The University Record, September 3, 1996

Ways to combat workplace violence discussed at seminar

Photos by Bob Kalmbach

By Jared Blank


More than 100 people representing the University community and southeast Michigan businesses attended a day-long seminar on campus last month to discuss ways to combat violence in the workplace---a growing problem that cuts across all industries.

Ken Wolf and Marilyn Knight of the Center for Workplace Violence Prevention Inc. led the program, which focused on identifying the risk factors for violence, assessing possible threats of violence in the workplace and creating a framework for diffusing these threats.

"We need to change the way that we think about workplace violence. It's not just tissue damage and loss of life," Knight said.

Workplace violence encompasses a range of behaviors, including physically assaultive acts; physical intimidation; threats to destroy property; aberrant behavior, which is often caused by drug or alcohol abuse; obscene communications or exposure; product tampering; and display of weapons. In the 1990s, it has expanded to include electronic invasion of e-mail or voice mail, and other types of computer hacking and sabotage.

Wolf believes there are many reasons why these acts are occuring more often. They include an abundance of weapons, increased poverty, and what he called "extremism"---having no respect for others' ideas and beliefs.

He suggested that organizations act soon to create a system for thwarting workplace violence, because the problem will not go away on its own. "It's not unreasonable to see the violence of the younger generation as a harbinger of what's going to happen in the workplace in the future," he said.

Still, it is not impossible to detect where problems may occur. Customers and clients account for most of the violence in the workplace. In fact, only about 25 percent of crimes are committed by strangers. And because violence is a process, Wolf said, there are often warning signs of an escalation of an employee's or client's anger.

"The challenge," he said, "is to train co-workers to recognize the warning signs so that you can make a successful intervention. It's very rare that somebody just explodes."

Wolf listed a number of behaviors to look for, including:


Veiled or indirect threats.


Conditional threats. (If I lose my arbitration, someone will be hurt.)


Fascination with past violent criminals.


Intimidating comments about weapons.


Documenting others who are "causes of their problems" and keeping lists of these people.


Obsession with police or militaristic/survivalist causes.


Filing numerous grievances.


Loner personality.

Wolf noted, however, that a display of one or more of these behaviors does not necessarily mean that an employee is a risk. In addition, he emphasized the importance of knowing facts before confronting someone about his or her behavior. "Be sure you don't accuse somebody based on rumor or innuendo."

It is equally important, though, for co-workers to report possible warning signs. Wolf and Knight showed three videos profiling perpetrators of violence in the workplace. Each displayed many of the warning signs associated with violence, yet none of their supervisors chose to act to stop the potential for violence. Often, Wolf said, people do not report erratic behaviors because they fear reprisal, or they don't know who to contact.

Knight said that the best way to understand potential problems is to create an organization-wide education effort. "An organization has to lay groundwork for a system that workers have confidence in, where all information is kept confidential," she said. "You must create policies and programs for an effective intervention. There must be a coordinated effort to investigate threats. Talk to co-workers, visit work areas.

"You must handle each case on an individual basis. There is not a clean, cookie-cutter type recipe for intervention. You are often given a window of opportunity to help a person---you want to do interventions early enough so that it won't lead to violence," she added.

"Most people who threaten do not take action, and most people who take violent action do give warning," she said.