2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap
The Hidden Danger Within: Manage Your Way To A Safer Workplace
Alternative Behavioral Services
My Personal Experience
After having personally experienced two separate acts of violence in the workplace, I decided to use these acts as a way to help others become better prepared as employees and managers. One may be a victim of a violent act; however, one does not have to remain a victim forever. When we take action to prevent future violence, we stop being victimized.
Approximately 20 years ago when I was teaching evening classes at a local community college, I was attacked by a total stranger in my office. He knocked politely on my office door, asked for directions to another part of the building, and while I was giving him those directions, held a knife to my throat and beat my head against a bookcase. Fortunately for me, I have a minor heart problem, which caused me to black out fairly quickly. When I regained consciousness, I called the campus operator for help. She informed the security guard who was unable to locate my office. I had to crawl into the hallway and scream for help. I later discovered that other incidents had occurred and administration had kept them secret.
I recovered within a few months and began to look for work in a safer environment, which led me to the field of mental health. For the last 20 years I have worked first with adults and now with children and adolescents in residential treatment where safety is always a major issue. In 1996 I was the Director of Education at a residential treatment center in Virginia. One day I was working in the Human Resource office on the second floor of the building. While I was seated in one of the offices, a former employee walked into the office. He pointed a gun at me and asked me to close the door, put my chair against it and sit there. He told the Human Resource Coordinator and me that he planned to kill us and then commit suicide. The Coordinator and I began talking to him non-stop. We allowed him to vent; we were compassionate listeners. We used our training in how to communicate with patients and residents. We never argued; we agreed, but asked questions. Our goal was to get help for the perpetrator and to get out of the situation. After four hours and the gun being shot twice, I faked a heart attack and he allowed me to leave the office. Nearly four hours after that he allowed the Coordinator to leave. Several hours later he committed suicide. Could anyone have seen this coming? Yes. Our perpetrator fit the profile. He was a disgruntled former employee who had resigned because he felt unappreciated. He had become an abuser of alcohol, was a loner, divorced, and had little or no contact with his children. He had been unable to get another job in his field and blamed our organization. He had told family members that someday he would "get a gun and go to The Center."
FBI studies show that workplace violence is the number one growing cause of homicide in the United States. A 1994 Justice Department study indicates that a million crimes of all types occurred in the workplace. Firearms were used to commit more than 80% of all workplace homicides. Workplace homicide is the leading cause of death among female workers in the US and second leading cause of death for men. In 1997, of the 856 employees killed, 25% of perpetrators were disgruntled employees who murdered in the workplace, and then committed suicide.
Clearly, as employees and managers, we must be aware that workplace violence is a real and increasing problem. Workplace violence can be external, perpetrated by robbers or customers (as in my first experience), or it can be internal, perpetrated by current or former employees (as in my second experience). In either case, the danger is very real.
A study between 1992 and 1996 listed mental health professionals as one of the high-risk occupations that are more vulnerable to criminal victimization. Also on the list of high risk occupations were college and university teachers and special education teachers. A second study, conducted in 1993 by the Society for Human Resource Management, determined that the leading cause of workplace violence is personality conflicts. Also high on the list were a rigid, authoritarian style of management and insensitive terminations.
What Can Be Done to Prevent Workplace Violence?
Concrete steps could have been taken to prevent both of my personal experiences with workplace violence. In the first situation, the college clearly needed a stronger, specific security plan. They needed greatly improved emergency response procedures; they could have been more careful not to locate offices in such isolated areas; and, most critically, they should have dealt more openly with previous problems as they arose instead of keeping them secret. In the second situation, the agency needed better security at entrances to the buildings, less isolated and more secure offices, a more people-friendly management style, and a strong education program regarding violence in the workplace.
More generally, agencies need to pay increased attention to the issue of workplace violence and train staff to be prepared. It is important for agency staff to become aware of the warning signs of violence among employees. Many signs are verbal, such as talking about weapons, showing signs of anger, making threats, challenging rules or authority, making unreasonable demands, and expressing irrational thinking. There may also be physical signs such as having a weapon, restlessness and pacing, clenching fists, making violent gestures, angry staring, acting drunk or under the influence of drugs, or a major change in appearance.
While we need to be wary of profiling, it is important to realize that statistics tell us that the most frequent perpetrators of workplace violence are males over 35 years of age who are socially withdrawn, lacking interpersonal skills, have a history of family problems and marital strife, are dissatisfied with work, are unable to tolerate criticism, and have trouble with authority figures. These men often cannot cope with frustration, blame others for their problems, complain more than others about work, have substance abuse problems, talk often about firearms and violence, and openly brag about what they will do to co-workers and supervisors.
Finally, agencies need to develop specific safety and non-aggression policies, teach them to staff, and follow them consistently. We need to teach employees to report violent acts and follow-up those reports diligently. We need to teach stress management, anger management, and conflict resolution, not just to our clients, but to our staff as well. We need to offer effective employee assistance programs. And most importantly, we need to provide workplace environments where employees feel valued and where they feel their safety and well being is a primary concern.
Pat Heft, M.F.A.
Educational Development Director
Alternative Behavioral Services
240 Corporate Blvd.
Norfolk, VA 23502
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