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Isn’t it time to re-link Workplace Violence and Workplace Bullying?

…The shootings came during an apparent counseling session between ICE supervisor Kevin Kozak and a lower-ranking supervisor, Agent Esequiel “Zeke” Garcia, where a third agent was in the room as a witness. During the hearing, Mr. Garcia allegedly drew his service weapon and shot Mr. Kozak six times. The third agent drew his weapon and killed Garcia… [February 18, 2012, CS Monitor]

During the 1990′s workplace shootings were prominently splashed across headlines in the mainstream news.   In response the FBI joined together with prominent researchers and leaders in this area and adopted the four (4) types of workplace violence (WPV).  One of those, type 3, was labeled worker-on-worker and research at the time already recognized the link between performance evaluations and tragic deadly shootings. At that same time a movement was underway by advocates to carve much of Type 3, which was often referred to at the time as “workplace aggression” into it’s own niche area by advocates of “workplace bullying (WPB).”

Now, fourteen years later, WPV is still dominant in the news and not enough employers have adopted preventative policies.  In their 2009/2010 educational materials ELT, a provider of online HR compliance training,  notes that “an astounding 20% of all violent crime in the United States occurs in the workplace, injuring more than two million workers annually.”  Think late night cashiers in secluded areas, nurses dealing with violent patients, police officers… you get the idea.  OSHA has long included “verbal abuse” and harassment as part of WPV and I’ve written before about Susan Harthill’s important argument that OSHA can be used to curb workplace bullying.   A perfect solution? No.  But, bullying can easily be a dominant part of that discussion.  Why not look into this option as one part of a many pronged approach to preventing abusive work environments?  Why not join the effort to put real teeth in OSHA fines?

A few years ago, ELT joined others in predicting that: “… As the recession in this country continues, and corporations of “all industries and sizes” continue with “unprecedented layoffs,” some employees will lose their jobs, homes, retirement savings, benefits, and job security, while other employees will continue working with increased pressure to perform and an overall feeling of day-to-day uncertainty. This “perfect storm of stressful conditions,” combined with recently passed legislation in states such as Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, allowing employees to bring weapons to the workplace,could result in extreme tragedy. More than ever before, employers will increasingly be called upon to implement plans and solutions to protect their workforce and workplace…”

Bringing WPV & WPB back together again

This past Thursday, predictions proved tragically accurate as a three-way shootout in the ICE offices broke in the news [video available]:

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As early as 2005, the Office of the Inspector General began noting troubling operational dysfunction within the nation’s immigration enforcement ranks.

“Where collegial interactions should characterize relations between employees of the two organizations, we have been told of competition and, sometimes, interference. These organizational conditions have led to the articulation of mismatched priorities, competition and, at times, operational inflexibility,” the OIG wrote.

More troubling, the OIG found at the time that agents reported seeing little action from the top to deal with the problems. “We encountered concerns that institutional rivalries, duplication of functions and insularity of view were tending in a negative direction,” according to the report. [read more Christian Science Monitor, Patrik Jonsson, Staff writer / February 18, 2012]

Back in 1998 Neuman and Baron argued for  “greater caution in interpreting workplace homicide data. These authors identified approximately 90 articles published between 1987 and 1995 addressing workplace violence. Twenty-six percent of these reports focused on workplace violence involving coworkers or former coworkers but, in discussing such incidents, actually reported general homicide figures—data that included robberies or other crimes. As Leonard and Sloboda rightfully conclude, this “could lead to drawing erroneous conclusions” (1996,p. 7).”  The same is clearly true today as well.  And, true for workplace bullying as well.  However, when brought together workplace bullying & workplace violence make a solid case for immediate action.

Searching for Solutions

Those of us actively involved in seeking solutions to the intensified pressures of today’s workplace need to broaden our focus.  I would argue that, rather than being singled out as a separate issue, “bullying” should be interwoven as an important component of any regulatory or legislative response to workplace violence.  It would require a new way of looking at the office tensions that lead up to workplace shootings in a less criminal approach than currently outlined by the FBI

Back in 2009 parts of Canada took this approach when they passed amendments to their Occupational Health and Safety Act known as Bill 168 “to help protect workers against workplace violence and harassment”  including bullying.  The bill went into effect in June 2010.  Americans remain unprotected.

We are all living in a unique economic climate and this is no longer a time when a single issue approach to bullying should be brought forward as meeting the complexity of our office environments.  In 2009 New York passed legislation that requires public employers to address WPV.  In retrospect it seems clear that bullying advocates made a mistake in remaining rigidly committed to their singular approach – tort – instead of embracing both and becoming more deeply involved in shaping WPV legislation.  In his interview, Matt London, who was involved in a prominent NIOSH study on violence in workplaces, advised workplace bullying advocates to join together with others seeking solutions to all forms of violence in the workplace.   Advocates for Type 4 workplace violence, Domestic Violence that spills over into the work environment, have been succesful in gaining momentum in numerous states.   Had advocates for bullying been flexible enough to actively join forces and seek joint mutual solutions in order to move forward on this front  - workers suffering under “bully bosses” might well have more options they could utilize at the same time that the tort option continues to be introduced on the state level.

Take Action!

I’m not “against” any of the options on the table.  I’m “for” an open approach that promotes fairness and dignity in workplaces which is why this blog has joined others in the loose-knit and open coalition, Protect-US-Workers which promotes uniform national solutions. Sign the petition asking the Obama Administration to empanel a Task Force of union, business, and lay experts to recommend legislative and/or regulatory solutions to address this problem. Americans at least deserve the same level of civil and health/safety protection as workers in other industrialized countries, many of which acted more than decade ago to address workplace bullying.

[Note: In an effort to maintain clarity , and in response to workplace bullying advocates who often point to these shootings as examples of extreme bullying, this article asks at what point could Garcia's actions have been prevented before crossing the line into criminal violence?   If workplace bullying were folded into workplace violence regulations, wouldn't it help stop office conflicts from raising to the level of criminal acts?  This article is NOT arguing for the criminalization of workplace bullying.  However, I'm always open to listening to cogent arguments.]

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6 Comments on “Isn’t it time to re-link Workplace Violence and Workplace Bullying?

  1. You know there was a time I would say there is nothing that bad to shoot a wicked bully. While I vehemently oppose violence and I certainly don’y agree, I now understand because there are some sociopathic Bully terrorists decimating lives &livelihoods with their carte blanche abuse of evil power. So it is past time to pay attention to those us abused in the workplace.

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    • Dawn, I too abhor violence and I personally can not see this as an issue that warrants the death penalty – which is what a workplace shooting is. Personally I believe we need to approach this from a systemic organizational approach rather than seeking to vilify a particular person – however egregious their actions may be. To me, that person is only able to bully because those higher up are allowing it.

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  2. This is such an important topic, and I fear many of the responses some workplaces are taking will only increase the risk of workplace violence. Rather than establishing policies that presume every terminated worker is potentially violent (such as having all terminated employees escorted out the door in view of their coworkers, or treating every angry remark an employee makes as a threat), treating all employees fairly and humanely will go far in reducing the risk. Companies which put employees through aggressive tribunals and encourage shunning and mobbing while claiming to be “fair,” risk enraging those employees — at a time when their economic livelihood (survival) is at stake. Very few will ever act violently toward others — when they are violent, it is far more likely to be toward themselves, such as suicide. But a large number of tragic acts of violence in the workplace have been committed by workers who felt powerless against an abusive employer. Abusive and unfair treatment does not by any means justify violence, but eliminating the abuse will do far more to reduce risk than establishing policies which presume all workers are potentially violent.

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    • Janice Harper, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I really believe strongly that we need to address the actual climate of the workplace rather than promoting the type of response that supports “mobbing” and singles out individuals in bullying “witch hunts.” As the early data showed, reporters picked the portions of workplace violence they liked – fatal shootings that made up only a small percentage of workplace violence then and now. That’s why I’d really like to see a open public dialog with everyone at the table to determine how we protect workers from abuse and at the same time protect those unjustly labeled bullies or, as you rightly point out, presumed to be violent.

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  3. I do not believe this is the problem for the President, All corporations, all company’s large and small should be writing procedures and implementing them against violence and bullying. We do not need anymore flippen laws!!! Every workplace can and should make it thier responsibilityand Priority.When you walk into any company they have a mission statement, In that statement, about wanting to be a Worldclass leader in thier field, it should also read that there continuous improvement involves treating thier customers with respect and dignity both internal and external.Anyone going against set priorities well be teminated. All workplaces need be be held accountable, as well as all individuals. All states need to have thier own set of procedures,and before you become employed with any company you should ask questions about past, present or future grevences against workers, leaders, supervisors, etc….Bullying comes in many forms, and is hard to define, so it is up to the individual.

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    • Hi Sara – You are absolutely correct. HOWEVER, and this is a big however, we do not live in a perfect world. Many people live in towns with limited opportunities for employment and the company that is the primary support for the area has not evolved ethically to understand their role to treat their employees in a dignified manner. The result is that you do not have the “luxury” of shopping for bully-free environments. That’s just one of a variety of scenarios that show that it is difficult to rely on companies to put policies in place – no matter how well meaning the American business community as a whole may be. Back in the early90′s Workplace shootings focused public awareness about violence in the workplace. Yet, today, many years later, barely 30% of companies have workplace violence policies. The state workplace bullying legislation being proposed does not have any agency or regulatory aspect in its template to enforce any company to put a policy in place. Rather, it hopes that the fear of possible litigation may encourage companies to put some kind of policy or procedure in place. There is no discussion in the legislation as to what that should be. Research has shown that the biggest problem with this approach is that the policies are created to avoid litigation rather than protect the employee.

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