Workplace Violence: Why We Can’t Eliminate It (But We Can Reduce It)

No matter how you slice it, this has been a rough week for Americans. Yesterday, an Army Psychiatrist turned against the very people he was trained to care for. The nation was shocked. This was a major blow not just to Americans, but to its military, the mental health profession and the Muslim community. Before we could begin to process what had happened, we hear reports of yet another workplace shooting. This time, a Latino engineer apparently vented his frustrations against his former employer by shooting u an office filled with his former co-workers. What the hell?

Naturally, the people I have discussed this with express shock. More surprisingly, many of them seem frustrated and angry about these situations.

“Why does this keep happening?”

“How do we keep this from happening again?”

As you might expect, your friendly neighborhood Spiderman I/O psychologist has some thoughts to share. Sadly, these are not of the warm, fuzzy, comforting type. I am sorry, gentle reader. There is quite simply no real way of eliminating workplace violence. I can think of two major reasons for this being the case.

The first of these is perhaps the most important: Workplace violence is a specific expression of a more general human tendency to resort to violence. We attack others at work because we attack others period. This is not to say that violence in one context predicts violence in other settings; human behavior tendencies tend to not generalize across contexts the way we think they do. However, generally speaking, we are a violent organism and I can’t think of any place humans have not sullied with a little bloodshed. Our workplace is no more sacred than our homes, our schools, or churches.

The second reason we cannot eliminate workplace violence is less dramatic, but no less limiting. Before we develop initiatives to eliminate some type of human behavior, we must find good ways of predicting it. This means measurement of some sort. We have to measure individual’s capacity for future violence, history of violence, or other attitudes that are related to workplace violence. While this in and of itself is not a problem, as psychologists do this all the time, perfect psychological measurements are simply not possible (this may not always be the case, but it is for the current state of the art).

Every psychological measurement has error. All the sources of error are not always known, but we do know how much measurement error to expect. This is why psychology doesn’t deal in many absolutes, there simply aren’t many of them to be had. All organisms are complex, but none more so than a human.

Even if we developed ways to identify people who are likely to commit this type of atrocity, there will always be a certain number of people who are wrongly classified. Perhaps more importantly, a certain portion of the people we predict will not become violent in the workplace will give us an unpleasant surprise.

The key here is not to focus on the impossible. We cannot eliminate workplace violence. We can, however, reduce it. We may not be able to agree on what a “tolerable level” of workplace violence would be, but I think we can all agree that less is better. Toward that end, we have a legion of psychologists working on identifying the precursors to workplace violence. Their work may have real-world applications to help us reduce the danger of being assaulted at work. Before we start drafting a ton of policy that appeals to our common sense, let’s examine what science has to tell us. I am no expert in workplace violence, it has never appealed to the scientist in me for some reason, but I suspect some of the answers can be found in a few simple places:

  1. Treat your employees with dignity, respect and fairness.
  2. Ensure that your employees treat each other with dignity, respect and fairness.
  3. Take steps to minimize the economic impact of market fluctuations on individuals. In other words, losing one’s job should lead to losing one’s livelihood.
  4. Develop systems to identify employees facing economic, philosophical and psychological crises before they escalate.

~ by George Guajardo on November 7, 2009.

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