by David L. Coles

Global Senior Manager

Every year, there are headline-grabbing instances of employee homicide at places of employment. In the U.S., for example, the Department of Labor reports there were more than 500 cases of workplace homicide in 2010. It is readily assumed that the number of employees who are bullied, harassed, threatened or attacked at work reaches into the millions.

Companies today are sensitive to the need for providing employees with a work environment that is safe and secure. The reason is simple. Apart from the direct toll on human life, aggressive acts cause untold financial loss from resulting lawsuits and damage awards, workplace disruptions, insurance premium escalations, declines in employee productivity, workforce retention issues and customer anxiety.

Aggressive behavior can generally be defined as an intentional action by a person (or group) that exposes another person to a real or perceived risk of physical harm. Such a definition could include verbal, written or physical behavior that intimidates, threatens, harasses, coerces, abuses, or assaults an employee, visitor or other person engaged in a business relationship with the company. Aggressive behavior can also include stalking and harassing phone calls or emails.

The perpetrators of workplace aggression can be internal or external to the company. Examples of internal perpetrators can range from employees who are bullies to those who use escalated forms of aggressive behavior. External perpetrators can include aggressive spouses, ex-spouses or significant others of employees; customers or the general public; job applicants; or random aggressors.

To reduce emotional and financial impact, proactive companies develop and implement effective policies that clearly prohibit workplace aggression. These policies are usually backed up with procedures to receive and evaluate employee reports of questionable or aggressive behavior. Such evaluations are often performed by specially trained, multi-disciplinary “threat assessment teams,” comprised of company representatives from organizational security, human resources, legal and employee assistance program (EAP) professionals. Such threat assessment teams must be prepared to convene at all times of the day so response activity will not be delayed.

“The perpetrators of workplace aggression can be internal or external to the company.”

In addition to bullying, other concerning actions can include employees who email co-workers with the threat to “go postal” or commit an act of self-harm if work stress does not diminish, or domestic bullying/violence situations that have the potential to spill into the workplace. In these and all other such incidents, the critical first decision is whether it is an emergency situation, in which case the proper response is to first dial 911. Short of that, the response process consists of quickly gathering preliminary facts, temporarily interrupting the potential for escalation and stabilizing the situation while completing fact-gathering activities. Then, depending on the specific situation, the threat assessment team takes action to resolve the incident over the long term. This can include everything from helping perpetrators get help or insight into their actions, to meeting the physical and emotional needs of victims, to instituting progressive discipline or even separating perpetrators from the company.

Apart from policies and procedures, company management should explore reasonable ways to sensitize managers and front-line supervisors to the issue of bullying and other aggressive situations, recognizing the challenges of communicating with supervisors on projects in remote locations, contingency operations, or short-term assignments. Employees need to be encouraged to contact a member of management if they hear or see something threatening.

When serious aggressive incidents do happen, management should seek to provide trained trauma response or EAP professionals to provide individual and workgroup counseling as needed to help affected parties recover from the incident.

Prompt reporting of aggressive behavior and prompt response benefits the company, its employees and its stakeholders. It requires employees to always be aware of the potential for aggression, know the company resources and emergency procedures, and make use of the company’s no-tolerance policy toward aggression.

This article has been sponsored by:
Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diveristy & Inclusion

David L. Coles

David L. Coles

Global Senior Manager

David Coles has worked with KBR’s corporate internal Employee Assistance Program (EAP) since 1991. He serves as a subject matter specialist for crisis management activities, such as Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD), is a member of the company’s team for responding to threat of violent situations, and KBR’s worldwide crisis response team for incidents such as employee job-related deaths, riot/insurrection and in-country evacuations.