Workplace Violence Threatens Employee Engagement, Productivity

By Beth Mirza Mar 27, 2012
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Workplace violence is affecting employees’ performance and loyalty to their employers, according to recent research. Business leaders can improve employee engagement by making them feel safer at work, as well as through training and modeling the behavior they want to see from employees.

More than half of American employees who work outside their homes know about or have experienced a violent event in the workplace, according to a survey from AlliedBarton Security Services.

Conducted by the David Michaelson and Co. polling service, the survey found that 52 percent of Americans working outside their home have witnessed, are aware of, or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence at their workplace. One in three of those surveyed are very or somewhat concerned about their personal safety.

“I asked the pollster what he thought about the results,” said Bill Whitmore, president and CEO of AlliedBarton, during a recent webcast. “He was astonished it was such an epidemic. He couldn’t believe so many Americans go to work every day concerned about this. It was everywhere, in every industry.”

The survey showed that workplace violence is tied closely to employee engagement, Whitmore said. Employees who experienced or know of violence at their workplace feel more negatively toward their employer than employees who have not experienced violence. Some of the differences on key measures are as follows:

  • Agree strongly that they are a valued employee—58 percent of workers who have experienced workplace violence vs. 70 percent of employees who have not.
  • Feel that they are paid fairly—36 percent of workers who have experienced workplace violence vs. 55 percent of workers who have not.
  • Are looking for a new job or are seriously considering looking for a new job—28 percent of employees who have experienced workplace violence vs. 17 percent of employees who have not.

Only 69 percent said a supervisor or manager met with the employee who experienced workplace violence. According to the employees surveyed, only half of employers took disciplinary actions; 45 percent implemented training for employees or supervisors; 31 percent changed the physical environment to improve safety; and 22 percent revised company policy.

Perhaps this perception of not responding to incidents of workplace violence is why fewer than half (44 percent) of senior managers (including CEOs, presidents and owners) are seen as being concerned with workplace violence. Only 17 percent are seen as being very concerned.

To change this perception—and increase employee morale and productivity—senior leaders should make some visible changes in their workplaces, Whitmore said.

“Organizational goals can’t be accomplished if employees are distracted and fearful,” he told webcast attendees. “If workers don’t feel safe and secure, they won’t contribute or give their best performance.”

Whitmore encouraged leaders to get in touch with line supervisors, who are probably more in touch with how employees are feeling. “Sometimes leaders at the top can be disengaged from employees who are not their direct reports,” he said. “As CEO, I try to keep in contact, but it’s difficult.”

There’s no time like the present to open the lines of communication, he said, through focus groups, online surveys, safety committees and other resources. Then take action where there are perceptions of danger—whether real or imagined—to improve morale. A good example of being proactive in this way: An AlliedBarton client responded to a group of workers who were edgy while walking into the parking garage, even though there had been no violent incident. Adding increased lighting and security cameras, cutting back on vegetation and adding more security patrols illustrated the leaders’ commitment to the workers’ sense of well-being.

Establish zero-tolerance policies for bullying and abusive behavior, and make sure that all leaders and managers abide by them, Whitmore said. Stopping the “lower order” of violent behaviors can reduce the chance that severely violent events will occur. Plus, he said, their research suggests that these mild forms of aggression on the job affect productivity and morale.

Leaders should establish mechanisms for employees to report abusive behavior—and create a culture in which reporting the behavior is supported and acted upon.

“When done right, the vision, values and culture cascade down [from the leaders] through the organization,” said Mimi Lanfranchi, senior vice president of national accounts for AlliedBarton. All layers of management—from the president to vice presidents to middle management to line supervisors—need to be committed to the zero-tolerance policies, she said.

For HR professionals who want to persuade their senior leadership to establish zero-tolerance policies or who want to illustrate the effect it is having on employees, Whitmore suggested that they make reporting on workplace violence a part of their quarterly reports to senior leaders. Identify every incident and “put the data in front of the leaders,” he said. “This is a real issue in the workplace.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor at HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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