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Taking Steps to Protect Employees Amid Rising Workplace Violence

March 23, 1997|MARY J. PITZER | Mary J. Pitzer is a freelance writer based in Woodland Hills

People didn't used to worry much about their safety at work. But those days are gone. Bank robberies, employees with a grudge and out-of-control customers make headlines all too often.

About 1 million people nationwide are victims of violent crime in the workplace each year, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In California, 195 people were murdered in the workplace in 1993, surpassing for the first time the number of workers killed in traffic accidents.

"Violence in society is more commonplace" than it used to be, said Robert Dorris, an Agoura Hills employee assistance consultant. "It's going to come into the workplace."

The outside world crashes into the workplace through holdups, conflicts with customers and the spillover of domestic violence. Pressures on the job often account for clashes between employees. Increased competition, autocratic management styles, downsizing and greater diversity in the work force all add up to more uncertainty and stress--and to more employees who snap.

How do you stay out of the line of fire? Addressing a crisis early and directly may be the key.

Maya Ranselaar, a Culver City beauty shop owner, calmed down an employee who threw a fit in the crowded salon because she didn't like the way her own hair was cut.

"I was mortified," Ranselaar said. "But the louder she screamed, the more quietly I spoke to her."

Ranselaar calmly led the employee to a room where she could be by herself. Before the incident was over, the employee had thrown equipment against the walls, but no one was hurt. The employee later apologized.

"We can't cure all workplace violence, because society has a lot of disturbed individuals," Dorris said. "But about 50% or more of the cases could have been prevented or diminished."


More organizations are trying to do something about the threat of violence. They are scrambling to put training programs in place, creating crisis teams, screening employees more thoroughly before they are hired and stepping up security.

It's not just the violence they fear. It's the lawsuits as well. Employees have a legal right to a safe workplace, according to federal guidelines and laws in numerous states. Employers must take reasonable precautions, said George Dale, a Los Angeles attorney.

To comply with the law, employers sometimes must get involved in their employees' personal lives. That's what Dale advises his clients. He also knows it from experience, because an employee of his was stalked by an estranged boyfriend.

"We went out and got a restraining order, hired a guard and locked the doors," he said.

Harassing phone calls stopped, and the crisis subsided.

Dale's firm was able to handle the problem because it knew about it. Good communication is a crucial element in any prevention program. Employees need a way to tell management about harassment or erratic behavior.


Communication might have prevented one tragedy. In 1991, Thomas McIlvane, a discharged letter carrier armed with a semiautomatic rifle, sought out supervisors at the main post office in Royal Oak, Mich. He shot eight people, four fatally, before killing himself.

An investigation showed that McIlvane had been a disciplinary problem for the union as well as management for years. But there was little cooperation between the two.

"A better grievance procedure would have allowed serious complaints to be taken seriously," said Richard Denenberg, co-director of New York-based Workplace Solutions, which studied the incident.

Training employees to identify warning signs and deal with a brewing crisis can be lifesaving. Profiles of likely offenders target white males over 35 who are loners and have a fascination with guns. It may be more useful, however, to observe people's behavior and to watch your own.

"It's important to not be confrontational and not get to the point where tempers flare," said Edmond Otis, a Riverside communications consultant.

Gina Shine, a Riverside Unified School District secretary in pupil services, comes face-to-face every day with the parents of expelled and suspended students.

"We have a lot of angry parents here," she said. "Sometimes they come right over the counter."

Training from Otis has helped Shine soothe them. She acknowledges their complaints but doesn't take them personally. And she assures parents that an official in the office will take care of their problems.

Acting quickly once a crisis starts can prevent violence. After a promotions company dismissed an employee last year, co-workers reported that he had threatened the manager. Pasadena security consultant David Smith and a guard were on site the next day when the former employee walked through the door. The man was unarmed, and Smith convinced him to pray rather than confront the manager. Then Smith escorted him from the property.

"He was not mentally ill, just mad," Smith said.

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