Preventing Workplace Violence: A Guide for Employers and Practitioners


Mark Braverman

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  • Advanced Topics in Organizational Behavior

    The Advanced Topics in Organizational Behavior series examines current and emerging issues in the field of organizational behavior. Written by researchers who are widely acknowledged subject area experts, the books provide an authoritative, up-to-date review of the conceptual, research, and practical implications of the major issues in organizational behavior.

    Editors: Julian Barling, Queen's University

    Kevin Kelloway, University of Guelph

    Editorial Board: Victor M. Catano, Saint Mary's University

    Cary L. Cooper, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology

    Daniel G. Gallagher, James Madison University

    Jean Hartley, University of Warwick

    Denise Rousseau, Carnegie-Mellon University

    Paul Spector, University of South Florida

    Lois E. Tetrick, University of Houston


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    To the memory of my father, Samuel Braverman 1917–1998

    The memory of a righteous man is a blessing.


    Many people and experiences went into the making of this book. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, my teacher and mentor, now colleague and friend, was my guide to understanding the effects of extreme stress on human beings. Bessel also taught me, as he has so many others in our field, to push hard against the established assumptions of mental health theory and practice. His questioning, iconoclastic spirit continues to influence me. I owe much to several colleagues in psychology: Dr. Steven White, a pioneer and innovator in the assessment of violence in a workplace context, was a valued colleague and collaborator. I have been honored to be able to call on Drs. John Daignault and Robert Fein for advice and direction over the years. They have taught me much about the causes of violent behavior. Robert Fein critiqued sections of the manuscript and has been a generous colleague over the years, particularly on the issue of violence prediction.

    A fundamental discovery that inspired this book is that the understanding of workplace violence requires the integration of several fields. Richard and Tia Denenberg are the moving forces behind Workplace Solutions, the nonprofit we established with them in 1997 to promote violence prevention and collaborative problem solving in the workplace. Experts in dispute resolution and labor relations, possessed of searching intellects and big hearts, Dick and Tia are valued colleagues and an inspiration for my continual exploration of the boundaries of this work.

    My friend and colleague Dr. Julian Barling, coeditor of this series, first suggested that I write this book and has been a wonderful support throughout the process. Julian, together with Drs. Wayne Corneil and Kevin Kelloway, provided a thorough review of the manuscript and valuable suggestions for its improvement. Marquita Flemming of Sage Publications has made the publication process a delight. I am grateful to MaryAnn Vail of Sage for her tireless and skilled work in turning the manuscript into a finished product and for her patience through multiple revisions of the text.

    Susan Braverman, my wife and my partner in our work together for over 20 years, has seen me through this project, as she has so many others, with patience, love, and the more-than-occasional push. In addition to her critical and editing skills, Susan has always provided the support and the ground for my best efforts. My appreciation goes to Susan, along with Dr. Bruce Cedar, our partner at CMG Associates, who together shouldered more than their share of the workload of our consulting firm in the critical weeks and months approaching several deadlines.

    My 13-year-old son Jacob, a gifted writer, provided incisive editing and suggestions for several chapters. I have appreciated his support, interest, and encouragement, despite his occasional cries of “When are you going to write some fiction, Dad?”

    Finally, thanks go to the countless employees, managers, and union officials whose experiences have provided the lessons I have endeavored to convey in this book. Their struggles, their failures, their triumphs, and, most of all, their willingness to learn are the heart and the hope for a more humane, healthy, and safe working environment.


    Violence in the workplace is a hot issue. In the United States, the federal government has officially recognized violence as a workplace hazard and has directed employers to take precautions (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 1993). Statistics are often cited in discussions about this topic, but, not surprisingly, the numbers are prone to distortion and misinterpretation. Indisputably, the rate of homicide in the U.S. workplace is shockingly high: Government data for 1980 through 1988 place homicide as the third leading cause of death at work, at 17% (Jenkins, Layne, & Kisner, 1992). These data, however, are often misunderstood to refer to violence committed by employees toward fellow employees. In fact, employee-on-employee homicide occurring at work accounts for only 4% to 7% of violence-related deaths at work. The remainder of the homicides are related to robberies and other crimes (Toscano & Weber, 1995). Nonfatal violence, including assaults and threats, is harder to quantify. One widely quoted source indicates that the rate of nonfatal assault or threat in the United States may be as high as 25% (Northwest National Life Insurance Company, 1993). A survey of Canadian public employees found that over 60% had experienced at least one incident of violence or threatened violence (“CUPE Survey,” 1993). (The Canadian study, however, does not indicate the sources of the violence.)

    Media attention has amplified the hysteria and controversy surrounding the topic, contributing to the focus on the rare but newsworthy incidents of coworker mayhem. Consultants and trainers attuned to the latest marketing opportunities have produced mountains of videos, workbooks, and manuals. Law firms offer seminars to educate employers on how to protect themselves from liability from violence-related injuries and how to legally pursue possible threat scenarios.1 On the industrial relations front, employers and unions argue about who is to blame for this increase in the climate of violence in today's workplaces.

    Despite the media and marketplace-fueled confusion surrounding the topic, business leaders have seized on this issue, clamoring for programs and procedures that can provide protection against this perceived threat. This is because, regardless of any distortion or misunderstanding of the actual statistical risks, the people on the front line—that is, those responsible for the safety and health of the workplace—understand the costs of threats, assaults, and fear on the morale and productivity of their employees. They also understand the costs of negative publicity, bad public relations, and litigation on the survival of their enterprises. Violence in the workplace, whether it comes from the outside or originates from within, is a frightening prospect.

    The prevention of violence affecting workers is one of the most important policy issues facing the workplace today. A central thesis of the book is that the standard, traditional tools for occupational health and safety, discipline, and employee relations now used by business and labor leaders are inadequate and inappropriate for responding to the problem of workplace violence. In fact, the methods and approaches commonly in use actually worsen the problem in some cases. To effectively confront the violence issue, business and labor leaders must deal with a range of crucial workplace issues, including the following.

    • The limits of our present concepts about worker rights and employer responsibility. Time-honored principles of employment law such as the duty to protect occupational health and safety, workers' rights to privacy, and protection from discrimination have shaped employment policy and practice. Unfortunately, they have also created a dispute-centered, adversarial context that is highly hazardous in its own right. In union as well as nonunion environments, increased stresses on employees and organizations have created an urgent need for alternative methods of dispute resolution and conflict management. The violence issue may present one of the best opportunities in decades for this work to move forward.
    • The limits of our current human resources practices. Dealing with threats of violence from both within and outside of the workplace challenges what we know about best practice in handling issues of interemployee conflict, impaired workers, and actual threats and acts of violence. Repeatedly, human resource managers, sometimes in concert with internal security or legal departments, stumble in trying to deal with these complex and frightening situations. When they do turn to outside professionals for help, whether these are in the mental health, legal, or mediation fields, it is often too late to reverse the damage.
    • The limits of current occupational health and disability policies and procedures. Violent or threatening employees almost always interact with the occupational health system, whether on their own or through the intervention of management. These systems are not equipped to address the suffering or desperation of these employees or to provide useful information or guidance for the concerned employer. Because of the increase in job stress due to structural and economic changes in the workplace and fundamental changes in health care policy and delivery, it is crucial that we examine the role of health care and disability policy in the handling of workplace violence.
    • Health, safety, and labor relations. Finally, workplace violence episodes bring to the surface crucial issues of industrial labor relations and have implications for the legal, labor relations, dispute mediation, and health professions. Health and safety in the workplace can no longer be the province of midlevel managers responding to government regulations and compliance standards. They can no longer be a battleground between labor and management. The issues have broadened beyond the traditional categories of equipment and environmental hazards. Safety and health now have to do with the greatly increased stress brought on by fundamental changes in the structure of work and work roles and shifts in the employment contract. These changes have increased the performance pressure, economic insecurity, and potential for conflict and competition among workers. They have disrupted crucial structures of trust and communication. The question now facing our society is nothing less than this: Can we preserve our workplaces as places fit for people? Now, more than ever in our history, it is crucial for leadership of industry and those representing the labor force to come together and confront these risks.

    The purpose of this book is to describe the phenomenon of workplace violence through a number of representative cases and to present a practical guide for those involved in responding to this threat to the health and safety of our workplaces. In Chapters 1 through 3, I will present the concepts and issues that we need to understand in order to confront the phenomenon of workplace violence: What is workplace violence? How can violence be understood in the context of the changes and crises faced by the workplace? Chapters 4 through 8 are case histories. They provide a detailed look at what has happened to some companies and individuals who have been caught up in this complex issue. The final chapters are intended to be a practical guide for the employer, manager, union leader, and consultant. In these chapters, I summarize the learning from the case histories and offer my recommendations for the future direction of workplace violence prevention.


    1. Not all the advice is helpful. Chapter 9 of this book takes up this topic in detail.

  • Afterword

    As we go to press, shocking public acts of violence continue to thrust the issue of workplace violence into our national consciousness. In early 1998, the shootings of children and teachers by adolescent boys in public schools in two states sent American society into a tailspin of horror and confusion. Later that year, the fatal shooting of two U.S. Capitol police officers in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., released a groundswell of grief and outrage. What captured my interest, however, more than the paroxysms of public shock and media attention, was the search for explanations that accompanied these events. Within days of the first of the school shootings, President Clinton called for legislation to ban the importing of assault weapons. At the same time, journalists in print editorials and broadcast specials were hauling out the timeworn controversies about the effects of media violence on children and on the culture at large. After the Capitol shootings, when it was revealed that the man accused of the crime had been treated for schizophrenia, the public was barraged with information and opinion on the relationship of violence to mental illness, particularly schizophrenia.

    What we see in the reactions to these recent events is the same hunger for quick fixes and simple causes that we observed in many of the cases presented in this book. It is not hard to understand the urgency of this need: Violence affects virtually every kind of workplace, from schools, factories, and offices to retail stores and public buildings, and even the U.S. Capitol. But as I have argued, this is a crisis that cannot be successfully confronted with one-dimensional explanations and convenient objects of blame. The causes of violence are not to be found simply in the availability of guns or the abundance of television violence, or in the mental health history or lifestyle profile of a perpetrator. Rather, they are to be discovered by examining the very fabric of the systems in place to respond to violence risk.

    When, faced with the terrible spectacle of a schoolyard slaughter, we race to embrace solutions such as weapons control or the limiting of exposure to media violence, we run the very serious risk of ignoring the crucial questions that must be asked about these cases. Where, for example, was the collaboration between school, family, and local law enforcement in the response to the obvious danger signals and cries for help exhibited by these children and their families? When, in the aftermath of a savage, irrational attack at the most venerable of national institutions, we fix on schizophrenia—or any other presumed risk factor, whether combat veteran, gun enthusiast, or Montana-based loner—as the focus for our horror and outrage, we ignore similar questions: How did the systems designed to respond to mental health emergencies, threats, and other forms of aberrant behavior function to signal authorities that a threat may have existed? We must ask here, as in the cases of the school shootings: Did the people in any of these systems talk to one another?

    In every case analyzed in the preceding chapters, violence was the result of a series of events, the last act in a chain of signals. Such signals, however, are received by different listeners: In the most recent cases, for example, these listeners included a school administration, schoolmates, neighbors and friends, local police, the FBI, and the mental health unit of a hospital. The signals rarely make sense or add up to a clear warning when the information is not shared among these multiple “listening posts.” In the absence of this sharing of information, there is no opportunity to submit the information to rational thought and to an analysis that can lead to effective solutions.

    Our responsibility as a society in the aftermath of these events is to reject our tendency to quick fixing, blaming, and witch hunting and to embark instead on the study of what has happened so that we can learn from it. I believe that once we engage in that learning process, what we find will lead to (a) an uncovering, in every case, of multiple warning signals, received by a multiplicity of societal entities, whether familial, community, business, or governmental, and (b) the clear need for coordination and communication between these entities. The results of our learning will point to the need for structures that will ensure communication and coordination between these components of society.

    How do we begin to design and develop these cooperative structures? The process will anticipate the solution: The study and learning from these tragic events should be conducted through a collaboration of stakeholders—business, labor, government, and private foundations and groups. The meeting place is not important; it could be the corporate boardroom, union headquarters, or congressional hearing room. What is crucial is that the work begin and that all the players be at the table. In the same way, it should be clear that a plethora of funding sources, both public and private, have a direct interest in this issue and should be tapped.

    In the early 1950s, Lewis Mumford, the American social philosopher, historian, and educator, was sorely troubled about the future of Western society. He surveyed the Cold War landscape and was appalled by the prospect of global annihilation. In his book In the Name of Sanity, Mumford (1954) issued a passionate plea to humanity to step back from the brink of destruction and embrace world cooperation at every level. It is our blind pursuit of security through a belief in technology, arms, and “isolated efforts alone,” he wrote, that distances us from our humanity and that will lead to cataclysm (p. 33). “Help us to see!” he beseeched, quoting from Henry Adams's prayer,

    … for it is our unseeingness that has permitted us to stumble so close to the abyss. “Help us to know,” for the withholding of knowledge and the reluctance to draw conclusions from the knowledge we do possess add willful ignorance to willful blindness. But above all we must recover that which we have lost through the very techniques of scientific knowledge and invention: the power to feel, which is at the basis of all truly human relationships, for once sympathy, pity and love are withdrawn, intelligence will likewise fail us, and we shall treat other human beings as if they were mere things or objects…. Yes, help us to feel. Our numbness is our death …. We must as a condition for survival, recover our humanity again; the capacity for rational conduct, free from compulsive fears and pathological hatreds; the capacity for love and confidence and cooperation, for humorous self-criticism and disarming humility. (pp. 164–165)

    “Our numbness is our death.” Our coalitions against violence in our homes, schools, streets, and workplaces must be based on a commitment to overcome the forces of isolation, mistrust, and blindness that allow these tragedies to unfold. To be sure, the extreme acts of bloodshed and savagery, those that capture the headlines, furnish the initial spur to collective action. But only a deep, ongoing commitment to change will provide the awareness, compassion, and courage needed to address the countless everyday tragedies that occur in our factories, offices, grievance hearing rooms, schools, and families.

    Appendix A: A Sample Policy

    The following sample policy can be modified to reflect the particular violence risks of the workplace, “Team” configuration, management structure, notification procedures, labor agreements, and local laws.

    Acme Corporation believes that all employees are entitled to a safe, non-threatening workplace environment. Any form of violence, whether actual or perceived, may be in violation of this policy. This includes, but is not limited to:

    • Disruptive, intimidating, threatening, or hostile behavior
    • Threats via e-mail or voicemail
    • Possession of a weapon (or non-approved weapon in some workplaces)
    • Violation of restraining orders
    • Fighting
    • Verbal abuse
    • Stalking
    • Sabotage or misuse of equipment or company property
    • Any behavior that is perceived as threatening

    An employee who believes that he or she has been subjected to or the witness of threatening or intimidating behavior by a fellow employee, a customer, a family member, or someone else, should report such conduct according to the procedure outlined below. Any employee who violates this policy may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including discharge.

    Management Responsibility

    Violence, or the threats of violence, whether committed by supervisory or nonsupervisory personnel, is against stated company policy and may be considered unlawful as well. Management is responsible for taking action against threats or acts of violence by company personnel or others, including customers, vendors, family members, or others.

    It is management's responsibility to show employees that the company is serious about prohibiting and preventing violence in the workplace.

    If a supervisor becomes aware of any action, behavior, or perceived threat that may violate this policy, the supervisor is responsible for immediately contacting a member of the Crisis Management Team or specified contact persons.

    Notification Procedure

    Any employee may bring a concern about violent or threatening behavior, or a situation perceived as creating a hostile or unsafe work environment, to the attention of (specify contact person). In addition, any of the following may be contacted: Manager of Human Resources, Manager of Security, or Director of Safety. In addition, an employee may contact his or her supervisor or union official.

    After the Crisis Management Team has been notified of a complaint, or when it receives knowledge that a situation involving a possible threat of violence exists, the team will undertake a thorough investigation to gather all pertinent facts.


    This policy prohibits retaliation against any employee who brings a complaint of violent, threatening or intimidating behavior. The employee will not be adversely affected in terms and condition of employment or discriminated against or discharged because of the complaint.

    Appendix B: Resources for Further Study

    The internet now provides a rich source of information and resources for the study of workplace violence and related issues. No list can be complete, but these sites will provide starting points for further research. Most sites have complete manuals and publications that can be downloaded, and copious links to other sites.

    Government Agencies

    Office of Personnel Management: (http://opm/workplace/index/html-ssi)

    National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety:

    National Institute of Justice:

    Occupational Safety & Health Administration:

    Private Organizations and Foundations

    CMG Associates:

    Workplace Solutions:

    California Foundation for Improvement of Employer-Employee Relations:

    American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees:

    National Alliance for Safe Schools:

    Federation of Public Employees:

    Family Violence Prevention Fund:

    Nurse Advocate, Nurses and Workplace Violence:

    National Labor Management Association:

    Cornell/PERC Institute on Conflict Resolution:

    Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse:

    The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation:


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    About the Author

    Mark Braverman, PhD, is a pioneer in the field of traumatic stress in the workplace. In 1985, he and Susan Braverman developed the first comprehensive plan for responding to traumatic events in the workplace for Digital Equipment Corporation. This groundbreaking plan served as model for subsequent work in traumatic stress in the workplace and was the basis for the founding of Crisis Management Group, Inc., in 1988. Dr. Braverman was a founding member of the Harvard University Psychological Trauma Center and served as Instructor in Psychology at Harvard University Medical School from 1987 through 1990. He established the Taskforce on Workplace Trauma for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. He served on the Mental Health Committee for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. He has lectured, trained, and consulted widely to businesses, federal and state agencies, and academic and professional groups nationally and internationally. He has lectured before the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on the growing problem of workplace violence and before federal agency employer groups in three states on how to protect their workforce from this hazard. He conducts workshops and symposia for the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the American Psychological Association. In 1992, he testified before a joint congressional subcommittee on the causes of violence in the U.S. Postal Service. He was on the advisory panel of experts for the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company's groundbreaking survey of workplace stress. He serves as senior trainer and consultant for Workplace Solutions, a project of the Cornell University School of Industrial Relations. He is currently teaching a course on occupational stress at the Harvard University Division of Continuing Studies. He has published over 30 articles and book chapters in academic texts, trade journals, and international symposia on the subjects of workplace trauma intervention, the causes and prevention of workplace violence, and occupational mental health.

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