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When a workplace is no longer safe

Incidents of extreme workplace violence, such as the shooting in Fort Hood, are extremely rare. Much more often workplace violence takes the form of threats and harassment. Either way, it must be addressed before it gets out of hand (Getty).

Though they garner lots of media attention, workplace homicides like that of Yale University student Annie Le last fall are extremely rare. More often, workplace violence comes in the form of assaults, threats and stalking. And it's an issue of increasing importance.

According to Paul Viollis, CEO of Risk Control Strategies, a threat management and security consultant firm, a significant uptick in workplace violence occurred in 2009 and has continued in 2010.

“We’re seeing layoffs, people losing their homes. There’s anger, fear and frustration and that leads to violence,” he said.

“The amount of threats directed toward senior management has increased exponentially — that’s the biggest trend in NYC,” said Viollis, who has over 100 corporate clients in NYC alone. “Instead of people focusing their anger on supervisor, it’s more toward executives who they blame for not running companies well.” He’s also seen an increase in domestic violence incidents making their way to the workplace.

Viollis said he’s seen the problem across all industries – finance, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, technology. He described one particular incident when a company gave notice in January that it would close in May. The announcement sparked so much anger — and in some cases death threats — prompting the company to expedite the closing of the plant.

An uncontrolled problem
The greatest point of concern, Viollis said, is that eight out of 10 companies don’t meet requirements in terms of mitigating violence.

“People not being laid off properly. It’s not so much that people are losing their jobs, but how those layoffs are being handled,” he said.

“The three things companies should be working to prevent are discrimination, sexual harrassment and workplace violence. Companies are handling the first two, but they do very little to handle workplace violence until after it’s occurred,” said Larry J. Chavez, a consultant and trainer on workplace violence prevention who formerly served as a hostage negotiator for the Sacramento Police Department.

According to both Viollis and Chavez, companies must create comprehensive written policies and professionally train employees on avoiding workplace violence, much the way they have with sexual harrasment.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find companies that don’t have policies on sexual harrasment, but that wasn’t always the case,” Viollis said. “What we did was change the cultural thinking and put in place punitive reactions. That’s what needs to be done with workplace violence.”

Dealing with the situation
The first step is to nip violence in the bud.

Incidents other than homicides come from attention seekers rather than sociopaths, Viollis said, so perpetrators often show signs of anger and hints of violence.

“The violence continuum starts with indirect, verbal threats. Stage two includes loud outbursts and direct threats — that’s what I call the last exit before the toll. If you go in at that point you’re either going to have an at-risk termination (where your personal risk actually increases) or some sort of confrontation,” he said.

Warning signs:
1) Departure from a person’s normal pattern of behavior, ie. coming in late, slacking off
2) An overblown sense of entitlement
3) Pushing the limits of normal behavior. Going right up to the edge of the rules
4) Chronic disgruntled behavior
5) Anger toward authority
6) A history of violence outside the office
7) Paranoid behavior
8) Social isolation

Source: Larry J. Chavez

What you can do
1) Ask questions. Find out if your office has a policy on workplace violence. If so, read it. If not, ask HR to craft policy and then do training.
2) Alert supervisors about suspicions. Don’t confront the person yourself.

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