The University Record, October 3, 1994

Staff share concerns about workplace violence at informal sessions

By Mary Jo Frank

Staff members shared accounts of workplace violence—ranging from death threats to verbal and physical assaults—at information gathering sessions held in September.

About 40 staff members spoke, some anonymously, at the informal sessions held Sept. 20, Sept. 22 and Sept. 28.

A campuswide Workplace Violence Task Force is being formed to develop a comprehensive response to workplace violence. Members of the task force, yet to be selected, will begin meeting this fall.

Keith Bruhnsen, manager of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, and a member of the lead team gathering information on workplace violence, said the meetings were held to gain a greater understanding and awareness of the concerns University workers have regarding threats or acts of violence.

Among the most vulnerable to workplace violence are front-line employees—students and staff—who work in public places, noted Pamela T. Horne, director of Orientation and the Campus Information Center.

Staff working at summer Orientation have been harassed by members of the Ann Arbor community, who are aware that a new group of first-year students comes in every several days, Horne said.

She and other speakers praised the cooperation they have received from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Housing Security in handling potentially dangerous situations.

Also of concern are staff who work in such public places as the Michigan Union, which attracts a variety of visitors not affiliated with the University. Staff have been the victims of sexual harassment and have received verbal abuse from people who were dissatisfied with service they received from another unit in the University, Horne said.

Because of the nature of the work and the high volume of traffic, the Office of Financial Aid is another sensitive area, Judith A. Harper, associate director of financial aid, told the panel.

In the past year that office has had to call DPS twice, most recently when a young man who was not a student pulled a knife in front of staff.

Questions staff are asking, Harper said, include:

  • How can we provide good service in an open and welcoming environment if we are concerned about our personal safety?

  • How can we recognize early signs of potential violence?

  • Can communication links be established to alert staff members about potentially violent people on campus?

    Jimmy A. Myers, associate director of affirmative action, said his office frequently hears about threats received because of a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation, not because the person is a student, faculty or staff member.

    Debra L. Cain, associate dean of students and coordinator of the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center, talked about women who work alone at night in isolated offices.

    She offered a number of suggestions, including:

  • Distribute phone stickers with numbers that can be called for safe transportation.

  • Change night-time transportation hours and routes to better serve the needs of faculty, staff and students on campus in the evening.

  • Post safety tips for faculty and staff who work alone in the Record and on bulletin boards.

  • Initiate an electronic bulletin board dedicated to safety issues.

  • Publicize defense classes and provide information about personal security devices.

    Cain noted that many women who die at work are killed by partners or former partners. A woman is most vulnerable at the point when she leaves an abusive relationship, Cain said. For such a woman, the workplace can be dangerous because the former partner knows where to find her.

    Cain suggested that supervisors be trained to be aware of domestic violence and to create an environment in which employees can share information about their home situation.

    Night work is an issue for custodians, noted Sally A. York, custodial supervisor, who shared accounts of custodians being accosted by people who do not have a reason to be in University buildings at night. The most troublesome sites are the Modern Languages Building, Angell Hall and Mason Hall, York said.

    Other employees told of being threatened at home and work by disgruntled students and former co-workers who have been dismissed because of violent behavior.

    Members of the lead team who listened to comments about workplace violence included Bruhnsen; Leo H. Heatley, director of DPS; Wendy N. Powell, personnel representative; and Bruce B. Pringle, assistant personnel administrator, Office of Employee Relations.