OXFORD – Think the workplace is safe? Guess again.
Homicide on the job is the second leading cause of death and the number one cause of death for women at work, according to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and The Center for Women in Government.
“We are a very violent society, and it’s pointless to say that we are not,” said Mark Franks of Mark Franks Consulting. “In the early 1980s, sociologists, criminologists and psychologists started tagging the term workplace violence and realizing it was a trend.”
In the U.S., about 20 acts of violence, including three multiple homicides, occur in the workplace every month, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Jim Stringer, director of membership and educational services for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, a 1,700-member statewide organization that represents about 240,000 manufacturing jobs, will host a seminar in early 2000 to address workplace violence.
“An increase in workplace violence is the reason why we’re tackling this topic,” said Stringer. “If a volatile workplace situation arises and is not identified and handled correctly, someone’s going to get hurt. It doesn’t matter whether it starts at home or at work, it can still be carried to the workplace. The seminar we’re planning will include information on how to identify the characteristics of troubled employees.”
The vast majority of people who commit acts of violence in the workplace don’t do it because they got angry that morning for a particular reason, Franks said.
“They think about it, plot it and plan it,” he said. “They give us a lot of warning signs. When I have been involved in workplace violence situations, typically, many people come forward and say the employee said, threatened or warned that he was going to commit a violent act.”
When a company calls a consultant to train supervisors to disarm angry or armed employees, it is starting “in the hole,” Franks said.
“Instead, I ask them to let me look at company policies and advise them on recommended changes,” he said. “If people know what is clearly expected of them, that’s a good start. We develop policies of mandatory communication of threats, rumors of threats and intimidating behavior. We don’t want to just be in a position to outlaw an act of violence, we want to raise the comfort level and create an environment that doesn’t tolerate those types of behaviors. When we do that, we get rid of an awful lot of violent situations, because most violent situations have festered. People have crossed their fingers and hoped the person would not carry out threats. But as we know, we can’t determine that something said in anger won’t be acted on.”
The workplace culture is also examined, Franks said.
“For example, how are difficult situations handled? Is there physical security, such as an alarm system in place? It’s not a quick answer deal,” he said.
Most people are in denial about workplace violence, said Bruce Wilkinson, president of Workplace Consultants Inc. of Metairie, La.
“Most people don’t think it’s going to happen to them, just like most people don’t wear seat belts,” he said. “Guess what the leading cause of death is on the job? Riding in a vehicle without wearing a seat belt!”
Companies usually call when they have finally seen tensions at work or an incident has occurred, Wilkinson said.
“Then they start to think it could happen to them,” he said. “In our training sessions, we teach discipline with dignity. People want to be treated with respect. Just because someone violates a rule doesn’t mean a supervisor can call him names or stick a finger in his chest. We practice communicating openly, doing what you say you’re going to do and treating people with respect.”
Some workers are violent because they have seen other workers getting away with rules that they can’t get away with, Wilkinson said.
“Some employment cases I’ve handled would make ‘War of the Roses’ look like a fairy tale,” said employment attorney John Mooney of Jackson, referring to the 1980s movie starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas that chronicled events leading to a nasty divorce. “Adverse actions taken against employees can be as devastating as going through a divorce because, in today’s society, the workplace is a culture and a community. Employers need to be more conscientious of what effects their actions are going to have.”
Dr. Jesse Dees, of Jackson, a clinical psychologist and business consultant, is often called on to teach supervisors how to better identify employees with emotional problems at companies such as Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant, where safe operations are top priority.
“We train supervisors to recognize changes that take place in people, because change is evolutionary, not revolutionary,” Dees said. “You don’t have a person who is ‘Mr. Friendly and Kind’ one day and shows up the next day with a gun and shoots everybody he sees. There are warning signs if other employees and supervisors are willing to notice them. Then intervention can be taken. When people look back, they notice lots of clues that people were beginning to change. Oftentimes, supervisors unfortunately may decide that it’s not their business as long as it’s not directly affecting the person’s production – but it is.”
Behavioral changes include showing more anger than usual, becoming more rigid, inflexible and argumentative, challenging authority or overreacting to real or imagined criticism. Emotionally troubled employees may fail to convey significant information or refuse to accept help from other people. They may begin to have more accidents, be more careless, or show a lack of concern for disciplinary types of threats, Dees said.
“Shootings have closed many plants, but any business can be affected by workplace violence,” Franks said. “Just look at the Atlanta shootings this summer in the day trading service industry. The healthcare industry is a setting where emotional issues emerge.”
Secretaries and receptionists, most often female, are front line people when a business is typically entered, and are often vulnerable to workplace violence, he said.
“Estranged boyfriends or husbands that come into the workplace to commit violence against their girlfriends or wives are another leading reason homicide in the workplace is the leading cause of death for women,” Franks said. “A lot of women who are in abusive personal relationships with males are typically embarrassed to tell people at work about it. For that reason, they may get a restraining order but not include the workplace. Of course, that’s where abusers are most likely to find you – where you work.”
Employers have a duty to perform background checks on all applicants, he said.
“Many employers tell employees that they’re going to do a thorough background check, but they don’t,” Franks said. “It’s a scare factor that doesn’t work. Employers have got to go ahead and do background checks, because they can’t depend on employees to self-report.”
Conviction of a violent crime in the past is a good indicator of performance in the future, but is not always an automatic disqualification for hire, he said.
“If an applicant has responsibly addressed problems to drugs or alcohol abuse, it’s a judgement call,” Franks said. “If employers ask them to explain and the person becomes hostile or angry, it’s a sign that have not responsibly dealt with the issue and might
not be a responsible hire.”
Does road rage
enter into workplace violence?
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but again, most situations have festered for a long time,” Franks said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.