Simon Housego asks whether the...

Simon Housego asks whether the UK will follow the US trend of increasing amounts of violence between employees

Like directors and officers, employment practices and environmental liabilities, workplace violence could be another threat to businesses that has surfaced in the US a few years before agitating boardrooms in the UK. According to the FBI, workplace violence is the fastest growing cause of homicide in the US.

Attacks against employees come from four sources:

  • strangers (for example armed robbery)
  • clients (for example a social worker attacked by a patient)
  • domestic attacks in the workplace (for example ex-husbands and boyfriends)
  • fellow employees.

    US research illuminates the particular problem of employees committing violence against each other, and suggests that it is only a matter of time before the problem significantly escalates in the UK.

    The worm turns
    According to Citigate Global Intelligence, attitudinal change is a key driver of employee-employee violence. with today's young adults far less inclined than in the past to tolerate unreasonable or abusive behaviour from their elders or indeed their managers. In the US thousands of employees are assaulted each year by fellow employees. About 1,200 are injured seriously enough to cause absence from work and about 50 are killed.

    Citigate has studied hundreds of violent workplace incidents and has profiled typical offenders and typical victims of workplace violence. The typical offender, it says, is usually a good worker, is bullied at work and tends to be a loner. The typical victim on the other hand is controlling, manipulative and overtly authoritarian (even though they often present a charming façade).

    Citigate believes that the numbers of typical offenders attacking typical victims at work in the US is explained by the attitudes and beliefs of modern adults, who are far more likely to react against dominating and unfair treatment in the workplace than their predecessors. If this is the case, as the US continues to exert cultural and attitudinal influence on the UK, the number of violent attacks in UK businesses could increase dramatically. The suggestion is supported by observations about some of the circumstances accompanying violent workplace outbursts.

    Hot spots?
    Analysis of events preceding an incident (in the US) indicates that a disproportionate number of incidents take place in environments involving actual or anticipated major job changes such as restructuring, mergers, redundancies or relocations. On this basis, it is not implausible to suggest that employees engaged in sectors with high projected failures could be more susceptible to experiencing, witnessing or committing violent acts in their workplace.

    Currently the outlook for the UK economy is lacklustre, and growing numbers of business failures are forecast across many business sectors1. These include retail (over 1,700 failures projected this year), manufacturing ('teetering on the brink of recession' with 3,400 failures forecast this year) and media and telecommunications, where failures are expected to exceed 700 a quarter.

    The law
    The UK has legislation on providing employees with safe working environments. Specifically in the context of workplace violence, the Health and Safety Act states that bullying can constitute a breach of the employer's duty of care. The Public Order Act covers the use of threatening or abusive behaviour, as well as physical assault. The Protection from Harassment Act provides protection from harassment, while the Human Rights Act provides for a number of personal freedoms (many as yet untested). There is also a growing body of case law where judgement has been found against employers who allowed violence to be directed against their employees.

    Against this background, how should risk managers protect employees against injury and their organisations against claims? Innovative products currently in development include a combination of preventative, response, recovery and insurance solutions.

  • Preventative services include workplace threat assessment, violence avoidance training, recognising danger signals (such as individuals removing personal effects from the office, atypical and erratic time keeping), and training to diffuse potentially violent situations.
  • Response services can encompass executive protection, technical and covert surveillance, emergency security measures, threat management consultancy, 'at risk' job termination intervention.
  • Incident recovery services may involve police liaison, incident analysis and employee interviews, crisis communications and premises security configuration.
  • Insurance can be triggered by any life threatening violent injury to an employee and includes emotional trauma suffered by witnesses. Cover includes consultancy costs, temporary security measures, medical expenses, informant rewards, necessary travel and accommodation, salary costs and business interruption.

    With knowledge comes responsibility. In the spirit of good corporate governance, the more information there is available about a possible threat, the more difficult it is to ignore.

    Escalating levels of workplace violence are at least a possibility given both attitudinal changes and the existence of an inclement economic climate when job disruptions have been shown to provide a recurring background to workplace violence. All of which suggests that risk managers, particularly in vulnerable sectors, should be considering this emerging potential threat.

    1): Taken from BDO Stoy Hayward Industry Watch Spring 2003

    Simon Housego is product development manager, marketing, AIG Europe (UK),

    Danger signs of violent attack include:

  • Reduced communication
  • Romantic obsession with co-worker
  • Erratic work pattern
  • Sudden, loud outbursts
  • Overt signs of depression
  • Offender may 'withdraw' from work environment (for example removing personal effects); a critical moment for intervention.

    Typical offender characteristics:

  • Predominantly male
  • 25-40 years old
  • Chronic complainer at work
  • Can't accept criticism
  • Socially withdrawn
  • Easily frustrated
  • Often separated or single
  • Job is core of their identity
  • Loner at work
  • Good, reliable worker
  • Is not a bully, but is bullied

    Typical victim characteristics:

  • Controlling
  • History of abusive relationships
  • Jealous
  • Overtly authoritarian to family members
  • Maybe viewed as charming outside the home
  • Manipulative
  • Cruel to animals
  • Diverts blame from self to others.

    Source: Citigate Global Intelligence & Security

    Focal point
    Conflict and violence in the workplace impacts on people's lives and on organisational performance. The website , a partnership between public, private and voluntary sectors, provides a single focal point for managers and front line staff to share ideas and practical solutions. It also provides access to best practice, research and support. Its mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of violence in the workplace.

    The website recommends an integrated strategy. 'Expenditure on security measures and training helps, but they will only make a real impact when they form part of a holistic approach that examines fundamental management issues surrounding policy, practice and service delivery.' It says that the primary focus of a strategy needs to be on prevention: understanding and reducing risk and the underlying causes of conflict. However, although the risk of violence can be significantly reduced through an effective preventive strategy, it is necessary to anticipate and prepare for incidents that will inevitably occur. Procedures need to be put in place and staff trained to respond professionally and effectively in defusing and containing a situation. Organisations also need a management process that ensures support is provided to those involved in a stressful incident, and that learning is drawn to prevent a recurrence.

    Available on the site is a comprehensive checklist, provided by Maybo in association with the CBI, to help those responsible for managing violence at work to establish the extent to which their organisation is addressing the problem.

    HSE resource
    Last year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produced a new resource for employers to help reduce workplace violence and aggression in the workplace. The National Occupational Standards in managing work-related violence are available for use by employers to draw up policies on managing work-related violence. They also provide a framework for both managers and staff to assess training needs.

    According to the British Crime Survey, there are 1.3 million incidents of work-related violence each year. They can result in physical injuries as well as anxiety and stress for the people involved. The low employee morale, high absenteeism and poor image that result can also be serious for employers.

    The HSE funded development of the standards by the Employment National Training Organisation (NTO) as part of a three-year programme aimed at cutting incidents of violence at work by 10% by the end of this year. The programme is intended to raise awareness of the problem, develop guidance, and commission research to build on existing knowledge.

    Employers guide
    The HSE has also produced a guide for employers called Violence at Work. This defines work related violence as 'any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work'. The HSE says most at risk are those who are engaged in:

  • giving a service
  • caring
  • education
  • cash transactions
  • delivery/collection
  • controlling
  • representing authority.

    It recommends a four stage management process:

    Stage 1 Finding out if you have a problem

    Stage 2 Deciding what action to take

    Stage 3 Take action

    Stage 4 Check what you have done

    Violence at Work can be downloaded at: