Sue Copeman looks at the implications of a recent study on conflict in the workplace

Workplace violence is increasing, and it is not just members of the public who are becoming more aggressive. Disagreements between fellow workers can escalate into abuse, both verbal and physical, as well as into bullying and harassment.

A recent UK study, conducted by the Faculty of Health, University of Central Lancashire, and the Lawrence Allison Group, highlights some alarming trends. It shows that many employers are failing in their duty of care, and it is not only their employees who suffer. Ignoring workplace conflict can lead to higher stress levels, higher absenteeism rates, lower productivity, increased liability, and a tarnished commercial profile. In addition, a high staff turnover affects recruitment and training costs.

In this context, both 'workplace' and 'conflict' have broad definitions. Workplace embraces a far wider area than simply the buildings where your employees work. It includes any location where your employees perform work-related duties. It could be a car park, a field location, a client's home or on transport travel between work assignments. Conflict includes violence, aggressive and abusive behaviour between customers, clients and employees, and bullying and harassment between employees. Each working day, according to Lawrence Allison, hundreds of employees in the UK are harassed, intimidated, threatened or physically assaulted while carrying out their duties.

Where such conflicts are an identifiable hazard, employers have an obligation to act. Their duty extends to the personal protection of the employee, and its neglect can lead to a criminal offence. However, the benefits of a robust policy for the recognition, and management of conflict in the workplace extend beyond statutory requirements. The severe personal and organisational costs are even more compelling reasons for its eradication.

The survey sought to:

  • identify the number and severity of incidents of violent and abusive behaviour in the workplace
  • establish whether policies were in place to deal with violence, aggression, bullying and harassment
  • identify the level and type of education and training currently being provided by employers.

    Questionnaires were sent to a random sample of 1000 companies and institutions of varying size from a variety of occupational sectors. Two hundred responses were received; 137 organisations provided data.

    Four occupational sectors - health and social care, manufacturing, retail and local government - accounted for 61% of the respondents. Not surprisingly given their close interface with the public, they reported between them the greatest proportion of recorded incidents of aggressive or abusive behaviour. These included 13,817 instances of verbal abuse, 2,592 of threats of physical abuse, a worrying 2,379 acts of physical assault and an even more worrying 46 physical assaults with a weapon. The true picture is undoubtedly worse. Many incidents go unreported, and 35% of the organisations surveyed did not keep records of such occurrences in the workplace. More than a quarter have no policy for dealing with violence and aggression at work.

    Over half the respondents reported no cases of bullying and harassment of male members of staff, and 41.5% had no reported cases of bullying and harassment of female staff. However, where reports were recorded, there were more incidents of bullying and harassment of males. The findings also suggest that verbal aggression is the most prolific form of workplace aggression (over 17,000 incidents in a 12 month period). However, more than half (52.6%) of respondents provided no training in de-escalation techniques.

    Health and Safety Legislation, the common law in relation to assault and self defence, and the Human Rights Act 1998, have bearings on the issue of workplace aggression and violence. Yet 62.2% of respondents said they provided their workforce with no training in the relevant legislation. The law expects potential victims of violence to retreat and escape. Only when withdrawal is clearly not possible is self-defence likely to be seen as legitimate. Yet 80% of respondents said they provided no training in disengagement or breakaway skills.

    As the survey demonstrates, a significant number of employers are failing to meet current minimum legislation, and still more are unprepared for the effects of possible future legislative changes. Policies, systems of record-keeping, and adequate training are absent in many organisations. Consequently, assessments of risk and remedial or preventative action can only be piecemeal at best.

    Conflict in the workplace is of continuing and escalating concern. Systems exist that can minimise or eradicate its existence. Investment in conflict resolution or reduction can increase staff morale, reduce sickness and stress levels and enable organisations to comply with Health and Safety, RIDDOR and human rights legislation.

    Many organisations will, as part of policy development, consider adopting an attitude of zero tolerance. This type of strategy aims to make it absolutely clear to the public that violence against staff is completely unacceptable and that the organisation has made a commitment to stamping it out. It reassures employees that violence and intimidation are being tackled proactively. A zero-tolerance policy should address questions of potential, as well as actual violence. It should clearly state that threats, intimidation, destruction of company property, or violence will not be tolerated and provide for disciplinary action for such conduct.

    However, zero tolerance strategies will only be effective where reporting of incidents reflects the true picture. As the survey illustrates a significant number of organisations do not record appropriate data. If accurate records are not kept, it is impossible to establish whether policies and practices are working. It is a requirement of the RIDDOR (1995) regulations that incidents resulting in death, major injury or incapacity for work for three days or more should be reported to the Health and Safety Executive.

    Government departments, including the DTI, DfEE and DoH also need to work together to provide consistent guidelines or standards for employers and staff side organisations. These will be a basis for developing effective monitoring systems, establishing training and education programmes and publicising the cost benefits to be achieved in reducing conflict in the workplace.

    There are some key steps that organisations can take to improve upon current practice, says Lawrence Allison.

  • Encourage employees to report incidents, to help establish a true picture. Ensure they understand that the organisation treats the reporting of incidents as a priority and will take appropriate action.
  • Ensure accurate records of violence and abusive behaviour are maintained.
  • Ensure full and comprehensive assessments of risk, taking account of personal as well as environmental risks, are performed by appropriately qualified individuals.
  • Provide training and education programmes, generated from training needs analysis and risk assessment processes, to ensure that staff are equipped with the appropriate competencies to deal effectively with any incident.
  • Work in close collaboration with employees and staff side organisations to develop and devise measures for preventing, monitoring and evaluating strategies that ensure that individual and organisational safety needs continue to be met.
  • Update policies and procedures to reflect best practice.
  • Set up processes that will vest responsibility for the recording and monitoring of violent, aggressive or abusive conduct with a named individual or group within the organisation.
  • Set up staff support systems to help employees deal with cases of conflict. For example:

    1 Establish an independent help line that employees can call.

    2 Facilitate de-briefing to provide opportunities for employees to talk about what happened.

    3 Provide time off for employees where necessary. In some cases, counselling may be required.

    4 Offer legal help if appropriate.

    5 Ensure follow-up procedures for other employees who may need guidance and training.

  • Above all, every employer and employee needs have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities under legislation.

    A full copy of the survey on which this article is based is available from Tom Swan, Lawrence Allison Group, Tel: 020 7957 4344,

    Sue Copeman is editor, StrategicRISK

    UK legislation prohibiting workplace harassment, bullying and other distressing conduct may be pending. The Dignity at Work Bill 2001, which received an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords, encompasses behaviour that is offensive or abusive on more than one occasion, unjustified criticism on more than one occasion, punishment imposed without reasonable justification, or detrimental changes to an employee's duties or responsibilities. Employment tribunals will be able to award compensation. The Bill, based on Swedish law, provides that employees have a right to dignity at work and a breach of this can amount to constructive dismissal.

    What can organisations do to protect their workers, themselves and their reputations against conflict in the workplace? The Lawrence Allison Group suggests the following guidelines.

  • Be committed and involve your employees Management commitment and employee involvement are essential for an effective safety and health programme, and therefore need to be complementary. Management and front-line employees must work together to ensure the effectiveness of such a programme.
  • Recognise the extent of the problem and assess the risks Analysis to establish existing or potential problems of violence entails reviewing procedures or operations that lead to problems and specific locations where problems may develop. You need to maintain accurate records of violence and abusive behaviour. Encourage employees to report incidents. Appropriately qualified individuals should perform comprehensive assessments of risk, which take account of personal as well as environmental risks.
  • Analyse needs Service delivery and its perceived quality can influence the potential for conflict in the workplace. If staff are seen as failing to meet expectations, appear to be responding unprofessionally, or are being judged as unjust in their dealings with people, they are in danger of creating a climate for conflict, and may be giving others the excuses they need for their actions. Encourage basic communication and interpersonal skills in a framework that is service oriented.
  • Develop strategy Your workplace violence policies should be grounded in a philosophy of zero tolerance and should be put together by teams that include human resources, security personnel, employee representatives, unions, management and perhaps legal and public relations departments. A workplace violence prevention policy should include the procedures to be taken in the event of an occurrence and should explicitly outline roles and responsibilities.
  • Implement programmes Put in place training programmes generated from your training needs analysis and risk assessment processes. These should equip staff with the appropriate competencies to deal effectively with any incidents.
  • Monitor, evaluate, fine-tune As part of your overall strategy, evaluate your safety and security measures on a regular basis. Senior management should review policies regularly, and with each incident, to evaluate strategic success. Responsible parties (managers, supervisors and employees) should collectively re-evaluate policies and procedures on a regular basis. Identify deficiencies and correct them.
  • Act now Conflict in the workplace is escalating but systems exist that can minimise or eradicate it. Investing in conflict resolution or reduction can increase staff morale, reduce sickness and stress levels and enable you to comply with Health and Safety, RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrence Regulations) and Human Rights legislation.

    On 11 March, the European Commission published a strategy for health and safety from 2002-2006, Adapting to change in work and society. It focuses on the role of health and safety in improving economic performance, and on the need to promote well-being at work - not just the absence of harm. The Commission is also to examine the appropriateness and scope of a Community instrument on psychological harassment and violence at work.

    The strategy is available at eur-lex/en/com/pdf/2002/com 2002_0118en01. pdf

    The UK Health and Safety Executive has published specific guidance on violence at work.

  • Violence at work: a guide for employers
  • Preventing violence to retail staff, HS(G)133
  • Prevention of violence to staff in banks and building societies, HS(G)100
  • Violence to staff in the education sector, HSC Education Services Advisory Committee
  • Violence to staff in the health services, HSC Health Service Advisory Committee.

    For information on HSE publications, call 0541 545500 or write to HSE Information Centre, Broad Lane, Sheffield S3 7HQ, UK

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