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The Bad and the Ugly – Violence at Work

By David Bush
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The Wall Street Journal has just emailed the following:

“Police continued to surround a building in downtown Binghamton, N.Y., after a gunman shot at least four people and kept more than 40 people trapped inside, local media reported, amid fears of fatalities. A man went into the building and started shooting around 10:30 a.m., local media reported, citing police scanners. The building is home to the American Civic Association, which assists immigrants with counseling and citizenship, according to its Web site.”

As I write this, the news on the radio is telling us that the hostage situation remains unresolved.

Perhaps it has started. The uptick in the frequency of work place violence that has been associated with economic downturns seems overdue. Yesterday, I was conferring with a colleague who has shared my interest in Work Place Violence for many years. We know that most workplace violence consists of non-fatal bullying and harassment, including such problems as being bitten by patients, being intimidated and threatened, or being stalked. But when people are stabbed or shot, the press wakes up with cameras and lights, and alarms us with stories of multiple murders in classrooms or postal stations or human resource departments. My colleague and I have consulted with companies attempting to prevent such events, and we have noted that fewer organizations attempt to prevent such behaviors than those who succeed in ignoring them.

Will the current recession lead to elevated rates of homicide at work? Will the outrage with Mr. Madoff lead to attacks on him and other Ponzis? Will people who are associated with the perception of undeserved bonus payments become the victims of disturbed murderers? Are the politicians and members of the press who appear to demonize people who can be blamed for the economic “down-turn” risking a stampede akin to those that may result from shouting “fire” in a theatre?

We live in a country that has a history of righteous violence such as riots and lynching. When many feel threatened and under attack, the potential for such behaviors appears to have been elevated in the past and we would not be surprised if history repeats. Do you hear people making remarks that sound like scapegoating? Who started this mess? Who will be blamed?

Perhaps we need to anticipate the potential for such problems and start to build early warning systems to prevent such bad and ugly events. Some organizations have created violence prevention committees led by representatives of HR, security, safety and legal. They create a form of “rumor central”, a clearing house for information about potential danger. Unlike the failure to share information that led to the 9/11 disaster, this approach encourages having critical information flow to the four person committee that consists of the top decision makers in HR, Legal, Security and Safety. This system also ensures that policies and procedures will be up-to-date on such issues as “you may not bring weapons to work.” On the latter issue, however, be sure to examine your state laws, since some states have laws that “protect your right to bring guns to work”. You may also wish to examine how secure your building entrances are. Can armed non-employees easily invade the company buildings? Are doors intended to be locked fire doors left unlocked for the use of smokers? Can anyone who knows this simply come in the back door? I have seen such high risk activities. The sooner they are fixed the better. Let’s hope that there is no uptick in violence at work. If there is, we all may ask to work from home. But that is another article.

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