sealPurdue News

November 1996

Managers not prepared to handle workplace violence, book says

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Violence in the workplace is nearing epidemic proportions, and organizational leaders are ill-prepared to handle the problem, two Purdue University management technology professors say in a new book.

"Managing Violence in the Workplace," by Thomas K. Capozzoli and Robert S. McVey, is a guide for employers and managers who want to reduce or prevent violence in the workplace. The authors say it's a difficult phenomenon to study, because incidents are severely under-reported.

"There's really no formal or structured way to record every act that could be considered violent," Capozzoli says. "Judging from our personal experiences in industry and the case studies we look at in the book, there's a huge disparity between actual occurrence and what is reported."

For example, Capozzoli and McVey note a 1993 Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. report that indicated 2.2 million U.S. workers were physically attacked, 6.3 million were threatened, and 16.1 million were harassed in 1992. On the other hand, the 1992 National Crime Victimization Survey reported 667,978 cases of workplace violence in America -- less than 3 percent of the numbers cited in the insurance company's report.

"Unfortunately, many times management policies and procedures do more to exacerbate violence than to prevent it," Capozzoli says. For example, he says militaristic management styles that rely on coercion, threats and harsh discipline to get employees to work and conform to organizational rules and regulations create a fertile environment for violence.

The authors examined several case studies for inclusion in the book. In many cases, a manager or supervisor did something that precipitated the violence-- or failed to do something that may have prevented the violence from occurring.

In one case, a factory worker in Louisville, Ky., repeatedly asked to be removed from a highly stressful position. The worker complained of hating his supervisor and made threats to fellow employees. A psychiatrist even wrote a letter recommending the man be removed from the position. All of the signals were ignored by supervisors, and ultimately the worker entered the plant with an assault rifle and killed seven people.

In another example, a supervisor actually instigated a physical confrontation with a disgruntled sanitation department employee in LaPorte, Ind. The employee eventually was terminated and sought help from the mayor to get his job back. The mayor refused to help, and the ex-employee killed the mayor and his wife in their home.

"It's obvious from the cases we studied that managers and supervisors simply are not being trained to deal with potentially volatile situations in the workplace," Capozzoli says. "Anyone in a supervisory position should have conflict resolution training as a core requirement in their management education. It's just as important as accounting, marketing or any of the other requirements."

Capozzoli and McVey, both assistant professors of organizational leadership and supervision at Purdue University Programs at Kokomo, come from backgrounds where they experienced violence in the workplace firsthand.

Capozzoli spent 30 years with General Motors, where he was involved in management, labor relations and internal consulting. He is a senior consultant with Personnel Services Inc. in Carmel and is a research associate for the National Center for the Management of Workplace Violence.

McVey spent 26 years as a special agent in the FBI, where he was involved in the psychological analysis of violent criminal behavior. He is president and chief executive officer of Personnel Services Inc. and also is a research associate for the National Center for the Management of Workplace Violence.

The authors offer several suggestions for making an organization more employee-friendly and less violence-prone. First, companies have to teach their managers and supervisors to recognize acts of violence, they say.

"Too often, employers don't consider something violent unless there is physical contact," McVey says. "If an employee is even threatened, that's an act of violence that needs to be addressed before it turns into something much more serious, like homicide."

Second, Capozzoli and McVey say improved hiring procedures could prevent problems before they start. For instance, background checks, applicant testing, personality tests and drug screening should be done where allowed by law. They also suggest that employers improve their interviewing techniques or bring in organizations that specialize in interviewing.

Third, the authors suggest that employers draft a specific policy regarding harassment, threats and verbal and abuse. Disciplinary procedures should focus on the behavior, not the individual. A crisis management plan should supplement such a policy, including situational training for employees and supervisors alike.

"Although it sounds horrible, everyone in the organization should receive hostage behavior training," Capozzoli says. "Police departments often offer these programs to interested organizations."

Last, and perhaps most often ignored, say the authors, is aftermath training.

"When something traumatic happens in the workplace, the entire organization is affected," Capozzoli says. "Employees may need counseling or special attention. If these needs aren't addressed, another violent situation could occur."

The book also identifies several causes of workplace violence as well as situations where it is most likely to occur.

"Layoffs, downsizing, long hours, mergers and takeovers are just a few things that cause high stress levels that could lead to violence," Capozzoli says. "Personal problems, such as substance abuse, a divorce or a death in the family can also be huge factors."

Layoffs and terminations are particularly touchy areas that employers should be especially sensitive to, the authors say.

"Don't terminate someone on Friday, because they'll have the whole weekend to stew about it and won't have anyone to complain to or question," McVey says. "Offer retraining and exit interviews and be honest and specific as to why the action is being taken. If the situation is highly emotional, bring in counselors. Make sure all forms are ready to sign, all personal objects are removed, all keys are turned in, and that the last paycheck is presented at the exit interview. Don't give the employee a reason to return to the premises."

The authors say there are three types of individuals who are most likely to become violent:

While both authors say it's important to recognize individuals who may be prone to violence, they caution employers and employees not to become paranoid.

"We're not trying to start a witch hunt," McVey says. "Everyone has a bad day now and then, but that doesn't mean they're going to start shooting up the place. It is important, however, to recognize when someone is falling into a consistent pattern that may signal trouble."

The 138-page book is available for $39.95 from St. Lucie Press, 100 E. Linton Blvd., Suite 403B, Delray Beach, Fla. 33483, telephone (407) 274-9906.

Sources: Thomas K. Capozzoli, (317) 455-9239
Robert S. McVey, (317) 455-9364
Writer: Victor B. Herr, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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