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Five Strategies and Structures for Reducing Workplace Violence

November 1, 1999
The following list brings together some traditional or seemingly obvious education-interventions. It also provides steps that illustrate my personal experience in the fields of stress management and clinical therapy along with organizational violence prevention, conflict resolution and critical intervention.

  1. Clear Management Policy Plus Independent and Confidential Climate. The two pillars of a violence prevention program are:
    a) clear communication from all levels of management that violence will not be tolerated (including emotional and verbal harassment). Most important, the managers themselves must model this policy; they must be able to walk the talk, not just mouth the right words, and
    b) threats or abuse are to be reported to an anonymous call-in service. And threats don't just have to be death threats. Bantering that's crossing the taunting and harassment lines (or even bordering that line) needs to be designated off company limits. In Columbine fashion, I've experienced too many verbal taunting scenarios evolving into a vicious and destructive cycle.

    Both perpetrators and targets can "lose it." It was like the case of a couple of postal employees continuously razzing two perceived "slackers" as management turned a deaf ear. (I suspect the manager was allowing these abusive workers to act out his frustration with "the slackers.") One of the harassers, so caught up in his anger toward his "lazy" colleagues, was removed from the Service after making death threats to his psychiatrist.

    With reporting, especially in large organizations like the Postal Service, a complainant should have the opportunity to speak directly to an independent investigative body, such as the Postal Inspectors. Other reporting venues can be Human Resources, Equal Employment Opportunity Office, Cultural Diversity Office, etc. These bodies, of course, must not simply be management tools. Yet, don't assume these bodies will be reflexively anti-management. For example, recently, I led a workshop with EEO Counselors for the Department of Defense. Their job stress had as much to do with confronting employees who really didn't have legitimate EEO beefs as it did tangling with a management system allowing or encouraging harassment, bias or unfairness.

    Independence is also essential not just in the reporting phase but also in the investigative process. Again, the integrity of this expert is critical. While some will be dismissive if the expert lacks in-depth in-house knowledge or experience, more people will feel there's greater likelihood for independence and objectivity. Clearly, this consultant needs to assert his or her own autonomy and professionalism. He or she must model objective and understanding listening with all parties and be a conflict-resolving and problem-solving catalyst. In addition, an outside expert should not be a defender of upper management or the organization. However, what can be affirmed is that management, at some level, is: a) investing substantial time and money in defusing or removing destructive workplace conditions and interpersonal tension, b) attempting to repair a sense of order and trust while c) opening up genuine grievance and communication channels.

    Sometimes dramatic organizational signals and statements are needed. After a period of gun violence culminating in shooting deaths in separate states in one day, the Postal Service took aggressive preventive (if not belated) action. A number of stress management and violence prevention consultants were hired to run national focus groups at various processing plants and individual stations. (My territory was the Mid-Atlantic Region.) The key questions: what are the factors contributing to stress and workplace violence and what can be done to reverse the destructive trend?

    In the aftermath of a focus group, a Plant Manager of a large Postal Processing and Distribution Plant asked if I'd come on board as a consultant to help the organization—management and employees—grapple with stress and conflict levels. And a closing thought before outlining our uncommon organizational experiment. Management, if so motivated, can send a message: abuse and violence are no longer business as usual!
  2. Stress Management by Wandering Around. Many organizations assume that: a) having an independent body/office for the reporting and investigating of violent incidents, b) providing sexual harassment and cultural diversity training, c) doing careful pre-hiring screening and d) having an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) means management has taken the necessary and legal steps to deal with the workplace violence issue. Based on the above-mentioned Processing and Distribution Plant experience, the above steps are necessary but may not be a sufficient deterrent to violence, especially in large organizations. Also, these steps may lag if violence prevention, not just critical intervention, is the goal.
  3. EAP Presence: Visible and Confidential. While Stress Management by Wandering Around (SMBWA) makes an uncommon contribution, this method is an EAP complement. Though not the main course for defusing conflict or preventing violence, still, some of the key concepts of SMBWA should be integrated into the EAP operation. (Help, call the Initials/Acronym Hotline ... I'm having an alphabetaholics attack.)

    First, EAP operations need to establish or, more likely, regain the trust of supervisors and employees. Organizational mistrust or indifference can arise when: a) some employees have experienced or perceive their confidentiality being compromised, b) significant numbers view the EAP more as a management-inspired punishment tool rather than a supportive resource, c) the EAP has been staffed by (good-intentioned) individuals who were not mental health professionals and d) the EAP was or is more a paper program than a management supported and marketed one with an active, visible presence.

    There needs to be an EAP orientation, in fairly small groupings—even mixing managers, supervisors and employees—that provides all levels of the organization the opportunity to raise questions, concerns, fears, etc., about the past and present purpose, procedures and performance of the EAP. Once the trust issues have surfaced and employees perceive management and the EAP staff handling people's concerns and objections in a non-defensive, non-retaliatory fashion, then "How to Use the EAP" training can begin in earnest. Remember: when dealing with an emotionally charged learning curve, venting and confrontation must precede procedural training and education.

    Clearly, a critical training component is helping supervisors integrate the EAP referral as a useful management option, both for their employees and for themselves. For example, a recent Johns Hopkins University study affirmed that depression shadows a significant number of employees in the American workplace. And, this psychological and biochemical condition and/or illness adversely impacts productivity—through mistakes, lateness, absenteeism, etc. Helping supervisors more quickly recognize signs of employee depression or other stress-related conditions would clearly be prophylactic. Alas, only sporadically comes a lone workshop testimonial from a supervisor who thankfully asked for EAP help with handling an employee exhibiting a pattern of dysfunctional psychological and/or behavioral warning signs.

    Finally, EAP visibility requires more than an initial training session and a spiffy flier. In-house EAP marketing needs to be ongoing, including a connection with the consultant wandering around, an ongoing dialogue with supervisors and brown bag lunches or health and wellness workshops for all personnel.

    Clearly, to meet this expansive mission, the company EAP needs to be adequately staffed and funded. Still it's a wise bottom-line move. Research shows that a competent EAP is a sound investment not just for curbing violence, but for reducing grievances and health insurance costs. It's a business and human relations tool for enhancing productivity and employee morale.
  4. Quick and Decisive Intervention. The compelling case for rapid intervention, of course, is much easier made with hindsight. Still, a couple of times being burned by delay and denial may speed the development of foresight. I recall the plight of a new female supervisor in a large government agency harassed verbally and non-verbally by an experienced male employee. The latter, a mostly productive worker, was also known for his eccentricities and moodiness. The trigger eludes me. Maybe it was jealousy rearing its irritated ego with a colleague's promotion to management status. Maybe resentment festered along with unrequited "romantic" obsessions. Initially, the supervisor's management superiors downplayed what would now surely constitute harassing, if not overtly threatening, behavior. Perhaps these two higher ups (both males) minimized the increasing gravity and oddity of this employee's behavior from having worked many years together. Maybe they learned to adapt somewhat to his provocative personality. And then the denial bubble burst when this troubled employee threatened the supervisor with a sharpened knife. At this point, of course, he was removed.

    A Scary Hard Worker
    Another brief example to clinch the decisive point. This one involves a hard-working, big and burly veteran warehouse worker known to have some psychiatric disorder. When the disorder was in relative remission, he mostly talked to himself. When under more stress or in some state of decompensation, his self-talk and voices got louder.

    Periodically, he would yell and sometimes glare at a passerby. Management was slow to respond to fellow employee complaints both for selfish and seemingly compassionate reasons. Management did not want to lose his productivity and they also felt sorry for this troubled worker. Alas, this stance only breeds trouble for all concerned. Not surprisingly, word surfaced that a fight nearly broke out between this individual and other warehouse personnel.

    By the time I was asked to intervene (along with a supportive supervisor) this individual was in a fairly delusional state. While initially denying his outbursts had increased, he eventually explained his yelling as a survival measure against the radioactive waves the police were beaming into his head. By empathizing with his stressful plight, without arguing the veracity of his explanation, I informed him that management was requiring an immediate fitness for duty psychiatric evaluation. The next day this fellow checked himself into the psychiatric hospital. And the day after his mother called his supervisor to thank us for motivating her son to get the help he had been refusing. Many lives were spared needless and potentially dangerous tension by this belated, yet decisive, encounter.
  5. Allow for Grievance and Grieving. The complement to rapid and decisive critical intervention with a troubled employee is an intervention process that recognizes the broad impact of a major organizational restructuring. This intervention encourages people to experience and constructively express a variety of fairly predictable emotional states. Such workplace community intervention is especially vital when challenged by rapid and permanent change or an uncertain but chronically looming reorg coming down the pike. Emotions such as shock and denial, betrayal and rage, anxiety and panic and helplessness and depression are often components of a transition-inspired grief process. And these reactions are more pronounced when the loss is sudden and unexpected and/or the employee hasn't evolved coping with change and restructuring skills, both in his personal and professional roles.

    Perhaps the most critical part of the grief process is transforming vicious cycle fear and rage into vital anger. This transformation facilitates productive motivation and momentum, regaining a new focus and reaching a necessary level of acceptance regarding the loss and change experience. Venting and bonding ease the way and support cord cutting, letting go and moving onward. And, as indicated, there's a need for expressing and channeling anger both in one-on-one and group forums.

    Actually, my change consulting/training work has involved three types of transitional categories: a) an organization/workforce anticipating a restructuring or downsizing; the scenario is most hazardous when dull gray, LA smog-like uncertainty hangs in the organizational air, b) the "survivors" of a major restructuring or RIF (Reduction in Force) and c) folks who did not survive the reorganization, that is, employees who are now unemployed.
  1. Anticipated Restructuring or Downsizing. For many this is the most stressful transitional period. Uncertainty and rumors run neck and neck. Especially when large numbers may become "RIF raff" the potential for major system tension and conflict, constructive advocacy and destructive sabotage increases. Also, don't be misled by seeming passivity. These employees are agitated: "Damned if I do, damned if I don't. Damned if I stay, damned if I leave." Apparent feelings of helplessness and paralysis can quickly turn into a rageful state. And rage unchecked or unharnessed breeds violence.

    My inaugural work with the Postal Service provided insight into some of the dilemmas. The USPS in the early '90s implemented a major restructuring. However, the USPS technically did not have a RIF or Reduction In Force. Instead, for example, at Washington, DC Headquarters they created a large transition center for folks bereft of job but still receiving a paycheck. Don't be deceived. This place was more a leper colony than Paradise Island. After awhile, other workers shunned the folks relegated to the "7th Floor." The purpose of the Center was to motivate applications for postal positions in less geographically staffed (or desirable) locations around the country. And another goal was to encourage (not pressure, of course) employees to update their resumes and to migrate from the Postal Service.

    Toward this end, the USPS hired a hot shot outplacement firm from New York City to positively motivate and cheerlead the troops. Big surprise ... very few participants were getting with the outplacement program. As one employee, previously on a management fast track, cried out: "I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it!" You don't think she was feeling betrayed, abandoned and enraged? This "rah rah," shut down real feelings approach only added insult to injury. Finally someone from the EAP realized that "The Outplacement Emperor" had no clothes or clout. I was brought in to lead workshops dealing with the inevitable issues and emotions of loss and depression, fear and anger. As one participant said, "Why did we have to wait three months to get this program?" Better late than never ... but why not sooner!
  2. The Restructuring Survivors. For survivors of a downsizing or reorganization the most noxious message is simple: "Just be grateful you still have a job!" This can only be heard as, "Stuff your real feelings, I (the supervisor) or we (management), don't want to deal with them." People have lost close colleagues, may have been shifted to a strange department and/or must quickly take on new tasks or job descriptions. Not surprisingly, a person feels his or her mission, self-worth and sense of purpose has been downgraded. As a bank officer bemoaned after his bank had been submerged by a larger financial institution, "Around here it feels like a losing team locker room."

    Now, of course, there's the anxiety and frustration of having "to do more with less" staff, resources, etc. All the above is a combustible formula for people swinging between helplessness and feeling "lean-and-MEAN!" Also, passive-aggressive inertia may be a byproduct of unresolved loss and conflict. This posture is a fairly predictable response when people perceive their freedom or sense of autonomy and control is being threatened. Many times, the most senior employees are the most resistant to change. They know better what the good old days were like. They have already carved out their niche of success and don't want to rock the status quo. Frequently, the less senior folks are more willing to grapple with the dangers and opportunities in this amorphous new context. They don't want to cruise toward retirement. And if senior management is also feeling overwhelmed or burnt out by prolonged transition and time pressures, lack of resources, wounds to the ego, etc., increasing entropy if not outright decay may hover like a dark cloud about a mountain top. As will be illustrated in the second strategy section, the key is sanctioning a group grief process and creating new interconnections and supportive problem-solving teams.
  3. The Downsized, Right-Sized, Outsourced and Terminated. For the past eighteen months, under the aegis of the Fairfax County Government in Northern, VA, I've been leading twice/monthly stress and change workshops with white collar (and some blue) professionals who have lost their jobs for a variety of reasons. Realizing that their downsizing was due to larger economic forces often expedites the resolution of an individual's grief process. For the "Multiply Downsized," especially folks in the aerospace and computer fields, industries fraught with instability or rapid startup and crash down, this roller coaster proved double-edged. Some had career transition inoculation; they had the grief, anger, letting go and moving on sequence down pat. For others who had relocated, yet again, and then experienced the downsizing replay, the emotional wiring was pretty frayed.

    Other categories of the outraged and bitter include individuals believing they were: a) bounced at the first sign of ill health and b) were forced out by a jealous and/or incompetent manager who feared the skill level of the employee and feared for their own position in the company. While I'm sure some of these hard luck stories are more fiction than fact, there were too many from reliable informants to dismiss the magnitude of the problem ... and the potential for employee retribution. Trust me, in the workshop group psychological drawing exercises the violent imagery—bombs, swords, circling sharks, the devil with a whip in hand—is palpable.

    Beyond coaching, disciplining and rooting out unprofessional managers and having consistent standards for satisfactory employee attendance and job performance, my recommendation before termination is simple: have a one-on-one grievance procedure. Allow folks to express their perceptions, biases, provide their case, hear your constraints and operational realities if you've decided to sever them from the company. Too often the procedure is cowardly: leaving a pink slip in the cubicle telling the employee to "Pack up. Your services are no longer needed. Thank you!" (And preventing an employee from retrieving their personal computer files only fuels the rageful fires.) Even contractors shouldn't be dismissed without some notice. This kind of harsh and abrupt termination, unless truly an emergency, can too easily sow the seeds for future destruction.