Six common mistakes employers make in preventing bullying and workplace violence

Because of recent tragic events, workplace violence is sometimes thought of synonymously with active shooters. Yet, these are rare and workplace violence is much broader and more pervasive. The FBI defines workplace violence as “actions or words that endanger or harm another employee or result in other employees having a reasonable belief that they are in danger.” It encompasses bullying, harassment, stalking, robbery, and physical assault, as well as shootings, and happens daily. It can involve coworkers, supervisors, customers, clients or patients, and relatives of employees.

In fact, at 16 percent, workplace violence is the third-leading cause of on-the-job deaths according to 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Violent injuries comprise 6.3 percent of all employer-recordable injuries. According to the BLS, the industries with the highest propensity for workplace violence include retail, financial, food and hospitality, protective services operations (law enforcement and firefighters), and health care.

While certain industries have a high propensity for violence, it cuts across all sectors and incudes companies of all sizes. More than one-quarter of U.S. workers say they have been bullied at work, and another 21 percent say they have witnessed such abusive conduct, including threats, intimidation, humiliation, work sabotage or verbal abuse, according to the 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey conducted by ZogbyAnalytics for the Workplace Bullying Institute. Whether a specific workplace is particularly vulnerable to bullying depends on a variety of factors, including the culture, the personalities drawn to that line of work, and the organization’s structure.

All workplaces can do more to combat workplace violence. Here are six common mistakes employers make:

  1. Failure to recognize workplace factors that can trigger violence While uncertainty of employment, mergers, downsizing, and heavier workloads are common workplace conditions that can increase the risk of workplace violence so are everyday changes such as new technologies, reorganization, new employees, and new processes. Indeed, stress is a key trigger. When people are under pressure, they are more easily agitated, less cooperative, overly sensitive, and unforgiving of mistakes.Poor hiring practices also are a harbinger for workplace violence. Failure to properly vet applicants on personal traits, behaviors, and cultural fit can lead to hiring potentially violent individuals.

    A company’s culture also plays a large role. Supervisors who motivate by fear or intimidation, are intolerant of individual differences, or refuse to believe that bullying is happening foster an environment ripe for violence. Employers need to take a hard look at their culture and how change, schedules, and promotions are managed.

  2. Inadequate policies Many companies have programs in place they think are effective, but some are too complex, others lacking in details, and still others outdated. While no policy can cover all possible scenarios, it needs to be clear and specific and reviewed and revised regularly. For example, it is not sufficient to say bullying will not be tolerated. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a policy prohibiting bullying should list specific examples of unacceptable behavior, such as:
    • Constant and unfair criticism
    • Excessive teasing
    • Yelling, shouting and screaming
    • Insults and behind-the-back put-downs
    • Hostile glares and other intimidating gestures
    • Malicious gossip
    • Monopolizing supplies and other resources
    • Aggressive e-mails or notes
    • Overt threats, aggression or violence

    In the case of outside threats, such as domestic violence, the policy should encourage workers to come forward and take protective measures.

    According to OSHA, a written program should include management commitment and employee participation, a worksite analysis, hazard prevention and control, safety and health training, and recordkeeping and program evaluation. Make sure all employees understand the policy, there is open communication, and your organization is committed to preventing workplace violence.

  3. Assume employees will report offenders It’s often difficult for employees to report bullying or harassment. They may worry about their jobs, fear further retaliation, consider it a personal matter, feel they lack the knowledge to identify a real problem, believe it’s not their responsibility, or don’t believe it will escalate. Worse, they may believe the company will do nothing about it. Create a clear reporting structure and encourage open communication. Aggressors thrive on the silence of victims and witnesses and a workforce that knows what to look for, is quick to report, and has someone to report to is the strongest weapon against workplace violence.
  4. Allow conflicts to escalate Because the definition of workplace violence is so broad, companies struggle with how to respond and do not handle threats properly or in a timely manner. There’s no doubt it can be a challenging balance of security versus privacy, but it’s important to be proactive and have a process in place that minimizes exposure and protects employees.Violence often stems from unresolved conflicts that fester.In some cases, bullies aren’t even aware they are bullies or they do not know how to effectively manage subordinates. With proper training, they can learn new ways to communicate. When coaching and confronting the offender fails, it’s up to the company to have a process that counsels and supports victims and disciplines and monitors the offender.
  5. Failure to document at an organizational level Even employers that do a good job of documenting individual incidents and have strong preventive programs often do not look at the data in the aggregate. Such a view can help identify departments, responsibilities, shifts and so on that are more vulnerable or exposed to violence. Furthermore, after determining how and why the workplace violence occurred despite the prevention measures, policies should be reviewed and strengthened.
  6. Inadequate support for victims It’s not easy for victims to take control and go back to work after a violent incident. Offering support and counseling as well as properly training supervisors on talking with victims and their coworkers can help with the transition. There are times when the employer might have to deliver bad news, such as a recent case in Florida. A restaurant worker was intentionally set on fire by her boyfriend and was critically burned. She had no insurance and since the boyfriend was not affiliated with the restaurant, workers’ comp will not cover the medical bills. A report on WJXT News4Jax indicates that the owners are supportive and helped with ways to raise money. Employers need to show compassion and understanding for workers in devastating situations.

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