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Aggression in the Workplace: Preventing and Managing High Risk Behavior 

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Our 5 Most Common Mistakes (and Oversights) 




Welcome to the December 2011 edition of our newsletter. This has been a busy autumn for us, with many of our activities involving the development of Employee Awareness Programs - the actual subject of this newsletter.


In this issue, we will be concluding our series on "The 5 Most Common Mistakes and Oversights" that lead to Workplace Violence, with what we consider as the 5th and final most common mistake: The Lack of Employees' Support and Participation.


In the area of Workplace Violence, we generally address four levels of training as the core of any kind of prevention program. These four levels are directed at 1) the Threat Assessment Team 2) "critical personnel" such as HR and Security, 3) Managers and Supervisors and 4) the General Employee population. Employee awareness is the last rung of this program, but it is a critical component.


Your organization may have a well-written policy, a well-trained Threat Assessment Team, a committed Leadership Team, and a well designed response program in place, but it is all relatively worthless if your employees are not on board and actively participating in the process.


This kind of training or awareness program is important in that it serves to help counteract the first most common mistake that we discussed in an earlier edition - the very human tendency toward denial, delay and avoidance.


We have been involved in countless cases where the employees were well aware, sometimes for many years, of another individual's aberrant or aggressive behaviors, but had neglected to report their concerns, for a number of reasons. As we have mentioned many times in the past, the cases with which we deal have rarely somehow just sprung into being. Your employees have valuable information, which is critical to your ability to prevent and manage these incidents.


We have relatively recently developed customizable, video-based Employee Awareness Programs that companies can utilize in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. If you have any interest in this, please feel free to contact us. As always, we always appreciate your comments and input.







Marc McElhaney, Ph.D.   


Part 5 (of 5): Acting Too Hastily (Inadequately Preparing for Critical Events)



Establishing An Employee Awareness Program


Employees truly represent the company's front line of defense. Without their participation, without their knowledge, and without their attention, we will not be able to respond early enough to prevent potential acts of violence.


It is not sufficient to simply compose and announce a policy of workplace violence. Even sending out written notification to all employees and have them sign agreements may not be sufficient to break through an existing climate of denial. Given that, the company needs to conduct an active campaign to promote and encourage employee participation. In that process, it needs to communicate the company's commitment and to communicate to the employees that this commitment is directly concerned about each and every employee's safety.


Employees need to understand that they are a critical part of the program in order for it to succeed - because they are! If the employee population believes that their employer is serious about this, that there is a program there to protect them, that it will be administered in a fair and confidential manner, they are much more likely to become part of the process.


As we have often stated, we never see any situation in which someone just "snaps". In each and every case which eventually comes to management's attention, there usually exists employees who have had information, have witnessed behaviors, have been concerned themselves, and/or have been sometimes just scared, but who did not report their concerns.


When asked why they did not report, we hear basically the same excuses most the time, albeit in different phrasings and formats. In order to develop an effective Employee Training Program, let's first look at why employees often fail to report their concerns:

  • "I didn't know who to call."

This statement suggests that the employee is simply not aware of a primary aspect of the company's workplace violence policy: the reporting process. Employees must know what is to be reported and who should be the designated recipient of that report.

  • "I don't want to get in trouble."

This statement generally reflects concerns about confidentiality. The employee may fear either retribution by the subject or by other employees, who may consider him or her a "snitch". For any Workplace Violence Program to be effective, the employees must believe that the system involves a fair, confidential, and careful process that is designed to protect the employees' safety, particularly those who report their concerns. If the employees do not trust that the company will handle their complaints in a careful and confidential matter, they will not come forward. Therefore, any training program has to address any potential reservations and questions about confidentiality and fairness.

  • "It won't do any good to report it."

This statement speaks volumes. It implies that the employees do not have confidence in their company's commitment to respond appropriately and effectively to the perceived threat. Therefore, any training program must communicate effectively the company's commitment in a manner that convinces the employees that the company is serious and committed - and will effectively respond when alerted.

  • "We just didn't take him seriously."

This is usually represents a rationalization. Because no one prefers to believe that a coworker is dangerous - and no one really wants to make that report - there's a tendency to shrug it off as "not being a big deal." But this statement reveals an even greater concern: it implies that this coworker believes that it is his or her duty to first determine whether the threat is of concern before coming forth and reporting that concern. In other words, the employee believes that they are responsible for threat assessment. Employees must understand that any and all concerns need to be reported, which will be then professionally assessed in a careful and confidential manner. The employee does not have to first come to a comfortable conclusion that the statement or the behavior actually represented a threat. We need them to err on the side of caution.


The primary goals of this kind of training are primarily to promote employee awareness of the many manifestations of violent behaviors, to explain the company's policy regarding this issue, and to define the employees' respective responsibilities under this policy. Significant time should be spent on increasing awareness of the early warning signs.


Given the reluctance and the excuses mentioned above, the message has to be also delivered in a way that inspires confidence in the commitment and the ability of management to address the issue effectively, confidentially and respectfully, once the employee does come forward with a concern. Delivery of the message by itself is not sufficient


There are different ways the organization can accomplish an Employee Training/Awareness Program, mostly dependent on the structure and culture of the organization. Training can be relatively brief and can be delivered through a variety of forms of communication, but generally have to be provided on a periodic basis.


It is obviously difficult to physically present to employees in various facilities on a regular basis, such that most organizations have found that a video or online-based program has been sufficient, but generally only if coupled with an interactive communication from management that can successfully help to focus the employees' attention on the subject and emphasize management's commitment.


In the Virginia Tech Commission's report on the 2008 shootings, there was a statement that rings true for anyone who is involved in consulting in the area of workplace violence: "although many had bits of information...., no one had all the information and no one connected the dots."


Many in the organization may have small bits of information but do not report, because they do not consider what they have as being significant, or may be reluctant for other reasons. However, by virtue of the fact that the companies were not receiving these "bits" of information, the big picture, and the threat to the organization, was missed.







Marc McElhaney, Ph.D.

Director, Critical Response Associates



Critical Response Associates

P.O. Box 29644 Atlanta, GA 30359

Phone/Fax 888-391-2214