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Feature Story:

Violence in the Workplace

By Donna Miles
The author is the former Deputy Editor of State Magazine.


The 17-year-old son of a State Department employee entered Main State, flashed his dependent identification badge and took the elevator to the seventh floor, where his mother worked as a secretary in the counselor's office. There, the youth pulled a rifle from the duffel bag he was carrying and shot and killed his mother, then himself.

The murder-suicide took place almost 15 years ago and led to a wide range of security measures within the Department. Among them were the elimination of dependent identification badges and the introduction of metal detectors and card readers at entranceways.

But the 1985 incident wasn't isolated. Just as violence has infiltrated the private sector workplace--from fast-food restaurants to factories to corporate suites--it has invaded the federal government, too.

On-the-job violence, such as the late-July mass murder in northern Atlanta that left nine people in two office buildings dead is becoming a national epidemic. The latest Justice Department crime survey noted that nearly 1 million people become victims of violent crimes in U.S. workplaces every year. The FBI labels workplace violence the largest growing cause of homicide in the United States. Murder is the third leading cause of employee deaths on the job, and for women, it's the number one cause.

Workplace violence can be initiated by a family member, as in the case of the 1985 shooting at Main State, or by a member of the public--from a delivery person to someone applying for a passport or visa. But the vast majority of incidents arise between co-workers.

The background investigation that State employees undergo before they are hired and granted a security clearance helps weed out employees with histories of violent behavior, according to Robert Hartung, chief of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's professional responsibility staff. This is probably one of the reasons for the Department's low incidence of workplace violence, he said.

But Cynthia Dearing, a program manager in the Office of Employee Relations, said highly publicized incidents such as the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., have increased workers' awareness about the potential for violence--and employees' willingness to report an incident.

"We don't have a steady flow of cases of violence, but we do get occasional cases of disruptive behavior or threats," she said. "People have become more sensitive to the words employees exchange. Comments that once might have been taken less seriously are now being taken a lot more seriously."

While physical violence gets the most attention in discussions of workplace violence, experts say less-obvious forms of violence--verbal abuse, bullying, intimidation and sexual harassment, among them--can be just as threatening to employees. These abuses may not leave physical scars, but they can make victims feel angry, fearful, stressed or depressed.

Statistics show that all forms of workplace violence are increasing, a trend that parallels the general increase in acts of violence throughout society. Workers bring their personal problems with them to work each day, and in high-stress environments where personnel and resources are often stretched to their limits, violence is too often the result.

Who's likely to resort to such violence? The Office of Personnel Management profiles the most likely perpetrator as a middle-aged white male who changes jobs frequently and is fascinated with exotic weapons and violent movies and television shows. He tends to be chronically disgruntled or known as a troublemaker, is frequently a loner and often has a military background.

But experts are quick to caution that these traits don't necessarily mean that someone will turn violent--and that some employees who do don't match any of the characteristics described. They say there simply are no hard-and-fast guidelines for identifying workers about to go off the deep end and resort to violence.

That's why, according to Ann Sprague, chief of labor and employee relations and workforce performance at the Office of Personnel Management, coworkers are critical in helping identify troubled employees before they turn violent.

In a Department notice issued in 1996, the Director General of the Foreign Service and director of Personnel outlined State's policy that violence and threatening behavior in the workplace won't be tolerated--and asked employees to help enforce the policy.

He encouraged them to take steps to reduce stress in their offices and in their private lives, taking advantage of counseling and referral services available through the Department. The Employee Consultation Service, the employee assistance program sponsored by the Office of Medical Services, provides confidential counseling at
no charge.

The Department notice also urged employees to encourage troubled coworkers to seek help or to refer the matter to a supervisor.

But how do you recognize a troubled employee? They often exhibit unusual or erratic behavior, tend to miss a lot of workdays and show changes in their personality, work relationships or productivity, according to Ms. Sprague.

Anne Weiss, director of State's Employee Consultation Service and a clinical psychiatric social worker, receives reports of problems or potential problems and works with the employee and the appropriate executive office to determine the best course of action. Other key players in the program are the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which addresses a case from a security standpoint, and the Office of Employee Relations, which provides conflict management training through the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program as well as focusing on the disciplinary aspects of a case.

These offices are working together to establish an inter-bureau team to respond to incidents of workplace violence. Having a team in place will make it easier for the players to mobilize and work together if an incident should occur.

Behavioral psychologists agree that ignoring the workplace "bully" is the worst possible thing a supervisor can do. Morale and productivity in the office tend to drop, and more seriously, the problem often escalates.

"When you ignore unacceptable behavior, you reinforce that behavior for the next time," said Ms. Sprague. "You send a clear signal that the employee is free to repeat the behavior and will suffer no adverse consequences."

She said the best way for supervisors to diffuse potentially violent situations is to confront relatively minor infractions as soon as they occur to make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

And while acknowledging that no office can completely prevent or eliminate workplace violence, Ms. Sprague said it's far less likely when employees understand that violent behavior won't be tolerated and their agency provides an effective response to incidents. The result, experts say, is a workplace where employees are safer, more secure and often more productive.

Preventing Workplace Violence

  • Do whatever you can to nurture a supportive, harmonious environment at work.
  • Insist that all employees routinely report suspicious individuals or activities.
  • Deal with allegations of harassment or employee conflict early on, before they escalate.
  • Take all threats and hate comments seriously.

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