By Barry Nixon, President, National Institution for the Prevention of Workplace
Violence, Lake Forest, California
Creating A Respectful Work Environment May Be Your Best
Global competition is ferocious and unrelenting. At every level of the organization,
employees are being asked to take on more demanding tasks and being asked to
achieve higher results with fewer resources and support. In most cases, the demands
include cost cutting, improved efficiency, innovation and strategic thinking. While
some people thrive in this changing environment, many people are becoming its
casualties. We are witnessing the rise of the dysfunctional workplace—one in which
there is mounting work related stress combined with a perceived or real lack of job
security, increased worker anxiety and volatility.
To effectively decrease the likelihood of violence in the workplace companies need to
anticipate the stress caused by their dynamics and culture, and implement
comprehensive prevention programs. Interestingly, there appears to be a correlation
between the change from a human relations to human resources approach (the
'science' of managing and utilizing people as resources) and the rise in violent
incidents. Management's view of people has changed from thinking of employees as
assets to be developed, to thinking of people as costs to be reduced or commodities
who possess certain skill sets to be bought or sold.
Too often, human resource executives and other company leaders get so caught up in
rapid change, re-organizations, reengineering, etc., that they forget to look at the
human consequences of the changes they are shaping.
Ultimately, the best strategy for preventing workplace violence is to develop the right
corporate culture - one that eschews power and authority in favor of:
Getting to know employees and listening to them.
A climate that supports and fosters means for individuals and groups to air
their tensions, concerns and resolve them in a manner that is perceived as fair.
Supporting and valuing people.
Senior management creates the culture and the management processes that flourish in
an organization. This means that management cannot (or at least they should not)
point their fingers at disgruntled and psychologically unstable employees as the cause
for the rise in workplace violence. Instead, it should take a good look in the mirror.
One critical component that senior management must own and address is the
importance of having highly skilled supervisors that are well trained in how to
effectively manage and deal with employees. Supervisors are the key link in the
organization to combating workplace violence along with progressive, positive
leadership from the top.
Be able to deal with emotionally charged employees.
Understand and value stress management (how to recognize when employees
are stressed out and how to appropriately intervene).
Value individual differences.
Be able to admit when they are wrong.
The age of the supervisor as power monger and achiever of business results at the
expense of people must disappear. We need management and supervisors who
recognize that preventing violence by reducing tension offers the dual benefits of
developing a more effective workforce and preventing violence at the same time.
To this end, management must eliminate poorly trained supervisors who trigger or
reinforce intimidating behaviors and authoritarian company cultures that deprive
employees of dignity and respect and stifle positive response to threats. Violence may
be triggered by poor execution of management processes such as downsizing,
termination and disciplinary actions that threaten an employee's sense of identity.
Managers must understand that the fundamental contract between employees and
employers has changed. The new thinking is best characterized as "you are out for
you and I am out for me." This is a far cry from the days of "a fair day's work Part
of the problem is that many managers are still stuck in the past and do not recognize
that when generation values collide there are casualties. The choice is to have the
casualties be our hurt feelings (our longing for the good old days), rather than actual
loss of human lives.
The organization revolution toward employee empowerment and participation are only
the beginning stages of how we fundamentally will reshape, organize and operate
Additionally, it is important to understand that work is important to people beyond just
being a source of income. They look at their jobs as a place where they belong, as a
source of meaning and value, and as a way to define who they are. The more a person
is tied into the company in these ways, the more vulnerable he is to becoming violent
if he experiences loss or degradation on the job.
One way of viewing workplace violence is to think of the violence and rage that is
generally spreading though the country as spilling in from the street into the
workplace. This rage is emerging increasingly in the form of workplace violence as
employee aim their work related frustrations and desperation at victims who are seen
as representatives of a company that the employee believes to be the source of this
distress. People who believe in this theory point to the " avenger phenomenon," a
belief that the perpetrator of violence is trying to re-establish self-esteem or reduce
overwhelming distress by getting even or retaliating for perceived harm or danger
from the company or its representatives.
Barry Nixon may be contacted at