Rage in the Workplace

"Please join us in remembering our seven colleagues whose lives were tragically taken on December 26, 2000, and who will be missed dearly."

The opening message on Edgewater Technology Inc.'s Web site flashes for just a moment, but its effects linger long after the words fade. Not only does it evoke memories of December's highly publicized office shootings in Wakefield, Mass. (see story), but it also reminds us that violence isn't limited to dark city alleyways or convenience store holdups. It can strike in a place as familiar as your office, initiated by people you work with every day.

Round-the-clock cell phone calls, constant badgering from end users, a company merger, mass layoffs, tight project deadlines—it's more than some IT professionals can bear.

"In many cases, the workplace is a place of sanity for most people," explains Joseph Dadourian, a workplace psychologist and employee assistance program provider in Los Angeles. "When that changes, it can trigger something."

The stakes are high. Workplace aggression and stress affect almost 250,000 U.S. workers annually, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Stress-related disabilities cost U.S. corporations more than $300 billion a year in legal settlements, lost production and operational expenses, and they cost workers more than $16 million in lost wages.

A study released in January by Athabasca University and CIO Canada magazine, a Computerworld sister publication, highlights just how big a problem workplace tension is, particularly in IT. When asked if IT has increased employees' stress levels, 55% of the 3,300 IT and business managers in North America who replied said yes. Only 27% said their organizations were using technology to effectively manage change, says Peter Carr, associate director of the Centre for Innovative Management at the Athabasca, Alberta-based university.

The study suggests that people want to do their jobs well but feel that technology is preventing them from doing so, and that's creating tension, Carr says. If nothing changes, they'll just stop caring. Or worse.

Flat-Footed

When Andrew Scott started as technology director at AeroGroup International Inc. last year, the tension in the IT department was spreading throughout the entire company. The Edison, N.J.-based maker of AeroSoles shoes had already given up on one failed enterprise resource planning (ERP) initiative, and its second attempt had been put on hold when the U.K.-based ERP vendor, JBA Holdings PLC, was bought by Toronto-based Geac Computer Corp. in 1999.

The vice president of IT had just been fired, and the IT director quit. The entire IT department was taking a beating from employees throughout the company, who were divided along two lines: those who thought the old system was fine and were mad at IT for messing things up, and those who saw the benefits of the new system but thought IT didn't have the expertise to carry out the implementation.

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Learn practical strategies for combatting rage in the workplace:
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Rage in the

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Workplace

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Threat Assessment

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Prevention Checklist

WEB EXCLUSIVES:
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Protective Measures
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Firing Procedures

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Checklist

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Additional

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Resources

Scott knew he had to do something about the stress his employees were feeling, so he had one-on-one meetings with every member of the IT department to discuss their concerns. He also spent a lot of time working to rebuild the IT team, and he got the company's executive leadership to show public support for the department.

"We're pretty much stable now," says Scott. "We've jelled great."

The ERP implementation has been delayed until September, giving Scott the room to get his department back on track.

"The biggest thing we get stressed out on is deadlines," he says. If you allocate enough time for projects, it can make a huge difference.

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Checklist

To prevent violence in the workplace, managers should:

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Be able to define workplace violence. There are three types: stranger violence (someone walks into a grocery store and shoots the merchant), client-related violence (an angry father shoots his attorney when he loses custody of his child) and employee violence (not only committed by staff, but by contractors, cleaning staff or even workers’ spouses).
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Understand the breadth of the problem. It could be someone running a key down the length of a co-worker’s car. In one case, an employee put a firm’s calling cards on the Internet. When the FBI investigated, it learned the perpetrator had plans to kill the CEO.
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Be familiar with the company’s violence-prevention policy. Most people don’t even know where to find it.
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Be prepared to take immediate action when violence occurs.
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Know the concepts of prevention: civility; defusing difficult or dangerous people. Many colleges offer courses in this area.
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Have layman’s understanding of civil liability. Know how to avoid getting sued for negligence in case violence occurs, and understand the basic standard of care. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration states that employers must provide “a safe and healthful work environment for all workers.”

The Human Touch

Both Dadourian and Larry J. Chavez, a hostage negotiator at the Sacramento Police Department and founder of Critical Incident Associates, a workplace violence-prevention consultancy in Rancho Murieta, Calif., have been getting lots of calls lately from companies preparing for mass layoffs. In just the first quarter of this year, 305,227 people fell victim to mass layoffs nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But, says Chavez, it's "how it's handled that determines whether it's going to be a problem."

Two weeks after the America Online Inc./Time Warner Inc. merger went through in January, the company announced that it would lay off 2,400 employees. The AOL side took a hit of more than 700 staff cuts. But, says Angelo Ioffreda, director of internal communications at the Dulles, Va.-based Internet company, "I think it went very well overall.

"You don't want to get too good at this, but we always strive for [a standard that] if we have to let people go, we treat them with the utmost respect," he says. The goal, he adds, is for people to think, "At least they treated me decently."

AOL Time Warner offered its displaced workers a variety of outplacement services. For the "survivors" who remained, executives tried to clearly explain what was going on, when the staff cuts would occur and how people would be affected, says Ioffreda.

Such precautions are critical, says Dadourian. Frustration on the job, combined with an argument at home, a traffic jam on the way to work or an unpleasant encounter with an incompetent boss, could push someone over the edge. But there are warning signs that, if dealt with properly, can prevent someone from erupting, he adds.

"No one just snaps—that's a misnomer," says Dadourian, who runs a training program for psychologists at BHC Alhambra Hospital in Rosemead, Calif., where he regularly interviews perpetrators of violence. "When an act of violence happens, everyone becomes a psychologist, but it could have been prevented. . . . There can be all these signs of previolent behavior." (See "Threat Assessment" at right.)

The problem is that even if they spot signs, most people don't know what to do. Do you confront the person? Do you report the behavior to your manager? What if you're overreacting? Will you get your colleague in trouble for no good reason?

That's where violence-prevention programs come in. Dadourian says all companies should have a clear code of conduct for employees as well as a plan to monitor workers' performances, and if there's a problem, a list of available resources. That plan needs to be easily accessible and understood by all employees, he says.

It's often human resources workers, security personnel and facilities managers who receive violence-prevention training, "but it doesn't trickle down to the people who see what's really going on," says Chavez. It's the front-line managers who need the training most.

"That's the secret to this," says Chavez. "And what's scary is that these people are not getting trained."

A recent survey by the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Human Resources Management found that 35% of human resources professionals train managers and supervisors to identify violent behavior. "That means that 65% of them don't," says Chavez, who adds that many of the professionals he speaks with often weigh whether they can afford to train every front-line manager.

"Can we afford to send them?" he asks. "My response to that is, 'Can we afford not to? What happens if we don't?' "

An Ounce of Prevention

When William Gebhardt started at Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. 13 years ago, one of the first things he did was hire Dadourian as a consultant.

"Dr. Dadourian has sort of been in our hip pockets since I've been here," says Gebhardt, vice president of human resources at the Pasadena, Calif.-based technical services provider. You just never know when you need something like that. You don't just go out and start looking [when a problem arises]. You need to establish relationships in advance."

Jacobs has a "readily available" violence-prevention plan that's listed on the front page of the company's phone directory, says Gebhardt. It defines threatening messages and tells employees what to do in case of a threatening situation, such as a medical emergency, a fire or a bomb scare. It even contains a checklist for people to fill out as a situation evolves.

Jacobs also tries to help its staff cope with stress through regular presentations on topics such as stress prevention and management, diversity, safety and affirmative action, according to Gebhardt. The company once teamed up with its health insurance provider to offer stress-management services for a group working on a high-pressure project.

But such preventative steps can't guarantee that violence won't strike. Chavez is trying to introduce a bill in the Massachusetts and Nevada legislatures that would give employers a major tool to protect themselves and their workers. Already law in Arizona and California, the legislation would let employers get restraining orders in the company's name against workers. And he's pushing a bill that would require companies to post violence-prevention information in public areas.

People need to be aware that when they see threat indicators, someone must ask if there's a problem and offer help, says Chavez. "When they're hitting rock bottom, people are going to take assistance," he says.

Sometimes, just offering a clear, rational voice to help someone who's feeling overloaded can be enough, adds Dadourian. "Most people when they're stressed, they close down, they narrow their thinking. What I like to do is expand it. There's always a way out."

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Threat Assessment

When conducting violence-prevention training, Larry J. Chavez asks participants if they’ve ever spotted signs of violence in the workplace, and almost everyone has a scary story, “things that are beyond just having a nervous feeling in your stomach,” says Chavez, the founder of Critical Incident Associates. He describes the following as warning signs that someone may resort to violence:

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Committing an act that is clearly in violation of the company’s workplace violence rules.

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Identifying people as targets.

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A past history of minor threats or violence.

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Direct threats or actual injury toward a targeted person.

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Multiple life/work stresses, ranging from a company merger to the loss of a pet.

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Lack of support from family or friends or an unwillingness to turn to them. Women talk; men retreat. “It just gets stored,” says Chavez. “I think it’s the reason why men are the predominant killer in the workplace.”

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Indicators of suicide—express or implied, such as giving away personal, priceless possessions. Among workplace killers, 28% commit suicide at the scene, and 7.6% are killed by police in suicide missions, according to Chavez. “It’s almost typical male logic: Everything’s gone now, I have nothing to live for,” he says. “Most men define themselves by their jobs.”

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Domestic violence. Thirteen percent of fatal cases of workplace violence are related to domestic violence. A man comes into an office building to murder his estranged wife and also kills her co-workers. He may even target the people at work who, for example, introduced her to an employee assistance program.

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Marked changes in behavior.

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Any escalation of any of the aforementioned activities.

Source: Larry J. Chavez, Critical Incident Associates, Rancho Murieta, Calif.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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