Sunday, January 18, 2004

Workplace Violence: Fashionable vs. Unfashionable

I used to be one of the nation's leading experts in workplace violence. But I was into workplace violence before it became fashionable. And even then, I was mostly interested in the unfashionable kind of workplace violence.

Unfashionable workplace violence happened when mental health or social service workers got beaten up or killed working in understaffed institutions or making house calls in neighborhoods that the police wouldn't go into with guns drawn. Late night retail clerks who were victims of robberies -- often poor brown-skinned types -- were also on the unfashionable side of the ledger. It was largely these incidents that led workplace violence to become the second leading cause of death in the workplace in the mid 1990's.

The more fashionable kind of workplace violence focused the demented, mentally unstable worker (aren't they all?) -- often postal workers -- who would come into work armed to the teeth and blow away their bosses and a few co-workers for good measure. These were fashionable because, unlike the unfashionable crowed, they got lots of press and provided fodder for armies of consultants who would scare employers into paying large sums for how to screen job applicants (or current employees) who might turn violent. And for good measure, they'd also counsel employers on how to fire people in a way that would minimize the chance that they might come back in and blow you away.

Instead of generating profit-making consultants, unfashionable workplace violence focused on boring issues like staffing levels in institutions, lockdrop safes and windows in retail establishments that left a clear view to the street, and locked doors and security guards for social service agencies. Instead of making money, these preventive measures cost money.

The problem with the fashionable workplace violence, is that it was largely a myth. So-called "worker-on-worker" or "internecine" violence never amounted more than about 7% of all workplace violence, even though it received close to 97% of the press.

A lot of the controversy and false claims have died down over the past few years. So I reacted with a combination of nostalgia and nausea when a colleague showed me a headline in Occupational Health and Safety Magazine that read "defusing the explosive worker," accompanied by a photo of two hands in handcuffs.

But the article didn't start out too bad. After leading with the fact that fatalities from workplace violence are falling, although it still remains the second leading cause of workplace death, the author noted accurately that
Robbery remained the primary motive of job-related homicide, accounting for 85 percent of the deaths. Disputes among co-workers, customers, and clients accounted for approximately one-tenth of the total. Factors that might increase a worker's risk for workplace assault as defined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are: 1) contact with the public; 2) exchange of money; 3) delivery of passengers, goods, or services; 4) having a mobile workplace, such as a taxicab or public cruiser; 5) working with unstable or volatile persons in health care, social services, or criminal justice settings; 6) working alone or in small numbers; 7) working late at night or during early morning hours; 8) working in high-crime areas; 9) guarding valuable property or possessions; and 10) working in community-based settings.
The article also noted the two OSHA guidelines (for health care workers and for late night retail), and correctly identified many of the engineering and administrative controls that have proven successful in preventing violent incidents. These include physical barriers (such as bulletproof enclosures), pass-through windows in late night retail, or deep service counters, alarm systems and panic buttons, elevated vantage points, clear visibility of service and cash register areas, bright and effective lighting, adequate staffing, arranging furniture to prevent entrapment and cash-handling controls, such as using drop safes.

I was about to figure that this was yet another episode of "When Bad Headline Writers Meet Good Articles," when I read the following paragraph:
Studies by The Workplace Violence Research Institute of Palm Springs, Calif., show an armed intruder is not the chief threat workers face. The institute's definition of workplace violence is "Any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee, either physically or psychologically. These acts include all types of physical or verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation, and all forms of harassment." (emphasis added)
Now that's a pretty broad definition of workplace violence -- one that would in some ways fit almost any workplace in America, and a definition that many workers could use to describe the work environment imposed by management.

Then the article moves to the favorite -- and most discredited -- pastime of workplace violence consultants: the worker profile. And employers whose workplace has characteristics that fit the above description (and whose doesnt?) had better pay attention or else face "huge liabilities" for "negligent hiring" or "negligent retention."
Negligent hiring occurs when prior to hiring, the employer knew or should have known a particular applicant was not fit for the job. Negligent retention occurs when an employer becomes aware of an employee's unsuitability and fails to act. (emphasis added)
What's the problem with profiling? Looking back at violent incidents, almost every perpetrator of a violent incident in the workplace fits one or more of these characteristics, but so do millions of others who, while perhaps being irritating, would never commit a violent act.

I've listed a number of the "pre-incident indicators" that the employer had better know. Note that many of them include characteristics of what many would consider to be an active union representative. An employer who really is "out to get" someone can easily find ways to match him or her with these warning signs.
  • an unexplained increase in absenteeism; (which could be a workplace health or stress problem, or a disease that the worker would like to keep confidential)
  • depression and withdrawal;
  • unprovoked, explosive outbursts of anger or rage; (perhaps a bit more stress than usual?)
  • threats or verbal abuses of co-workers and supervisors; (this, like other items, may be an indicator or the general workplace environment.)
  • frequent vague physical complaints; (or, we could have not repealed the ergonomics standard)
  • behavior suggestive of paranoia; (just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you -- especially if you're a union activist.)
  • having a plan to "solve all problems"; (of course, in some workplaces this might be welcome)
  • resistance and over-reaction to procedural changes; (like it would be overreacting to resist mandatory overtime or violations of the contract)
  • empathy with individuals committing violence; (don't even think about making Bush/Iraq jokes here)
  • repeated violations of company policy; (There's always some company policy that is being violated at any given moment
And don't forget to watch out for these dangerous characters:
  • white male 35-45 years of age;
  • a migratory job history; (hear that brown-skinned folk from south of the border)
  • a loner with little or no family or social support; (see above)
  • chronically disgruntled; (Don't worry, be happy)
Anyway, you get the idea.

At best, articles such as these prey upon employers' irrational fears of gun-toting angry workers and massive lawsuits, as well as their desire for an easy test to resolve the "problem." At worst, it provides employers with a justification for getting rid of any worker to tries to rock the boat, stand up to arbitrary supervision, raise workplace health problems, or -- horrors-- organize other workers.

On the other hand

Do not, however, mistake my hostility toward profiling as a minimization of the need to address workers who harass, threaten or assault other employees. I made the mistake when I was at ASFCME of assuming that we could ignore "worker-on-worker" violence because it resulted in relatively few fatalities compared to more serious causes. I'll never forget getting a call from a steward relating how he had celebrated "saving" the job of a worker who had been accused of threatening other workers. The problem was that the other members of the union were really pissed off. "The guy really was a menace. We'd been trying to get rid of him for years, and then you save his job!"

I won't go into the solutions to this problem here, but if you're interested in a union approach, check out AFSCME's handbook on Preventing Workplace Violence, especially Chapter 5. For a reasonable employer approach, check out the federal Office Personnel Management's Dealing with Workplace Violence.

Also, my objection to "profiling" doesn't mean that there aren't certain indicators of increased risk of serious violence that workers should be aware of. These indicators focus not on personality characteristics, but on actual behavior, such as actually making threats against people, bringing a weapon into the workplace, or drug and alcohol abuse.

The bottom line is that any workplace violence policy should focus on the real risks of violence. It does little good to start profiling workers in a futile attempt to predict when one may go over the edge, while in the real workplace, workers are actually getting attacked by clients or clients. Second, any attempt to address workplace violence should be addressed jointly by management and the union.