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North Central Business Journal News

(March 2000 issue)

by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.

     Violence throughout our society appears to be escalating.  Almost monthly, there is a story in the news about a workplace shooting.  To address this mounting problem, we need to understand its causes as much as possible.

     Violence is an inappropriate response to anger.  Anger is a common human emotion that has been around since the beginning of human society.  So why is violence escalating now?   There are several probable explanations.

     First, the “script” for violence is strengthened with each violent action.  Each of us has “scripts” in our heads that give us options under particular circumstances.  Most of the time, these scripts are valuable because we don’t have to figure out what to do in common settings.  But because of the increased number of times we have heard about people acting out their anger in violent ways, violence has been added to our “anger script.”  For some people, violence now pops into their mind when they experience anger.  Most people reject that option, but if it is in the script, there is an increased possibility that some people won’t reject the option, choosing to act on it instead.

     Second, the social constraints against acting violently have diminished.  Family ties are weaker.  People are less likely to assign blame to the families of those who violate social norms, and that weakens the shame factor as a reason to reject inappropriate options in the “anger script.”

     Third, people are less willing to accept injustice as a matter of fact.  This is coupled with the increased likelihood of responding to an event as unfair.  So people are more likely to become angry and feel justified in their anger.  Once anger is triggered, the “anger script” is activated.

     These reasons are not easy to address in the business world.  There is nothing that can be done to reduce the strengthening of the violent option within the anger script.  Each incident of violence in the workplace reinforces that violent option and increases the likelihood that more people will act on it, creating more incidents which will strengthen the violent option for others.

     Businesses need to develop “violence-prone profiles” just as the schools are doing.   There are several factors that can be watched.  No one factor is likely to result in violence, but each factor increases the possibility that violence could occur.  When several factors are observed, a “red flag” can alert company executives that they may need to take extra steps to prevent violence in their workplace. 

      Business is not usually concerned with the family ties of its employees, and if employers ask about employees’ families, they will be violating federal employment law.  But employers can make note of employees that have weak family ties, and be aware that these people may be more likely to act violently, especially if other factors are also present.

      A second family issue of interest to companies wishing to reduce the possibility of violence is the tendency for domestic violence to spill into the workplace.  To reduce this possibility, it is helpful to notice which employees may be victims of domestic violence.  If possible, security officers from the company can be stationed in the parking lots, and should be made aware of the possibility of a disgruntled spouse attempting to enter the workplace.  If it appears than an employee may be the perpetrator of domestic violence, the company can encourage (or if possible, require) that employee to utilize the Employee Assistance Program for anger management.

      It is useful to notice which employees seem to react to events as unfair.  The events which are perceived as unfair can be used by businesses to assess whether changes in policy might be useful.  But when changes are made, there may still be a few employees who perceive injustice where others do not.  Those employees are more likely to act violently than the others.  It is useful to keep good relationships with those employees, and when disciplining them, extra caution is in order to ensure that they actually heard why the discipline was used.  If they need to be fired, it is beneficial to take precautions to ensure that co-workers and supervisors of the fired employee are safe at work.

     Another factor connected to the “violence-prone profile” is excessive solitude.  People with minimal social skills and thus few friends are more likely to act on the violent option of their anger script. 

      Companies should consider incorporating an Employee Assistance Program into their benefits’ package, with special programs for substance abuse, anger management, stress management, and interpersonal relationship skills.  These programs can be incorporated into the performance appraisal system as aspects of employee development.  It may also be useful to provide in-service training for all employees on the factors connected to the “violence-prone profile” so that they will know what to notice in co-workers.  A policy of open door confidentiality can provide employees a place to discuss their concerns with management.

      None of these tactics will guarantee a violence-free workplace, but they will help reduce the problem.

Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human resource issues.  Her company, Synergistic rganizational Solutions, specializes in aiding small businesses.  Dr. Neal can be reached at sos_hr@localaccess.com.

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