VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 7 -July 1998

Bullying in the workplace is a violence warning sign

Preventing on-the-job violence is difficult because it often involves changing the very culture of workplaces.

By Peter Freiberg

Stories about horrific workplace murders and assaults have become common in the media. But far less frequently reported are the day-to-day bullying and intimidation many employees experience from bosses as well as co-workers—experiences that can not only undermine morale and productivity, but, psychologists say, also lead to the worst kind of workplace violence.

It’s not that all bullies are dangerous, says psychologist Mark Braverman, PhD, whose Newton, Mass.–based firm, Crisis Management Group, consults on workplace issues. But if bullying and intimidation are tolerated, he says, some employees may cross the line to threaten or even commit violence.

There are no statistics on the extent of workplace bullying, but Braverman says the behavior is 'endemic' in some organizations.

'Bullying and intimidation can’t happen unless there is a climate that allows it,' he says. And that climate discourages employees from reporting potentially violent behavior that may be 'early warning signs' of individual breakdown and severe workplace stress.

Braverman and other psychologists note that the reality of workplace violence is even worse than the headlines make it appear.

'Sensational acts of co-worker violence,' asserts the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), form only 'a small part of the problem.'

NIOSH says an average of 20 U.S. workers are murdered and 18,000 assaulted each week at work—and these figures don’t include bullying, threats and other forms of verbal, physical and sexual harassment.

As the toll climbs, employers often seek quick solutions. But psychologists say preventing on-the-job violence is difficult because it often involves changing the very culture of workplaces.

What enables violence?

Psychologist Joseph Hurrell Jr., PhD, an associate director at NIOSH, says that while psychologists are used to looking at violence from an individual perspective—such as who might be likely to commit violent acts—they need to identify the organizational factors that may lead someone to be violent in the workplace.

'You have to look to the systems,' says Braverman. 'The only way to prevent violence is to involve an organization in changing the way it approaches the problem.'

Braverman’s analyses of the U.S. Postal Service and other companies show that the systems in place to deal with disputes—collective bargaining agreements, employee relations, health and safety—are 'inappropriate…when you try to apply them to dealing with the threat of violence.'

Instead, employers should consider a range of interventions, says Braverman, depending on whether there is an imminent risk, possibly with an identified target, or a potential risk, possibly requiring mental health or administrative intervention. Discipline, tightened security, calling in law enforcement, disability leave, mediation and counseling are among steps to be considered, he says.

'There are all kinds of levels of prevention,' Braverman says. 'There’s prevention that means getting somebody arrested and locked up, and there’s prevention that means changing a situation that is building up.'

Conquering workplace stress

Workplace violence, in Braverman’s view, is a response to the rage, fear and uncertainty that exists in work organizations because of the high stress caused by unremitting change, such as downsizing, globalization of the economy, new technology and marketing pressure.

But this stress can be mitigated. Studies show that when people perceive the workplace is fair, 'they don’t act out,' says psychologist Julian Barling, PhD, professor of organizational behavior at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Aggression in the workplace, he says, is most likely when two factors are present: psychologically unhealthy people and what he calls 'psychologically unhealthy organizations.'

It’s difficult to weed out psychologically unhealthy people, says Barling, and it’s questionable legally and ethically. 'So, the only thing left to us,' he suggests, 'is to try to ensure that we have healthy organizations.'

Besides being perceived by its employees as 'fair,' a healthy organization provides a sense of 'employment security'—a feeling that it is possible to move within the organization as change occurs, says Barling. Employees also feel they are trusted, respected, treated with dignity and given some control over their jobs.

Research indicates that even psychologically unhealthy people are much less likely to engage in violence in a healthy work organization, says Barling. And the same attributes that make for less violence, he says, also help to increase productivity.

Unfortunately, few workplaces can be called psychologically healthy. In the many low-morale organizations, one frequently heard complaint is that people want to be treated with a sense of dignity and respect, says psychologist Maury Lieberman, PhD, former chief of the special programs branch at the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services. 'People get so much of their identity from the workplace,' says Lieberman.

Too often, he says, they feel put down. 'Those [feelings] certainly are precursors to angry, disruptive behavior,' he says.

It’s also important to keep in mind that while the disgruntled employee gets much of the blame for workplace violence, most on-the-job murders and assaults stem from other groups, says psychologist Raymond Flannery Jr., PhD, director of training for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. These include juvenile and adult career criminals, who account for many of the convenience store shootings nationwide; angry customers who lash out at service representatives and act on impulse, for example, in assaulting a mortgage loan officer when an application is rejected; domestic batterers, mostly men, who stalk spouses to work; and medically ill people, including substance abusers.

Peter Freiberg is a writer in Hudson, N.Y.

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