Workplace Violence Between Employees – Knowing the Warning Signs

workplace violence against employees

J&R Engineering in Barberton, Ohio, makes precision components for large trucks. It’s a typical industrial workplace; the workers do a lot of heavy lifting but the quotas are manageable and the pay is okay. Not great, but okay.

Friday, June 22, 2018, was looking like a nice day, a little cooler than it had been earlier in the week. The day shift was just starting when, a little after 7:00, two employees on the floor got into an argument. The shouting match escalated into a physical fight, then one of the men, 29-year-old Aaron Brooks, pulled out a gun and shot the other in the chest.

Brooks fled the building but was quickly apprehended by local police, who took him to the Barberton jail.  Company records revealed that Brooks had been an employee there for two years with no previous incidents. He was subsequently charged with felonious assault and possessing a weapon under disability. The injured employee recovered.

Brooks’ history – of either mental disability, addition, or felony convictions – should have been discovered during a standard pre-hiring background check. The problem is, the company didn’t conduct one. Instead, a potentially violent employee was allowed to work at J&R for two full years, putting all of the company’s employees at risk and eventually sending one to the hospital with a gunshot wound.

This type of workplace violence between employees is becoming increasingly common. It is also preventable – if employers take necessary precautions.

What Is Employee vs. Employee Violence?

What exactly is employee vs. employee violence? Put simply, it’s any threat or attack initiated by a current or former employee and targeted at one or more other employees. It does not involve customers, either as instigators or victims. It’s strictly between one worker and another.

Employee vs. employee violence is often related to existing interpersonal conflicts between employees. Friction between supervisors and employees can also be a cause of these incidents.

Maintaining a safe workplace is critical for all employers. That includes protecting employees from violent co-workers. Employee vs. employee violence is a serious and growing issue. No matter the size of a company, management needs to be aware of signs of potentially violent employees and pending violence.

workplace violence statistics infographicHow Big Is the Problem?

Workplace violence of all forms is a serious issue. According to OSHA, close to 2 million U.S. workers each year are victims of workplace violence. As a result of these incidents, close to a half-million employees miss approximately 1.8 million days of work each year, costing employers $130 billion. (This doesn’t count the damages resulting from employee lawsuits.)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were 417 workplace homicide victims in 2017, the last year reported. Approximately 7 percent of these fatalities (29 in total) resulted from employee vs. employee attacks.

Types of Workplace Violence Between Employees

There are many different types of workplace violence, however, not all of them are physical. Employee vs. employee violence can also encompass acts where a worker is threatened, harassed, or abused by another.

Employee vs. employee violence can include:

  • Verbal threats, where one person says they intend to harm another
  • Written threats, where the intention to harm is communicated in written form
  • Online threats, where threats are communicated via private email or publicly via social media posts
  • Threatening behavior, typically nonverbal threats, such as shaking one’s fists, throwing something at another worker, or actively destroying another worker’s property
  • Harassment, which includes any behavior that alarms, embarrasses, humiliates, or demeans another
  • Verbal abuse, including swearing or insulting another worker
  • Bullying, either verbally or physically
  • Physical attacks, such as shoving, hitting, kicking, or using a weapon, such as a knife or a gun

It’s important to know that employee vs. employee violence isn’t limited to a company’s physical workplace. Any altercations between employees, whether at work, in public, or in private, qualifies as workplace violence. Workplace violence can also take the form of online threats and harassment.

Employee vs. employee violence can take place between employees at any level in the organization; it doesn’t have to be between two equal co-workers. This type of altercation can take the form of an employee threatening his or her supervisor or manager, a worker threatening others in his or her group, a supervisor threatening the employees he or she manages, or even a group of workers threatening management.

Identifying Risk Factors for Workplace Violence Between Employees

What can cause employee vs. employee violence? There are many possible factors, a number of which can be identified in advance.

Job-Related Factors

office job work stressMany risk factors for workplace violence are related to employees’ jobs. These include:

  • Job stress. When a manager puts undue stress on an employee, or if an employee simply feels pressure to perform, it can lead to stress that manifests itself in violence towards other employees.
  • Stressful work environment. Some work environments are simply more stressful than others. The more stressful the environment, the higher the risk of employee violence.
  • Dealing with customers. Handling a constant barrage of demanding customers, especially in a retail environment, can cause some employees to snap.
  • Handling money or other items of value. There is stress associated with the responsibility of handling items of high value, including jewelry, prescription drugs, antiques, and the like.
  • Managing others. Not everyone is suited for the responsibility of a management position. Managing a group of employees and being responsible for financial results can put undue pressure on some staff.
  • Being responsible for enforcement or inspections. Many workers feel pressure when they’re responsible for making sure that systems meet expectations.
  • Providing service to others. This type of stress typically affects healthcare workers, teachers, and the like, who have to work closely with patients, students, and similar service recipients.
  • Working with people who are unstable or volatile. Dealing with others’ stress can cause stress of its own. This can affect social service workers, police officers, and others who come into contact with members of the public in stressful situations.
  • Working alone. Employees who have limited social contact with others can experience unrelieved stress. Similarly for those who work in low-traffic or isolated areas of a building.
  • Too many hours worked. When an employee is overworked he or she will show signs of stress.
  • Job inflexibility. Work that must be performed a certain way, without any leeway for employee input, can cause anxiety in some more creative types of workers.
  • Repetitive tasks. The repetitive tasks performed by some factory workers can be overly stressful.
  • Changes in workload or job responsibilities. Some people prefer the comfort of the status quo and experience stress when their job or workload changes.
  • Overly strict or overbearing management. Bad management can result in an unwanted confrontation with staff.
  • Looming performance appraisals. All employees feel some trepidation when it’s time for their employee reviews. This stress can manifest itself in confrontation.

Workplace Factors

workplace-violence-past-employee-securityThere are also risk factors related to the workplace environment itself. These include:

  • Lack of security. Not job security, but rather the physical security of the workplace. If non-workers or ex-workers can easily access the workplace, this can create the potential for unwanted conflict.
  • Workplace design. Look for floorplans that leave places where employees can be trapped in a room or behind furniture. Open floorplans are less risky and keep all confrontations public.
  • Alcohol on the premises. Sober employees are less dangerous than inebriated ones. This can increase the risk of violence for workers in restaurants, bars, and night clubs.
  • Mobile workplaces. Workers without a fixed base of operations, such as outside salespeople, public transit workers, and taxi or Uber drivers, sometimes lack a stable and reinforcing work environment.
  • Workplace location. Workplaces located in high-crime areas can increase employee stress. Similarly, workplaces located in isolated locations can also be stressful for employees.
  • Disputes between labor and management. Work environments where workers and management are constantly at odds can give way to violent incidents.
  • Worker compensation claims. Claims that aren’t granted or take too long to be addressed can result in a confrontation with the filing employee.
  • If a company doesn’t have enough staff to perform necessary tasks employees can face excessive demands for overtime. If this overtime is unwanted, conflicts can result.
  • Organizational change. Employees feel stress during change. Change can cause conflict. This is especially true if said change may result in workforce layoffs.
  • Company financial problems. When a company is under financial stress, that stress is often transmitted downward to the workforces – especially if bonuses aren’t paid, promised raises aren’t materialized, or paychecks are delayed.

The risk of workplace violence can also increase during certain times of the day or year. For example, violence tends to peak during late night or early morning shifts. For accountants, the tax season definitely results in increased stress; similarly for retail workers during the holiday season.

Non-Workplace Factors

Other risk factors are completely unrelated to anything happening at work. But many employees bring their personal problems to work – and take out their stress on their managers or co-workers. Be on the lookout for the following issues:

  • stress mental health workplace violencePhysical problems. An employee in pain is understandably apt to be short-tempered. Employees dealing with chronic pain issues are most at risk.
  • Mental health issues. Mental and emotional issues can often manifest themselves in violent behavior. If possible, companies should screen employees for past mental health issues and provide counseling and other assistance to reduce potential risk.
  • Financial difficulties. Workers who are having trouble making ends meet, for whatever reasons, are more apt to be under stress. This can include workers with spouses who’ve lost their jobs or those with spending or gambling issues.
  • Marital or relationship issues. Not surprisingly, workers with unhappy home lives are also unhappy at work. It’s difficult to leave personal issues at home.
  • Caring for a sick relative or elderly parent. Caring for an elderly or sick relatively can be both emotionally and financially stressful. There may be demands for an employee to leave work to handle urgent or ongoing issues.
  • Concerns about childcare. Parents, especially single parents, are under emotional and financial stress to care for their children while they are at work. Employees may feel torn between work and childcare, especially if a child is home sick or out of school.
  • Concerns about children in school. Children and school place many demands on parents. Parents have to help children with homework, be there for sports and after-school activities, and deal with any grade or behavior-related issues that arise. It is not unusual for parents, especially those with more than one school-aged child, to feel constant stress.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse. Employees dealing with alcohol and drug-related issues can engage in all manner of riskier behavior in the workplace. A drunk or stoned employee is a particular risk for violent confrontation.

How to Minimize Workplace Violence Between Employees

How can a company identify the markers of potential workplace violence and help to prevent it? There are a number of steps to take.

Perform Regular Background Checks

woman performing background checks on employees

The shooting incident at J&R Engineering could have been avoided had the company performed basic background checks prior to hiring their employees. Companies need to enact a policy of conducting background checks, including criminal checks, on all potential hires. It’s also a good policy to conduct ongoing background checks every three-to-five years on current employees; circumstances can and do change over time. The goal is to avoid those workers with a background and who pose an undue risk of workplace violence.

Adopt a Zero-Tolerance Policy

If an employee engages in any act of harassment or violence towards any other employee, the instigator needs to be let go. A responsible company cannot tolerate or encourage any act of employee vs. employee violence. This policy should apply to employees at all levels; senior management should not get an out. It should also apply to everyone dealing with the company – vendors, contractors, even customers.

Get to Know Employees

Management needs to know their employees and recognize when any worker is acting out of the ordinary. Any unusual behavior for a given employee can be a sign of pending violence and should be immediately addressed.

Get Involved

When conflicts are witnessed between employees, management must get involved to diffuse any escalating situations. A simmering disagreement between two workers can quickly turn into a hot argument of physical altercation. Non-violent conflicts can turn violent if they’re not addressed early and decisively.

company training workplace violence against employeesProperly Train Staff

All managers, supervisors, and responsible workers need to be trained on the warning signs of workplace violence and encouraged or required to report questionable behavior to the human resources department. It’s also good practice to initiate a violence prevention program that applies to all personnel. All employees should know which behavior is acceptable and which is not.

Encourage HR to Take Action

A company’s human resources department must be encouraged to act on all reports of unusual worker behavior. The goal should be to address issues before they become major and help employees with the assistance they need.

Provide Help

When an employee is experiencing stress, a company should provide assistance for that employee. It’s better to help and keep a valued employee than it is to lose them– or, even worse, see that employee turn violent.

Set Rules for Terminated Employees

Employee vs. employee violence can be initiated by past employees. A company should inform all terminated employees that they are no longer welcome in the workplace and that their presence will be reported to authorities for trespassing.

Evaluate the Work Environment

Management should regularly evaluate the company’s work environment to ensure that undue pressure isn’t being applied to workers. That may mean regulating employee workloads, reducing mandatory overtime, or providing other assistance for those working in stressful situations.

create action plan secure floors workplace safetySecure the Workplace

A company shouldn’t make it easy for ex-employees or unauthorized persons to enter the workplace. That means securing the workplace with physical locks or electronic keycards and minimizing the number of exits and entrances into individual workspaces. Ensure that only approved employees and suppliers can enter designated areas.

Create an Action Plan

If the worst happens, a company should have a set plan of action to deal with workplace emergencies. Make sure all employees know the emergency exit routes and what to do if a violent incident occurs. Companies should also conduct periodic training for emergency situations, similar to the lockdown drills that all schools currently employ.

Commit to Reducing Workplace Violence

Most importantly, company management must seriously commit to reducing employee vs. employee violence. It’s not enough to give lip service to the issue or react only when an incident occurs. Companies must proactively address the threat of workplace violence and work towards minimizing the risk.

BeSafe Helps Companies Deal with Workplace Violence Between Employees

Reducing workplace violence between employees is more than good business, it’s essential for the safety and well-being of all of your company’s employees. The BeSafe Building Safety System can help your company be prepared in the case of any emergency, including incidences of employee vs. employee violence.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you create an emergency action plan for your workplace.

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