Good Leadership Can Prevent Workplace Violence

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Jul 20, 2011

Instead of naming his concurrent session “Zero Tolerance: Assessment and Prevention of Workplace Violence,” Glen E. Kraemer, Esq., a partner with Curiale Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP in Santa Monica, Calif. said he could have just as easily named it “Excellence in Leadership and Managerial Communication.” 

“You have to be a leader for the purpose of prevention of workplace violence,” he told a packed room during a June 28, 2011, session at the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas.

Kraemer defined workplace violence as any incident that could:

  • Increase in intensity and threaten the safety of an employee.
  • Have a damaging impact on any employee’s physical or psychological well-being and thus unreasonably interferes with their ability to perform.
  • Cause damage to property.

The best way to prevent workplace violence, Kraemer said, is to have compassion for the potential perpetrator.

“Perpetrators’ jobs are more important to them than yours are to you,” he explained, because in some cases the job is the only source of such an individual’s self esteem. This is especially true for those experiencing personal issues or a mental condition. HR professionals have to make sure their organizations use basic tools like performance appraisals in an effective way—for the safety of the organization, he said.

But HR professionals alone cannot prevent violence, he noted: “It takes a village”—a multidisciplinary workplace violence prevention team—led by HR or security, with involvement of legal and other departments, he said.

Warning Sign Training

Planning for and preventing workplace violence requires knowledge and training, Kraemer noted, to pick up on various clues employees might drop that suggest there’s something going on. 

“If you have an employee who has worked with you for several months to several years and you know them to be one kind of person, and they have a change in behavior, pay attention,” he cautioned. “Do not be afraid to ask questions … you have the right and the obligation to connect.”

Though some potentially violent employees might have performance issues such as tardiness, absenteeism or errors that signal a larger problem, Kraemar said there are others—especially those who perform routine jobs—who might be so familiar with their job that they can work “on auto pilot” with no discernible drop in performance.

Kraemer said warning signs can come from:

  • Cognitions or thoughts, such as an obsession with weapons, a low tolerance for frustration, paranoia or a romantic interest in a coworker who doesn’t return that interest.
  • Behaviors, such as threats, being a loner, carrying a concealed weapon or having a history of violent behavior.
  • The individual’s environment, such as personal problems, a toxic supervisor, substance abuse or workplace stress.

“The number one predictor of workplace violence is a past history of violent behavior,” Kraemer noted.

Acts of violence generally fall under one of three levels, he continued:

  • Level one forms of violence include belligerence, excessive use of profanity, sexual comments, refusal to cooperate with one’s supervisor and the spreading of rumors to harm others.
  • Level two forms of violence include sabotage, theft, persistent non-mutual displays of affection, suicidal threats, arguments with customers, and refusal to obey company policies and procedures.
  • Level three violence takes the form of acts such as fighting, murder, rape or arson, use of weapons, attempted suicide or destruction of property.

​At level one, “there is nothing here that you cannot stop,” Kraemer said, though such behaviors are often tolerated. “If you see a level one issue and I was not argumentative in the past but I’m doing it now, that’s where you need to pay attention,” he cautioned.

“There is a nexus between sexual harassment and workplace violence,” he added. “You have to go beyond the law; you have to rise above it to a standard of excellence.”

When level two behaviors occur, some companies turn to threat assessment professionals for help. If behavior isn’t stopped at level one, it must be stopped at level two, he said, because at level three it’s too late.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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