In the last issue we covered the topic and process of threat assessment for a church facility. This article will address the growing problem of workplace violence.
Workplace violence is a terribly important example of a threat that faces any institution assembling employees to work together. The roots of this type of violence are often traced back to stress associated with such things as troubled families, and the warning signs are often ignored by the employer. Religious organizations are widely regarded as charitable institutions seeking to “do good” within the larger secular community. While this iconic status may imply less risk than the typical corporation or government agency, we are not exempt from the realities of violence in the workplace. Understanding and doing everything possible to deter workplace violence is key to maintaining a secure facility.
Acts or events that fall under workplace violence can be placed in three main categories of behavior: disruptive, threatening, and violent.
Disruptive behavior is the most common and generally marks the first expression of an individual’s behavior that could escalate into threatening and violent acts. Examples of this include outbursts of yelling, using profanity or offensive speech, abusive language, and gestures such as fist waving and finger pointing. Disruptive behavior can be directed at an individual, group of people, or institution in general.
Threatening behavior is usually perceived to be focused toward a specific person. The person on the receiving end of threatening behavior is sometimes simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. This conduct does not include but does precede physical contact and injury. Threats come in the form of written and oral threats to persons or property that are generalized: “You better watch out” or implied: “You haven’t seen the last of me.” Once behavior reaches this level, there are laws and statutes that protect individuals from further berating or harm.
Violent behavior escalates to the point of bodily contact and injury, with or without the use of weapons. It also includes physical demonstrations such as throwing objects, dropping or pushing over heavy items, pounding of fists, smashing objects or otherwise damaging property. Threats that are specific enough to describe the intent to harm an individual fall under this violent heading, and are usually dealt with best by trained law enforcement personnel. Often these threats are first divulged to a co-worker or friend rather than the perceived antagonist.
The overriding incubator of workplace violence is a work atmosphere that does not resolve conflict. Layers of hierarchy and authority can enhance this effect. In essence, a worker is more prone to disruptive behavior if the workplace does not support trust among everyone and provide a non-abrasive outlet for hearing grievances and venting frustration. Some individuals are known to be emotional or demonstrative while others may be more passive or obscure with their feelings. Both ends of the spectrum require attention and healthy conflict resolution measures. If left to their own devices, these individuals can further disrupt the workplace by airing grievances amongst themselves with inter-office gossip or “banding together” in a negative alliance against a superior or other co-worker.
Problems that turn common, everyday conflict into workplace violence include repeated patronizing by managers or co-workers, lack of appreciation, lack of respect, and other forms of negative criticism. Insecurity can lead workers to make themselves feel better by showing disdain for others’ efforts. There are scores of workplace productivity books that underscore the importance of constructive criticism for improved worker performance and productivity. Other common causes include obvious events such as firing, layoffs, reduction of work hours, demotions, and other disciplinary actions on the part of the employer.
Actions to take with employees
First and foremost, experts emphasize that disruptive, threatening, and violent behavior should never be tolerated. It must be clear to all staff members that such acts are never appropriate, and it’s a good idea to put specific examples of such behavior in writing, such as an employee guidebook or operations manual. Workers should know that they will be reprimanded if these rules are broken. It is also important to document all incidences of inappropriate workplace behavior.
If conflict does appear, act promptly to resolve the issue. This is key for managers but also important for workers at the bottom of a company structure. If the janitor witnesses verbal abuse of one worker to another he should report it to his supervisor. There should be a culture of kindness and self-control that permeates the entire workforce, further highlighting any disruptive and violent acts as they arise. It is usually very helpful to question (not interrogate) those involved in the conflict about their perception of the problem and possible resolution. If you are on the receiving end of behavior you feel is unwarranted, take a step back and be willing to explore the possibility that you are part of the problem and may be at fault.
When dealing with issues related to job performance, timeliness, or insubordination, it is essential to be clear with what you expect from the worker in terms of performance or improvement. Setting goals for employees is crucial to their development and empowers them through a sense of accomplishment. This may not clearly apply in every situation. If an employee’s position implies opportunity for growth and development, a system of coaching or mentoring helps them to address their own problem areas while venting frustration. One-on-one, scheduled meetings for the purpose of performance review are best carried out on “neutral” ground, not in the manager’s office, to promote a “level playing field.” Workers will feel more comfortable and less apprehensive about bringing issues to light.
While most of what we’ve discussed deals with the workplace and its employees, violent behavior can come from outside the church community. This could include spouses of employees, neighbors, transients, or visitors. Though seemingly out of the control of church administrators, these individuals should be given the same litmus test as those who are employed by the church. Again, it is key to understand the warning signs and react to them swiftly and appropriately. The 1999 shooting at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas is a chilling reminder of what can occur at the hands of a disturbed individual. The warning signs in that case were not apparent to the church, but subsequent investigation by police found the gunman’s home to be virtually destroyed inside with holes in the walls and upended furniture. I want to point out, however, that these highly publicized shootings are extremely rare. Worker-on-worker shootings are also rare, but have risen steadily in the last decade to 45 incidents per year by the end of 2003.
Statistically, the leading cause of violence toward women in the workplace – other than from institutional patients – comes from an angry spouse or boyfriend. A quite alarming statistic is that homicide is the leading cause of death for women on the job, other than traffic accidents for drivers. These violent eruptions occur at the workplace because the offender knows where to find the victim. Here again, notice the warning signs. These can be incidents involving the violent individual showing up unexpectedly, making threats and demands in person, in writing, or over the telephone, or acting erratically when meeting their spouse at work. Well-known signs of physical abuse such as bruises are very clear indicators that there are problems at home. Get qualified help and counseling for these workers immediately.
Abused spouses are often ashamed to share their problems with others and can feel as though they are responsible for causing the abuse. If left to fester, these problems can cause severe emotional and physical trauma to the worker and co-workers as well. It is important to point out that a women trying to escape from an abusive relationship often needs her employment more than ever, and if she changes her place of residence the violent husband or boyfriend may come looking for her at work.
It is typical for a church to promote a welcoming environment inclusive to the surrounding community. However, take care when bringing outsiders into a position of confidence within the church. It is common for thieves, vandals, and violent offenders to scope out their victims and targets. Often these individuals will put on an air of needing work to make a living, then use that arrangement to help perpetrate criminal acts. Know who is working for you, even if they are performing menial jobs.
A person with no identification or stated place of residence cannot be easily tracked down after an event occurs. In general, loitering should not be tolerated on or near the church grounds. If necessary, law enforcement, public servants, and elected officials can be contacted for help. We encourage you to communicate with your local authorities; the outcome of information sharing can be mutually beneficial.
When Immediate Response is Required
When responding to disruptive behavior, always remain calm. Even if you are the target, resist any urge to escalate the conflict by not taking it personally. An angry response validates the offender’s inappropriate violent behavior. Ask questions of the individual to express your concern and listen thoughtfully to the response given. Make sure you understand the problem, communicate clearly by repeating the issues back to the individual, and focus on areas of mutual agreement that lead toward a resolution. A compassionate response can lead the individual to realize that he or she is out of line.
If the behavior persists but is not violent, set reasonable limits in a calm manner by asking the person to lower his voice or to please be patient. If the actor is still disruptive, ask him to leave. For employees, this could mean stepping outside to cool off. Be firm but non-confrontational and provide adequate warnings such as “if you don’t calm down, we will call the police.” If the person seems dangerous or violent, try to diffuse the situation with diplomatic conversation away from other innocent bystanders but do not isolate yourself.
Never touch the individual as even the slightest physical contact can be interpreted as an assault. If possible, signal for assistance without alarming the person. This is a time when a prearranged code word or hand signal can be useful, as well as an electronic panic alert system which will be described in a later issue. Unarmed suspects will usually be less prone to a physical confrontation when outnumbered.
Finally, if there is an immediate threat of violence or specific threat beyond your control, call 9-1-1 or your local law enforcement agency. This includes any action that causes you to fear for your safety or that of others. Brandishing a weapon should elicit an immediate call to the authorities. In this event, do not take chances by trying to intervene physically. Focus on getting everyone to safety, either outside the building or behind a locked door where you can call for help. It is best to stay on the phone with the dispatcher to give the most accurate description of the individual’s appearance and location. We strongly recommend a disaster plan that can account for everyone inside the building and guide them to safety quickly. This could include collaborating with your neighbors to share resources.
Workplace violence is a growing problem in our society. This is an issue that we can largely control, by creating positive work environments to address problems when they arise. Knowing and responding to warning signs is absolutely critical to protect your facility from violence in the workplace. It is likely that your insurance company has recommendations and guidelines specific to your case and they may offer discounts for good practices.
In the next issue, we will discuss Security Procedures including disaster planning, developing secure habits, staff policies, and incident reporting. This article will provide ways to put best practices into action.