Know the Warning Signs of Workplace Violence and Bullying

Workplace bullying could be an alert to a potential problem and by acting on it you may avert a workplace violence incident.

Acts of violence in the workplace are the third-leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) reported in 2019 a total of 5,333 workplace injuries, which included 761 cases of intentional injury by another person.

The key to controlling workplace violence, according to Mark Stromme – the EHS senior editor for consultants J.J. Keller & Associates – is identifying and dealing with potential problems before they get out of hand.

“Many threats don’t lead to violence,” he said, during a recent EHS Today webinar on the topic of workplace bullying and violence. “But in almost every incident that does take place, the violent employee did exhibit warning signs and, in some cases, even told people what they were going to do in advance.”

Seeing the signs could alert you to a potential problem so that you can act to avert the occurrence of a violent incident. These signs might include:

  • A good employee suddenly becomes a problem employee
  • An employee becomes increasingly frustrated, lashes out or fights with coworkers
  • An obsession with weapons is observed
  • Direct or implied threats are made

Other warning signs might be:

  • A recent decline in health or hygiene 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Intimidating or bullying of co-workers
  • Recent financial, marital or legal issues 

Bullying Takes Many Forms

“We all want to know what precipitates that act of violence and are there ways to stop something before it starts,” says J.J. Keller & Associates Editor Michelle Higgins. Personal factors are often a cause for workplace violence, but workplace factors such as a job loss, real or perceived unfair treatment and harassment by coworkers can also be triggers.

Bullying can be a precursor to workplace violence and certain hostile and bullying behaviors may stoke the flames of a potentially violent situation about to erupt.

A workplace bully typically demonstrates repeated unwelcome behavior that humiliates or intimidates a co-worker. Repeated is the key consideration to judge a bullying situation. A single incident of anger or frustration might not be considered bullying, but a pattern of abusive behavior typically is. Bullying takes many other forms including:

  • Expressions of hostility which can be made verbally or through body language
  • An abuse of power or authority
  • Deceit or sabotage, such as taking credit for someone’s work

While the act of bullying is currently not illegal under U.S. federal law, severe forms of bullying, such as assault and battery or retaliation and harassment, are illegal. Federal law also identifies “protected classes” of people who are legally safeguarded from employment discrimination. Protected classes would include race, color, religion, sex (including orientation or gender identity), national origin, age, pregnancy, familial status, disability status, veteran status, citizen status and genetic information.  

“Ignoring the problem of bullying doesn’t work in the long run,” Stromme says. “Consider the message you give the victims if you fail to solve their problems and they (are forced to) deal with the negative impact on their working relationships. It affects a lot of people around them. People see what’s going on, so you need to act.”

How to deal with a workplace bully depends on the situation. Higgins suggests managers or supervisors who discover bullying before it is reported or witness employees not getting along should call out the situation as one of improper workplace conduct. Talk to both bully and victim then lay out expectations for future conduct and consequences. The bullied victim should be encouraged to report future problems and managers must continue to monitor the situation.

Never ignore someone who reports bullying and treat these allegations seriously and confidentially. Assume what’s been reported is true even though it may have been exaggerated. Keep an open mind.

Six Steps of an Investigation

Once you have been made aware of a bullying situation an investigation needs to happen. It should be conducted by a supervisor or someone within the human resources department. Stromme recommends the following six steps during an investigation:

  1. Interview victims and witnesses – listen to their version of what happened
  2. Meet with each person separately and privately – their versions of what happened may differ
  3. Interview the offender
  4. Inform the offender of the allegations – they have a right to know
  5. Give the offender the opportunity to reply
  6. Maintain confidentiality

Once completed, submit an investigation report that is objective and describes the allegations, what was reported, explains the investigation process applied, outlines relevant evidence collected (including who was interviewed) and offers a conclusion regarding whether the bullying is substantiated. If it is confirmed, communicate a set of recommendations to the bully, to the individual who was bullied and to others involved. Stromme says recommendations to resolve a bullying incident can vary and may include:

  • Directing the bully to stop the behavior
  • Inviting an apology
  • Conducting individual training
  • Providing mediation
  • Coaching, counseling or mentoring the bully
  • Using disciplinary action

Zero Tolerance for Violence

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no specific standard on workplace violence, workers have a right to a safe workplace and employers must provide a workplace free of known hazards. Employees with concerns have a right to speak up about them without fear of retaliation and OSHA’s general duty clause says an employer “shall furnish to each of his employees, employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

That general duty clause is an important consideration to bear in mind as an OSHA inspector during an investigation of violence in the workplace may look for evidence that an employer should have known the potential existed, Stromme says. So, it’s best to be alert for signs.

Finally, establishing a zero-tolerance policy and encouraging employees to speak up are among the most effective ways to minimize workplace bullying and violence.

“If you see something, say something,” Higgins says. “If you see something that feels off – listen to that voice in your head. Tell somebody and communicate with each other. Keep that line of communication open.

“Workplace violence is very real and very dangerous. And it affects organizations of every size and type. When it happens, the repercussions can be severe.”

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