sealPurdue News

December 20, 2001

Purdue professor: Workplace violence is management issue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A Purdue University professor says management doesn't pay enough attention to workplace security.

"The employee who will make the next workplace violence incident headlines is already employed," says Thomas K. Capozzoli, an associate professor of organizational leadership and supervision at the School of Technology statewide program at Kokomo.

"What happens is immediately following a violent incident – whether it's the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or a fight in the parking lot – there is a heightened awareness of the importance of workplace safety by managers and administrators. But that attention is hard to sustain over time."

Capozzoli is the co-author of two books – "Managing Violence in the Workplace" and "Kids Killing Kids: Managing Violence and Gangs in Schools."

Capozzoli spent 30 years as a manager in industry, where he witnessed and dealt with violent situations. He has been researching the nature of violence – and how to prevent it and deal with it – in organizations for 10 years. He interviews survivors of workplace violence, works with Kokomo police detectives, makes presentations on workplace violence and has been a security consultant to businesses, organizations and city governments.

There are a number of keys to preventing workplace violence that cut across the whole organization, Capozzoli says. They start with the hiring process. Most managers do only local background checks – if they do them at all. But deeper checks are available inexpensively, especially when the compared to the average violent workplace incident that costs the company or organization $2 million.

"Workplace safety is an important management issue," Capozzoli says. "It tends to get overlooked because it doesn't contribute to the bottom line. But consider that federal and state law mandates providing a safe working environment."

Capozzoli says one vital tool for managers is the company employee assistance program (EAP). These are counseling programs set up for employees to cope emotionally with career, personal and family issues. Managers need to observe employee behaviors that are potentially violent, such as threats and angry outbursts, and refer these employees to EAP counseling.

Capozzoli says workplace violence can almost always be traced to a "trigger event" that pushes a disgruntled employee over the edge – and into violence.

Trigger events often involve terminations and love triangles, or they can be completely unrelated to the workplace. Trigger events involve too many variables to be predictive of violence, though, Capozzoli says.

He counsels managers to be observant of violent or potentially violent employees and to proceed carefully, even to the point of providing armed guards in extreme circumstances, to stop incidents before they start. These arrangements are vital because law enforcement generally doesn't become involved in workplace incidents until violence has taken place.

Capozzoli says site security arrangements are almost always inadequate at companies and schools. For example, companies usually have at least one unlocked door, and the potentially violent employee almost always knows which door that is. Hospitals and small businesses have particularly low security levels.

"Once a violent employee is on premises, it's just a matter of taking out the security guard or receptionist (those most often injured or killed in extreme workplace violence incidents) and disabling the phone system. That's all that stands in the way of his taking hostages, and injuring or killing employees and often himself," Capozzoli says.

The lesson, Capozzoli says, is that an organization needs to have a crisis plan – not just one that sits in a drawer but one that goes into action when violence could be on the horizon or takes place.

But managers also have to be better managers in general to thwart workplace violence.

"When an employee experiences what seems to be arbitrary and capricious treatment by management, and there is no means of grievance or redress, he – and perpetrators of workplace violence are 80 percent male and white – often feels like a victim of injustice," Capozzoli says.

So in the largest sense, preventing workplace violence comes down to having a well-managed, non-autocratic organization that recognizes the inherent humanity of employees. An important way to do this is to provide managers and supervisors with instruction on leadership, communication and conflict-management skills.

Capozzoli cautions, though, that violence is a condition of life, and it will happen.

"Impeccable security won't guarantee violence won't happen. But managers still have the responsibility of exercising leadership and taking appropriate precautions."

Writer: J.M. Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Source: Thomas K. Capozzoli, (765) 455-9218 (office), (765) 628-2751,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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