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Business school study uncovers workplace violence warning signs

by Joan H. Hill

A USC research study has identified danger signs that employers should look for to prevent potential violence in the workplace.

Researchers at the Center for Crisis Management in the School of Business Administration found that several factors are often associated with a high incidence of workplace violence:

  • Drug use, crime in the workplace and graffiti on the walls are often tied to heightened trends for such activities as bombings and murder threats.
  • Employee absences, medical leaves, workers compensation claims and other health-related factors are often associated with increasing trends for workplace violence.

“Our findings validate other research indicating that workplace violence is a pervasive problem,” said L. Katharine Harrington, principal investigator of the study and a senior research scientist at the CCM. “They also provide support for focusing on management practices as a means of reducing levels of violence. While the prediction of violence at the individual level is difficult, our research has identified factors that may warn of potential danger.”

The CCM is conducting an ongoing study to better understand the phenomenon of workplace violence, to identify its structural and organizational correlates and to identify and recommend appropriate management practices for mitigating the risk. The researchers’ primary focus is on non-lethal acts of workplace violence.

Recent headlines spotlight workplace deaths among postal workers, federal workers and law enforcement officials. However, CCM’s survey of 3,000 human resource and security managers shows that non-lethal acts – such as threatening phone calls, bomb threats and fights – are the types of violence that occur most frequently in the American workplace.

“Non-lethal acts of violence can have serious physical and psychological effects and impose serious human and dollar costs on an organization,” Harrington said.

Among the CCM findings:

  • Violence is prevalent in the workplace. Forty-three percent of the survey respondents reported having experienced some incident of violence in the workplace within the past three years. Threatening phone calls, bomb threats and fights were among the most commonly cited types of violence.
  • Organizations are inadequately prepared. Two-thirds of respondents reported having no training programs in place to help managers and employees deal with violence or the threat of violence. Also, 56 percent reported having neither training nor a formal method for tracking threats or occurrences of violence.
  • Violence and the potential for violence can be mitigated. Other studies indicate that employers with effective grievance, harassment and security programs in place experience lower rates of workplace violence. The use of employee assistance programs (EAPs), outplacement and other specialized resources may mitigate the potential for workplace violence. Firms without EAPs reported higher trends in fighting, the possession of weapons at work and the destruction of company property. They also reported higher trends in murder threats and actual or attempted murders.u0000

The CCM research project is supported by the International Facility Management Association, PepsiCo, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

The initial phase of the project involved a comprehensive review of secondary source materials and the design and testing of a survey instrument. Last year, the survey was tested on some 50 executives and was refined via comprehensive interviews with 20 Los Angeles-area corporate executives in the fields of human resources, security, asset protection and loss management. In July 1994, the survey was mailed to a national randomly selected group of 1,500 human resource managers and 1,500 security managers. CCM received 395 responses (a 13 percent response rate).

Currently, the CCM is developing interviews for the next stage of the project.

“A most important area for future research,” Harrington said, “is the identification of a model of best practice for dealing with workplace violence. A model of best practice will include the principal components of an effective plan to mitigate and respond to workplace violence.”

The CCM was founded in 1986 to generate basic information and education on crisis management in the public and private sectors. It is the first academic center to study the potential causes of major corporate disasters and to recommend avoidance and containment strategies. CCM’s activities include assessing the current state of disaster planning and designing the latest methodologies and the most effective methods for coping with human-caused disasters. In addition, the center maintains a permanent, nationwide network of crisis management experts.u0000u0000

Business school study uncovers workplace violence warning signs

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