The nature, prevalence, predictors and possible consequences of workplace violence have begun to attract the attention of labour and management practitioners, and researchers. The reason for this is the increasing occurrence of highly visible workplace murders. Once the focus is placed on workplace violence, it becomes clear that there are several issues, including the nature (or definition), prevalence, predictors, consequences and ultimately prevention of workplace violence.
Definition and Prevalence of Workplace Violence
The definition and prevalence of workplace violence are integrally related.
Consistent with the relative recency with which workplace violence has attracted attention, there is no uniform definition. This is an important issue for several reasons. First, until a uniform definition exists, any estimates of prevalence remain incomparable across studies and sites. Secondly, the nature of the violence is linked to strategies for prevention and interventions. For example, focusing on all instances of shootings within the workplace includes incidents that reflect the continuation of family conflicts, as well as those that reflect work-related stressors and conflicts. While employees would no doubt be affected in both situations, the control the organization has over the former is more limited, and hence the implications for interventions are different from those situations in which workplace shootings are a direct function of workplace stressors and conflicts.
Some statistics suggest that workplace murders are the fastest growing form of murder in the United States (for example, Anfuso 1994). In some jurisdictions (for example, New York State), murder is the modal cause of death in the workplace. Because of statistics such as these, workplace violence has attracted considerable attention recently. However, early indications suggest that those acts of workplace violence with the highest visibility (for example, murder, shootings) attract the greatest research scrutiny, but also occur with the least frequency. In contrast, verbal and psychological aggression against supervisors, subordinates and co-workers are far more common, but gather less attention. Supporting the notion of a close integration between definitional and prevalence issues, this would suggest that what is being studied in most cases is aggression rather than violence in the workplace.
Predictors of Workplace Violence
A reading of the literature on the predictors of workplace violence would reveal that most of the attention has been focused on the development of a “profile” of the potentially violent or “disgruntled” employee (for example, Mantell and Albrecht 1994; Slora, Joy and Terris 1991), most of which would identify the following as the salient personal characteristics of a disgruntled employee: white, male, aged 20-35, a “loner”, probable alcohol problem and a fascination with guns. Aside from the problem of the number of false-positive identifications this would lead to, this strategy is also based on identifying individuals predisposed to the most extreme forms of violence, and ignores the larger group involved in most of the aggressive and less violent workplace incidents.
Going beyond “demographic” characteristics, there are suggestions that some of the personal factors implicated in violence outside of the workplace would extend to the workplace itself. Thus, inappropriate use of alcohol, general history of aggression in one’s current life or family of origin, and low self-esteem have been implicated in workplace violence.
A more recent strategy has been to identify the workplace conditions under which workplace violence is most likely to occur: identifying the physical and psychosocial conditions in the workplace. While the research on psychosocial factors is still in its infancy, it would appear as though feelings of job insecurity, perceptions that organizational policies and their implementation are unjust, harsh management and supervision styles, and electronic monitoring are associated with workplace aggression and violence (United States House of Representatives 1992; Fox and Levin 1994).
Cox and Leather (1994) look to the predictors of aggression and violence in general in their attempt to understand the physical factors that predict workplace violence. In this respect, they suggest that workplace violence may be associated with perceived crowding, and extreme heat and noise. However, these suggestions about the causes of workplace violence await empirical scrutiny.
Consequences of workplace violence
The research to date suggests that there are primary and secondary victims of workplace violence, both of which are worthy of research attention. Bank tellers or store clerks who are held up and employees who are assaulted at work by current or former co-workers are the obvious or direct victims of violence at work. However, consistent with the literature showing that much human behaviour is learned from observing others, witnesses to workplace violence are secondary victims. Both groups might be expected to suffer negative effects, and more research is needed to focus on the way in which both aggression and violence at work affect primary and secondary victims.
Prevention of workplace violence
Most of the literature on the prevention of workplace violence focuses at this stage on prior selection, i.e., the prior identification of potentially violent individuals for the purpose of excluding them from employment in the first instance (for example, Mantell and Albrecht 1994). Such strategies are of dubious utility, for ethical and legal reasons. From a scientific perspective, it is equally doubtful whether we could identify potentially violent employees with sufficient precision (e.g., without an unacceptably high number of false-positive identifications). Clearly, we need to focus on workplace issues and job design for a preventive approach. Following Fox and Levin’s (1994) reasoning, ensuring that organizational policies and procedures are characterized by perceived justice will probably constitute an effective prevention technique.
Research on workplace violence is in its infancy, but gaining increasing attention. This bodes well for the further understanding, prediction and control of workplace aggression and violence.