combo.

A toxic work culture can invite the deadly chain of anger, seething bitterness, and violence. Elements of this type of psychologically unhealthy culture include harsh managerial practices, ineffective communications, informal practices of retaliation for perceived wrong-doing, and lack of psychological inclusion of all groups of people. Stir in little top management vice and greed. Add to these the horrible aftereffects of downsizing and the climate of distrust experienced by the survivors of layoffs, and you have fertile soil for discontent, disdain, and disaster.

A particularly significant risk factor in workplace violence incidents is antagonistic manager-worker relationships. That’sone of the reasons we devote a lion’s share of our time to teaching managers how to create motivating, positive,collaborative relationships with employees.

Toxic workplaces are clearly risky business!

However, even when company leaders and team members have worked hard to create a “Magnetic Workplace”, a psychologically healthy place to work, some individuals elect to harbor resentments, brood over real or imagined wrongs, see themselves as perpetual victims,and isolate themselves from any interpersonal experiences that could challenge the paranoia and the walls they’ve built. These can become dangerous people.

Doug Williams angrily walked out of a business ethics and sensitivity training class! The company was making an effort to provide encouragement and resources to create a workplace of integrity and compassion. When an individual is consumed with rage, even positive actions can stoke the rage.

Most often, it’s not a simple either/or when it comes to environmental vs. individual toxicity. However, we know this. The single most deadly combination is an uncaring, authoritarian, high-stress workplace in which a person predisposed to paranoia, hostility, and violence becomes increasingly angry and frustrated…and ultimately explodes.

Are There Warning Signs?

Here’s the first warning. Don’t get paranoid yourself! As you read these warning signs, you’ll recognize some of them in the people you rub shoulders with every day…maybe even the person in the mirror!

One symptom does not a killer make.

Here’s the principle: The more of the warning signs you see in a person, the more often you see them, and the more intensely you see them displayed, the greater the danger.

Here are a few of the signs to look for:

  • Acting on impulse and emotion, overreacting to situations and having outbursts of rage;
  • A “me-first” focus that ignores others’ needs;
  • A “victim” attitude that always sees others to blame for problems;
  • Perfectionistic expectations and a demand for perfect order;
  • Talking about or acting out “getting even,” aggressively or passive-aggressively;
  • Escaping from reality through isolation, addictive substances or activities, lies, and deceit;
  • Sudden behavior changes, doing things out of character;
  • Mood swings;
  • Argumentative behavior, in which threats are perceived or implied but not overt;
  • Obsession with plans to “fix all of this”; veiled references to a secret plan;
  • Chronic suspicion, especially when there is a paranoia focused on specific individuals;
  • Being a loner;
  • Overtly expressed prejudices against certain groups;
  • Threats of future injury to others;
  • Talking about weapons he/she possesses;
  • Menacing with a fist or brandishing a weapon;
  • Low-level assault, such as pushing;
  • Overt physical violence, striking at another with a fist or weapon.

Violence Proofing the Workplace

Actually, violence-proofing is too strong a term. I wish you could, but there are no guarantees.

However, there are things that you can do to: 1) create a workplace that is less likely to breed discontent, and 2) deal specifically with high-risk situations. Put these strategies to work and you’ll definitely lower the threat level in your workplace.

Breeding Contentment

  1. Treat people fairly.
  2. Show commitment to employees’ wellbeing, not just the bottom line.
  3. Emphasize communication between management and employees.
  4. Place a premium on occupational safety.
  5. Involve workers in everyday decisions.
  6. Train people to work in groups, not just as individuals.
  7. Enact and publicize policies that do not tolerate violence or the threat of it.
  8. Let people know what is expected.
  9. Offer plentiful praise, reward, and recognition for jobs well done.
  10. Emphasize the meaning of the work, raising morale and the internal satisfaction of working together to accomplish important things.
  11. Do thorough pre-employment screening and interviews to explore the person’s fit in the organization’s culture and community.
  12. Develop policies, discussion forums, and mutually agreed-on norms for appropriate treatment of people different from the majority in race, age, ethnicity, or gender.
  13. Provide training for managers and employees in strategies for de-escalating conflicts and resolving them constructively.

Reducing Risk in Stressful Organizational Events

  1. If layoffs become necessary, make the announcements as humanely as possible and offer outplacement services for those who lose their jobs. Also give “survivors” opportunities to grieve, to talk about their fears in a supportive environment, and to become involved in reorganization plans.
  2. When a worker must be laid off or even fired (except where there is specific reason to believe there is danger), don’t add insult to injury by abrupt, uncaring instructions like, “Security will stand here while you get your personal things out of your desk.” (I’ve talked with conscientious people who are left with lingering anger because they were treated like criminals and forced to leave jobs undone without the opportunity to communicate with anyone about next steps.)
  3. When a worker is fired or laid off, consider follow-up contacts to demonstrate the company’s concern and to make it possible to identify and attempt to reduce brooding antagonism.

Preparing for the Worst

  1. Enhance security measures such as physical barriers and other measures to protect from intruder violence.
  2. Prepare employees for emergencies; what to do in the case of a violent incident in which there’s little time to think.

What Managers Can Do When Dealing With High-Risk Employees

  1. DO NOT IGNORE HIGH-RISK BEHAVIOR!!! Yes, it’s easy to do it, especially if you don’t like giving negative feedback, don’t want to agitate an already agitated person, or if you’ve pretty much gotten use to this person’s attitude. You may have a false sense of "That’s just the way he talks. He would never actually do anything.” Dangerous assumption!
  2. Stick to describing specific, work-related behaviors in your conversations with the individual. Resist the temptation to try to diagnose “why”…e.g., the person’s past history of abuse, menopause, midlife crisis, personal problems. Your job is to address job-related behaviors and attitudes. Playing amateur psychologist will only make the person angrier.
  3. Translate the word “attitude” into specific actions that indicate a problem. For instance, you might say, “In the team meeting, you commented several times that management was trying to manipulate employees. Other than those comments, you remained silent and physically pulled your chair away from the table.”
  4. Explain why the problem behavior is inappropriate at work. In other words, you will describe the practical impact of the person’s actions. Here’s an example: “Using that offensive term to describe members of our team not only damages our ability to work together but is in direct violation of our company policies. We value all team members and attempt to create a fair workplace for everyone.”
  5. Hear the person out. Ask the individual to tell you about what he/she is experiencing that may be contributing to the problem. If he/she is willing to talk, this can give you valuable insight about how the individual is perceiving or misperceiving workplace events. It will allow you to more accurately assess any physical danger that lurks.

    The good news is, in many cases the opportunity to “be heard” can de-escalate the volatility of anger. This is especially true if the individual raises legitimate concerns and if you are able to take even a small positive action in response to it. (Work hard to hear legitimate concerns, even when they are expressed angrily and you don’t want to listen.)
  6. Delineate what you’d like the person to do differently and how it will help.This must go beyond, “Get a more positive attitude” or “Work more as a team member”. Be specific about the behaviors you want to see that will reflect a more positive attitude or better teamwork.

    While acknowledging that the work situation can be less than ideal, emphasize that the individual still has responsibility to control his/her own actions. You can build awareness of personal responsibility by gently asking, “And how did you choose to respond to that?” after the individual complains about a person or a situation.
  7. Try to involve the person in planning and problem-solving about how to make things better. This is different from, “What can “they” can do?” It’s, “What can WE do?”
  8. Document in writing the specific high-risk behaviors, your comments, and the employee’s reactions. On an ongoing basis, document in writing the date, time, place, what the person did, the effects of what he/she did, and what you said and did, and what the employee said and did. Also document any action plans that come out of a discussion with the employee.
  9. Do not try to be the employee’s therapist.Do not try to give the employee personal counseling or advice. Regardless of your good intentions, you can do harm if you enter into this realm. Here’s why.

    First, employees with deep anger problems are very complex cases, even for a trained psychologist. You can get in over your head very quickly and make things worse.

    Second, even if you did help, you have now entered into a dual relationship. You set yourself up as an advocate, a trusted advisor. Then, when you have to give negative feedback or even take disciplinary action, the person feels betrayed. The result? Rage. More rage.
  10. Refer the employee to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or another qualified referral source. When you discuss this with the employee, choose your words carefully. Say something like, “Did you know that our company provides a resource to help us all deal with the stresses we have? Let me tell you about it.” I find that “stress” is a word less stringently resisted and less likely to elicit, “You think I’m crazy!” In some cases, companies make a mandatory referral to these resources. In such cases, they require a report on the person’s follow-through. Confidentiality issues should be clarified.

If You Believe the Employee is Dangerous

  1. First, seek safety for yourself and other employees.
  2. Make accommodations for employees who complain of threats, stalking, or other menacing behavior. You may need to shift work schedules and provide security personnel with a photograph of the stalker.
  3. Inform top management and Human Resources about your observations and decide on a plan for dealing with a potentially volatile employee.
  4. If you believe there is imminent danger, use any sensible means to contact Security, HR, the police, the fire department, or whatever resource is appropriate.
  5. If it is possible, use whatever information you have about the employee to attempt to lower the person’s anger. (Do not attempt this if there is a violent incident in progress.)
  6. Notify the person’s spouse or someone else whose phone number will probably be in the employee’s personnel file.
  7. If an individual is making suicidal or homicidal threats, there are provisions in the law for involuntary commitment for treatment. Consult a psychologist or community mental health center to learn about this option in your area.

There Are No Easy, Sure-Fire Answers

People don’t come with an “I am dangerous” identification stamp on their foreheads. Some of the most violent incidents have been perpetrated by quiet, loner individuals who don’t attract attention. Others have been at the hands of reasonably normal people who overreacted to work or other life stresses.

To make matters worse, we’re all busy with a thousand demands at any given time. It’s hard to be alert to the changes that are occurring in all of the people around us.

Yet, we must not fail to be vigilant (without becoming paranoid) and to recognize and intervene early with the destructive attitudes that can grow into seething monsters acting out in heart-wrenching, senseless violence.

Lockheed Martin has experienced the tragic consequences of one man’s rage. Today, family members at home and work are grieving.

I pray that, working together, we can prevent others from such suffering.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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