Combating the Varieties of Violence at Work

Effective strategies that address on-the-job aggression are rooted in respectful, service-oriented and safe organizational cultures.

Acts of workplace violence can happen anywhere, as is alleged in the death of 24-year-old Yale pharmacology graduate student Annie Le, who was reportedly strangled by a coworker and stuffed inside a wall.

While Le’s case is an extreme example of workplace violence, people experience many types of negative behavior at work. The unwelcome behaviors range from disrespect to harassment, mobbing, discrimination, incivility, bullying, horizontal and lateral violence, and emotional abuse. Some of these behaviors have been described as psycho-terrorism or psychological harassment.

Bullying is a form of occupational stress that impacts people’s mental and physical health. There is also recent evidence that workplace-related stress elevates the risk of alcohol and drug abuse, and even coronary heart disease (Arehart-Treichel, 2006).

According to the American Medical Association, many reports of extreme violence in school settings have been linked to bullying. The perpetrators, often former targets, turn violent and take revenge – delineating a tragic cycle in which a bully’s physical intimidation leads to tragic consequences.

The Joint Commission reports that in healthcare settings, intimidating and disruptive behaviors can foster medical errors, as well as contribute to poor patient satisfaction and adverse outcomes. It can also increase the cost of care and cause qualified clinicians, administrators and managers to seek new positions in more professional environments.

On-the-Job Bullying Isn’t Easy to Identify
It is very difficult to specifically define workplace bullying unless the behavior is part of other legislatively protected areas, such as harassment or discrimination. Generally, workplace bullying involves incivility (or disrespectful behavior) that is pervasive and ongoing; a power difference; an absence of consent; an intent to harm or manipulate; and a workplace environment that tolerates it. Workplace bullying is not a solitary or occasional incident involving an angry outburst or inappropriate statement; a difference in personalities, style, or personal taste; or guidance or direction from management or other authority figures.

Bullying behaviors present through a variety of communication channels. These include verbal and non-verbal behaviors, body language, written communication and the manner and style in which we use the words we choose. While some of these behaviors involve face-to-face interactions, others take place electronically. Some even involve things we should do but intentionally avoid so we can cause harm.

Not surprisingly, there is tremendous disagreement among experts on a specific definition of workplace bullying. They do indicate – and their research supports – agreement in three major areas:

  • Some employees have sought protection from bullying and have been successful when they could clearly demonstrate that discrimination or harassment was also involved. Others have sought protection from bullying by invoking general safety clauses within existing laws when they can demonstrate that the behavior has caused serious psychological harm.
  • Workplace bullying can result in low employee morale and attrition, which can lead to lower productivity and decreased revenue.
  • Because some employees don’t know that their behavior could be considered disrespectful or threatening, employees at all levels benefit from interactive, skill-based training. This kind of training helps to build and maintain workplace cultures that foster respectful interactions and are both physically and emotionally safe.

It should be noted that physical violence isn’t necessarily an inevitable result of bullying. However, it is always a possibility, especially with individuals having a predisposition to violence.

The Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) and other organizations assert that bullying is violence. Incivility, harassment, intimidation, and all forms of verbal and physical aggression are components of the overall continuum of workplace bullying and violence.

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