How can organizations help prevent incidents where employers seek to harm co-workers or bosses?

Incidents such as the August 3 workplace shooting that left nine people dead in Manchester, Conn., highlight the troubling fact that many organizations may not even see workplace violence coming.

Between 2004 and 2008, an average of 564 work-related homicides occurred each year in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though a majority of workplace shootings were committed by robbers, co-workers and former co-workers were the assailants in about 63, or 12 percent of all shootings in 2008, with the average being around 68 per year between 2004 and 2008.

Paul Harvey, a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and an assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire, said there are warning signs employers should look for to help prevent these kinds of incidents.

“This type of violence is certainly uncommon, but it might not be as rare as employers would like,” said Harvey, whose has written about workplace violence, including co-authoring chapters on workplace aggression in two books.

“Obviously a fatal shooting is the most severe sort of violence, and it’s probably the least common, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Harvey explained there is no single agreed upon definition of organizational aggression among those who study this phenomenon, but workplace violence can encompass many types of aggression.

When any act of workplace violence occurs, victims find themselves wondering how they could have seen it coming. To help predict and prevent workplace violence, Harvey works with the a model of behavior called Perceptive Predictors of Aggression, which details internal and external factors that affect organizational violence. This model states that the way in which a person perceives triggering events determines whether or not they will react violently. If a person has what is known as a “hostile attribution style,” he said, they will be more likely to attribute a work setback to outside factors and blame others.
“For example, if a person is fired, how the employee draws conclusions about that firing is significant,” he explained. “If the employee believes it is the result of something such as doing poorly at work, we found that these people are less likely to engage in outwardly violent behavior.”

“Whereas when people externalize these events, such as blaming others for losing their job or not getting a bonus or blaming their bosses for being out to get them, externalizing that anger can lead to blame and that can lead to aggression,” he added.

Harvey said the hostile attribution style is commonly seen in workplace shootings and other violent acts where perpetrators blame their bosses, co-workers, or their company for their work-related problems.

“When something bad happens, these types of people blame external and typically stable causes, they don’t think it is just a one-time thing, they think people are out to get them even if they are not.”

That could have led to the Manchester shooting, according to reports, after shooter Omar Thornton was shown video evidence of thefts he committed on the job and was offered the chance to quit or be fired.

What can organizations and employees look for as warning signs of a propensity for workplace violence? That’s where it gets tricky, Harvey said. Even those with hostile attributions styles don’t always seem like violent people.

“People who resort to violence tend to have a long history of externalizing their anger throughout their lives, but they may not always be violent,” he explained. “They may externalize their anger for so long without anyone noticing it until then one day it goes ‘boom’. The typical red flags are people who are quick to anger when something goes wrong and end up screaming and yelling.”
Harvey said another body of research looks at the situational perspective of workplace violence.

“It is like the metaphor of employees being popcorn kernels in hot oil that represents the workplace,” Harvey said. “Eventually one of them is going to pop. The idea is that you assume you have a ticking time bomb within the company, so if you look at the situation and keep your oil cooler, you decrease the probability that someone will get so angry at a co-worker, a supervisor or at the company as a whole that he or she would go off and do something crazy.”

Harvey said this doesn’t mean organizations should feel they cannot discipline their employees, but a lot of organizations are characterized by stress that doesn’t need to be there and unusual policies that lead to stress,” he explained.

“That’s why the postal office took so much flack in the 1990s. It may be that they didn’t have any more people capable of acting out than any other company, but they had such a bureaucracy that it made the workplace stressful for many employees.”

In fact, according to the 2005 Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention, the higher reported incidence of violence in state and local government workplaces may be attributed to their work environments. These workplaces reported much higher percentages of working directly with the public, having a mobile workplace, working with unstable or violent persons, working in high crime areas, guarding valuable goods or property, and working in community based settings than did private industry.

Harvey said organizations can help combat this type of violence-inducing atmosphere by taking a good look at their practices and culture.
“For organizations and supervisors, ask yourself, are you egregiously mistreating a group of employees and thinking that it isn’t a big deal?” he said. “If those types of stressors are avoidable, it might be a good idea to eliminate or reduce them.”

Harvey said it’s important for organizations to understand they can’t totally prevent every violent act committed by their employees.

“Sometimes I think there’s a tendency to look for a silver bullet,” he explained. “I think it’s really important to remember the backend of this. You do want to do things to minimize your risk, but you can’t totally get rid of any risk. Don’t assume that by doing these things to help prevent violence that you’ll never have a problem. No matter what you do in an organization to minimize the risk of something like this happening, there’s always going to be a chance that someone will snap and come in with a gun.”

Harvey said organizations should have a plan in place or an escape route for the rare chance that these things do occur. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) offers a great deal of advice and information on workplace violence and safety, he added.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 7,800 industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement. SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I-O psychology. For more information about SIOP, including a Media Resources service that lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org