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Lunch is over and everyone is back at their desks, when the office door opens and Susan's former boyfriend busts in looking for her. He has a gun and he's pointing it at several people, demanding to know where Susan is. He's told that she's in the restroom. He turns and runs out of the office. Thirty seconds later, three loud shots are heard from down the hall. The office is now in chaos, as everyone screams and ducks under desks. Peter calls building security, which comes in with guns drawn. Two guards set up a blockage in the hall, while a third calls the police, who are there in about ten minutes. The police find Susan in the restroom with two gunshot wounds, and her former boyfriend still shouting profanities.
It's a quiet Friday afternoon and everyone in the office is anticipating the weekend. At exactly 4 p.m., automatic weapon gunfire from outside the building shatters the window glass. Anne and Dave fall to the floor bleeding and crying. Everyone hides under desks. Three more gunshot blasts are heard and more glass shatters. Then, all is quiet. Finally, Ron crawls out from under his desk and runs down the hall shouting for someone to call security and the police. When they arrive, they spot a man across the street with a semi-automatic rifle. He tells police that a year earlier he had been laid-off and still had not found a job. He was attempting to shoot his former boss through the office window.
These are two real-life examples of the approximately two million physical attacks that occur in the American workplace each year. Another six million workers are threatened. Romantic entanglements are the genesis of about 20 percent of all physical injuries, and sexual harassment or rage represent approximately six percent. In an American Management Association poll of 311 companies, 25 percent indicated at least one employee had been attacked or killed in the previous four years. The sad fact is that each year, for the past several years, some 1000 murders have occurred in the workplace - an average of about three per day. Murder is the third leading cause of occupational death in the U.S., after motor vehicle crashes and machine related incidents.
Violence in the workplace causes enormous personal loss, trauma and anxiety for employees and their families. It also costs businesses over $4 billion annually, with security system costs averaging about $30 billion each year.
The causes of workplace violence are many and varied. Some workers have been the victims of workforce downsizings and feel they have been unfairly treated - they want revenge. For others, increased workloads or rapid change can create undue stress, causing them to explode in violent behavior. Also, social issues - drugs, alcohol, financial distress and family or romantic difficulties - can push employees over the edge.
Needless to say, not all workers are prone to commit murder, or even physically attack another person. There is, however, a profile of those most likely to create violence at work. These individuals often have a history of at least some of the following: violence; substance abuse; people problems; knowledge of or experience with weapons and explosives; few or no supportive relationships; a migratory job history; frequent filing of grievances and lawsuits; and work performance problems which they don't recognize.
The behavior characteristics of potentially violent workers can include the following: stormy personal relationships; resentment of authority; a tendency to hold grudges; extremist opinions; acting entitled or self-righteous; tardiness or absenteeism; forgetfulness, inattentiveness or disorganization; unwelcome contact with others; aggressiveness toward others (using either direct or vague threats); a tendency to be impulsive, depressed, withdrawn, suicidal or paranoid; frequent conversations about violence; and a failure to modify behavior after reprimands.
What can be done to stop workplace violence? A lot!
First, check all new employees for criminal history before hiring.
If a job termination is necessary, it should be well planned and done with sensitivity. The perception should be that the employer really cares. A decent severance and benefits continuation package should be offered, along with job-search assistance - often called outplacement. At the time of termination, the individual's identification card and keys (or keycard) should be retrieved. Then, the person can remove personal belongings, with security nearby if needed. For a troublesome employee, security should oversee personal item removal and escort the individual from the premises.
Supervisors should be trained to recognize signs of potentially violent behavior. Persons who threaten others or show signs of unusual behavior should receive counseling. All threats should be reported and considered serious. Counter threats should be discouraged, since they often increase tension and escalate problem situations.
Alarms, metal detectors and/or control-access systems are options to be seriously considered in today's workplace. It should be clear that desks are the employer's property and are subject to inspection at all times. It's important to develop crisis-management procedures for responding to violent acts. Set up a chain of command and determine what outside authorities should be contacted, when that should occur and by whom.
Violence is perhaps the most personally dangerous, disturbing and costly trend in the American workplace today. But, it can be contained. To do that, however, it takes a commitment from management, as well as constant awareness and vigilance from all employees.
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