Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Training
Violence in our workplaces continues to be a growing concern even as our awareness of the issue increases. As far back as 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited that approximately two million incidents of workplace violence were reported every year costing businesses up to $120 billion annually. This translates to:
- more than 1.2 million missed workdays per year, and
- more than $55 million in lost wages per year.
And while those statistics alone are staggering, it remains widely accepted that incidents of workplace violence continue to go vastly underreported. In the healthcare industry alone, a recent study indicated that underreporting of workplace violence by nursing staff could be at least as high as 30 percent.
The personal physical risk of workplace violence (sometimes abbreviated as WPV) also continues to be substantial and, unfortunately, on the rise. To illustrate, the National Safety Council reports that, as of 2018, workplace assaults are the second leading cause of work-related deaths only following roadway motor-vehicle crashes. (453 workplace assault related fatalities were reported in 2018.) Additionally, reports of nonfatal, work-related assault injuries totaled 21,000 in 2018 (up from 10,690 reported injuries in 2011).
But it’s important to point out that work-related assaults, as reported above, capture only the physical manifestation of an issue that spans the full spectrum of aggressive and hostile human behavior.
OSHA defines workplace violence as:
“any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers, and visitors.”
Understanding workplace violence in this broader context reveals that there are other costly, albeit perhaps less intuitive, effects that workplace violence has on our workforce, such as the very tangible emotional impact for employees. In a recent survey conducted by SHRM, nearly one in seven employees reported feeling “unsafe” or “very unsafe” at work.
As the narrative surrounding workplace violence continues to evolve, experts are also starting to see an emergence of research capturing the harmful effects of what is often described as uncivil behavior in the workplace (e.g., extreme rudeness, harassment and bullying), and its potential for becoming a precursor to more violent behavior.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WPV STANDARDS, GUIDELINES AND RECOMMENDATIONS
While there are currently no specific OSHA standards concerning workplace violence (WPV), OSHA considers the issue to be encompassed and addressed within the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Here it stipulates that employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Over the past decade additional input has come from various sources and initiatives.
OSHA creates Enforcement Procedures and Scheduling for Occupational Exposure to Workplace Violence instruction providing policy guidance and procedures to be followed by field agents when conducting inspections and issuing citations related to occupational exposure to workplace violence.
The American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS International) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) co-author a best-practices document addressing workplace violence prevention and intervention and subsequently vet their work through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
This new “ANSI Standard” represents a significant shift in the way organizations such as ASIS and SHRM address and emphasize the importance of the workplace violence issue. The standard signals a decisive progression from what might be considered mere organizational “recommendations” to something organizations “must do” or, at least, ”ought to do.”
OSHA updates the Enforcement Procedures and Scheduling for Occupational Exposure to Workplace Violence instruction expanding and clarifying its list of industries and workplace settings at high risk for workplace violence, identifying more resources for OSHA inspectors, and explaining the review process for settlement agreements.
The ANSI Standard is updated to include in its title a specific reference to “Active Assailant,” pointing to the fact that the conversation surrounding workplace violence must encompass the increasing violence both within our workplaces and society in general.
From its significant financial impact at a societal and organizational level down to the singular, toxic emotional impact at a personal level, workplace violence is something that demands our attention. And yet, surprisingly, the 2019 SHRM study states that only 45% of employees polled indicated their organization had a workplace violence program in place. At the same time, nearly 25% reported that their workplace had experienced at least one incident of workplace violence.
Even though awareness and research on this topic is on the rise, organizations appear to need help overcoming apparent barriers, real or imagined, and making this issue a strategic priority. This post is designed to provide insights and assistance in this area.
Effective Workplace Violence (WPV) Prevention and Response programs do a lot more than prepare people for an unlikely (but possible) extreme violence incident, such as an active shooter. The best programs also cover the awareness and prevention of all forms of workplace violence, including such things as threats and verbal abuse. Organizations intent on creating and sustaining a safe and positive workplace culture do not see workplace violence prevention solely as “safety training.” Rather, it is viewed as a key component of improving day-to-day work-life for everyone.
There are 5 key elements to this type of comprehensive approach:
1. Awareness – Addresses WPV misconceptions and clarifies understanding
On the topic of workplace violence, myths abound. These misconceptions often cause organizations to focus on the wrong things—or do nothing. These can include:
- Myth: IT’S ONLY WHEN THINGS GET PHYSICAL…
Workplace violence is about overt physical violence, and that doesn't really happen here.
It’s easy to assume that workplace violence only refers to acts of physical violence. However, as referenced above, the OSHA definition is much broader and includes threats and verbal abuse in addition to physical assaults and homicide. The issue impacts organizations of all types and sizes.
- Myth: PEOPLE JUST SNAP…
When workplace violence occurs, there is little advance warning—people who act out violently tend to “snap” unexpectedly.
In cases of workplace violence, there is often a triggering event (think, “straw that broke the camel’s back”) that propels an offender into action. That event -- frequently a real or imagined profound loss in their personal or professional lives -- is what many people mistake for someone’s “snapping.” Learning to spot patterns or clusters of concerning behaviors can alert organizations to potential problems early, which can help prevent workplace violence.
- Myth: YOU CAN TELL WHO'S GONNA’ GET VIOLENT...
Workplace violence offenders are typically disgruntled former employees or people suffering from a mental illness.
It’s vital to know that there’s no profile for a violent offender —as there’s simply no reliable way to predict who might take violent action. However, research has identified Behaviors of Concern that may signal potential danger, and it's important that people recognize these behaviors and feel willing and able to share any concerns at work.
Increasing employees’ awareness of the facts around workplace violence, and what they can do to help prevent it, will have a positive effect on them and the workplace itself.
2. Recognition– Enables people to spot and register changes in others that might signal potential trouble.
In the wake of 9-11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed the “If You See Something, Say Something” directive as a way of working together to keep one another safe. While DHS aims its message at the public on a community level, the idea is just as relevant in our workplaces. It’s important that today’s organizations build cultures where people make it their business to have their co-workers’ backs. In organizations “See Something, Say Something” means teaching employees about "Behaviors of Concern", so that when they’re presented with potential early warning signs they recognize those for what they are; indicators that someone might be on a path to violence.
A few examples of concerning behaviors appear below, including those that would warrant immediate action.
Behaviors of Concern
• Being consistently argumentative and/or uncooperative
• Collecting injustices or holding grudges
• Being hypersensitive - unable to take criticism and/or blaming others
• Verbal abuse of co-workers, associates, or customers
• Any distinct change in a person’s behavior and/or physical appearance...
It’s here, at the earliest stages of concern, where employees can make the greatest impact by coming forward and speaking up. That’s why awareness and recognition must be followed by preparation—helping employees know what it means to take preventative action and giving them the mental permission and the knowledge to do so.
3. Prepared Employees– Familiarizes employees and managers with proven prevention and survival methodologies and primes them with a bias toward action.
According to Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) research, in organizations where training on WPV Prevention and Response has been provided, 87% of employees say they know what to do when they witness or are involved in workplace violence. This compares with 53% in organizations where training has not been provided. In general, WPV preparation makes employees feel less vulnerable and safer at work.
Preparation is about sharpening awareness; it’s about teaching insights that can be quickly recalled when needed. And, it sets the stage for action.
WPV Prevention "Preparation" Encompasses the Following:
• Ensuring there is an accurate organization-wide understanding of the various forms workplace violence can take.
• Communicating to staff that they play an active role in WPV prevention for their own protection as well as the safety and well-being of others
• Explaining what is meant by “Behaviors of Concern,” why addressing them is so important, and what to do should you observe them
• Providing managers with advanced training on the critical role they play in helping to nurture a workplace culture of dignity and respect while addressing concerning behaviors early, in order to keep potentially volatile situations from escalating.
• Helping employees know what to do if they experience abusive conduct that falls short of overt physical violence.
• Effectively training on extreme violence response. (Although these situations are rare, making sure people have an idea of what to do should the unthinkable happen reduces the likelihood that they will “freeze” in fear during a critical moment.)
The Department of Labor notes that 27% of all violent events in the workplace are tied to some form of Domestic Violence (sometimes referred to
as Intimate Partner Violence).
In many Domestic Violence situations, the workplace is the ONLY place where the abuser knows to find the victim. Part of training employees and managers on WPV Prevention is helping ensure they:
• know some of the common indicators associated with Domestic Violence
• acknowledge that the best course of action when observing potential Domestic Violence is NOT to get directly involved, but to report the potential signs to management, HR, or security.
4. Action- Empowers and primes employees and managers to take preventative action ─ even in a worst-case scenario
Action-oriented WPV prevention training falls into two general categories:
(1) Addressing or Reporting Concerning Behaviors
Our inclination as humans is to avoid conflict. So, even when someone's behavior might seem a bit off, we tend to explain it away. We talk ourselves out of saying something, even when we know we should. Employees must understand that reporting concerning behaviors doesn’t equate to being a “tattle-tale.” Deciding to address concerning behaviors could be be key to getting someone the help they need, and that might be the difference between a violent or peaceful outcome.
For employees the options include:
- Talk to the other person. (If they feel comfortable and safe doing so, the employee can ask a co-worker how they’re doing. If it turns out the person is simply facing some tough circumstances, the employee can show their support and suggest options for assistance. If the co-worker says something concerning, the employee could bring it to the attention of their manager or other officer as appropriate.)
- Go straight to a Manager, Supervisor, HR or Security.
The course of action ─ and urgency with which it is taken ─ depends on whether or not the concerning behavior falls into what might be considered an “alarming” category and/or whether or not the observer feels safe approaching the other person.
Because most employees report concerning behaviors to their manager or supervisor, effective WPV prevention programs prepare managers by providing instruction on how to:
- foster the kind of work environment where employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns.
- develop a basic understanding of the behavioral evolution toward violence that has been exhibited by those who have acted out violently so they might reasonably determine if a situation is escalating.
While there is no clear cut profile of a workplace violence offender, experts have determined a series of behaviors and related progression that can signal trouble. Managers need to understand what this path looks like so they can take appropriate action at various stages.
(2) Responding to Extreme Violence
Facing the reality of Extreme Violence, and learning what survival options to consider should a critical incident occur, helps employees manage their anxiety and reduces their response time when seconds can mean life or death (most incidents of extreme violence are over in less than 10 minutes).
Empowering employees with a survival mindset and priming them with viable response options optimizes their chance of survival and maximizes a positive, post-incident recovery.
The fundamental options behind surviving an Extreme Violence event aren’t complicated. What complicates matters is the extreme mental stress that happens when people are caught inside such a situation. Response options must be simple, clear, and memorable so they can be recalled in the midst of extraordinary fear and chaos.
Verbal Abuse, Threats, and Bullying
People sometimes feel that abusive behavior that stops short of overt physical violence doesn’t warrant reporting, but it is a mistake to ignore these types of incidents. Verbal abuse, threats and other acts of psychological intimidation are concerning behaviors and, when extreme, should be reported immediately.
Outside of extreme violence incidents, when employees are faced with a co-worker, visitor, or customer who is frustrated and growing increasingly agitated, verbal de-escalation skills can help defuse the situation or at least help the employee buy time to bring in help. Verbal De-escalation training is an important but sometimes overlooked component of workplace violence training.
Extreme Violence response plans generally present three options, in this order:
“Get Out” (or “Run”)
The best way to survive an act of extreme violence is to not be where the violence is happening. Sometimes it is best to run to the closest exit, other times it is best to move slowly so as not to be noticed by the attacker.
“Get Safe” (or “Hide”)
When getting out isn’t an option, the goal is to find some type of physical protection and/or concealment, being sure to do what’s necessary to stay hidden and safe (e.g. lock or barricade the door, turn out the lights, get quiet, etc.)
“Get Tough” (or “Fight”)
When directly confronted with an assailant, it may be necessary to fight for your life, preferably joining forces with others. The goal here is to do whatever is possible to render the attacker ineffective.
Effective extreme violence response training also covers other actions that should or shouldn’t be taken “in the moment,” including:
- Calling 911
- How to alert others
- What to do when law enforcement arrives
5. Empathic Culture - Nurtures a culture of dignity and respect where colleagues and co-workers look out for one another.
People often look at WPV Prevention and Response training solely as a safety and security issue—a “one and done” type event that ensures the organization has provided people with a basic understanding of what workplace violence is, and what to do should an extreme violence event (such as an active shooter) occur.
But that view limits the possibilities of what can truly be accomplished. As has been stated in earlier sections of this post, when WPV Prevention is done effectively ─with extra emphasis on prevention─ the training can help enhance and improve overall workplace culture. It supports an environment where people show respect and concern for one another and where employees can trust that the organization takes seriously its “duty of care” responsibilities. In this sense, WPV Prevention is intrinsically linked with training efforts in the areas of Respectful Workplace and The Employee Experience. Here are a few examples:
|•||Empowering people to be aware of their fellow co-workers, particularly those who appear to be struggling, encourages employees to flex their “empathy muscle.” Showing empathy is key to demonstrating emotional intelligence and conveying respect.|
|•||WPV Prevention Training that additionally addresses incivility and abusive conduct (often precursors to more violent behavior) is a natural extension of initiatives that also focus on bias and harassment prevention. It helps “push prevention forward” in a way that not only addresses a worst-case scenario, but nurtures a culture of shared responsibility for the health and well-being of everyone in the organization.|
|•||Training in workplace violence prevention (and what to do in situations of extreme violence ) reduces employee anxiety, primes them for early action, demonstrates the organization's resolve for peoples’ well-being, and positively impacts how employees perceive the organization.|
|•||Teaching the principles of verbal de-escalation (optional instruction in the best and most mature WPV prevention programs) can help employees with general conflict resolution and dealing with difficult clients/customers. This can lessen a sense of helplessness and frustration that one can feel in emotionally charged/escalated situations.|
Today’s workers –particularly Millennials and GenZ─ want to work for organizations that care about people and are committed to creating a safe and respectful work environment. Providing training on workplace violence prevention demonstrates this organizational commitment, empowers employees to play their part, and can possibly save lives.
Because our increasingly complex world involves vast changes in not only HOW we work, but with WHOM we work, the risk of conflict in the workplace has never been higher. Leaving employees to navigate such relational complexities with whatever innate capabilities they brought to the workplace can be risky because most people are both unprepared and naturally unwilling to face or deal with interpersonal aggression.
Today, training must be provided to help offset the erosion of civility in the presence of our more diverse and often divided culture. Workplace Violence Awareness, Prevention and Response training has its greatest impact when used to cultivate awareness and enhance the recognition of universal human behaviors germane to interpersonal aggression and violence. Because this knowledge is not particularly linked to job skill or occupational competence, the training is equally applicable to all individuals within an organization regardless of place or position.
Most people are both unprepared and naturally unwilling to face or deal with interpersonal aggression.
A government HR Director once informed me that, in her experience, by the time an organization becomes aware of some sort of employee disgruntlement in the form of an overt malicious act--either toward a person or organizational property--the offense (perceived or real) that catalyzed the person to commit the act had typically occurred at least 90 days earlier! This demonstrates our need to be more “in tune” with the individuals of our organizations day-to-day in order to facilitate potential interventions in a way that best serves them and the organization.
There are two major actions that are encouraged and nurtured through training:
(a) Preliminary signs that an event or person has become-- or is becoming-- dangerous are more likely to be recognized. A lack of awareness in this area means both the individual and organization may miss critical opportunities to intervene when doing so would involve significantly less personal and organizational risk.
(b) People are better able to respond appropriately (and survive) acts of extreme violence. In life-threatening situations, untrained people are at greater risk of not understanding the immediacy and/or severity of the threat, or will minimize it with the distorted logic of normalcy bias, which means they can get trapped in a cycle of disbelief and delay while losing precious seconds and options to remove themselves from emergent and life-threatening danger.
Here are the 5 primary benefits for an “individual-based” approach:
1. Makes it Safe to Think about Scary Things
Interpersonal aggression and violence is, by its very nature, emotionally corrosive and toxic. In fact, Dave Grossman, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, author, and law enforcement trainer, asserts that 98 percent of people have an almost “phobic reaction” to interpersonal aggression, meaning most have an irrational, overwhelming and uncontrollable fear of it. 
This fear manifests itself in three common forms of denial:
- Because aggression and violence are Destructive…“I don’t want to think about it”
- Because aggression and violence are Unexpected…“It won’t happen here” or “It won’t happen to me”
- Because aggression and violence are Difficult to Accept…“I can’t really do anything about it, and, as such I’m rendered helpless.”
The right training helps individuals overcome this fear and denial.
2. Moves knowledge from implicit to explicit
Generally, people have an intuitive sense of what interpersonal violence is. In his book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker asserts that “there is a universal code of violence,” and that we all have the innate ability to know when we’re in the presence of danger. However, this knowledge is more implicit than explicit, which means we can “sense” when there might be danger in our midst, but we may not be able to recognize it in a more cognate or specific way; that is, in a way that would allow us to respond versus react. Herein lies one of the greatest benefits of WPV/APR training; it assists individuals in identifying and processing behavior and experiences through a cognitive framework that helps them “make sense” of what they’re observing, experiencing, and/or feeling. It’s essentially providing people with appropriate “mental categories” by which they can sort out and evaluate what they’re sensing. In fact, without training, individuals may discount or not even recognize impending danger until it’s too late.
3. Empowers people to take appropriate action early on
Training all employees in workplace violence awareness, prevention, and response is critical because it’s at the level of the individual where there’s the greatest amount of unpredictability and the widest range of potential behavioral response… especially at the point of action within some sort of emergency.
4. Individuals and organizations are more resilient and recover from crisis more quickly
Properly trained individuals gain a sense of “learned optimism,” which means they understand and trust that bad events don’t last and that bad events are situationally specific. This means they won’t typically accept personal responsibility for tragic events that were/are outside their control and this gives them a strong ability to “bounce back” emotionally from the event. This psychological resilience means they can get back to work relatively quickly, which is good for them as well as the organization.
5. Employees are assured their organization cares about its people
Organizations that commit to training individuals on the specifics related to WPV/APR have not only met a moral obligation to their employees, colleagues, and teammates, but in some cases, are also meeting legal mandates to do so. Whether or not an organization meets such obligations is becoming increasingly important to attracting and retaining top talent.
Establishing and nurturing an effective WPV/APR Program demands organizational resolve combined with a multi-disciplinary approach. Organizations who are committed to a truly effective program should consider the following:
Getting Executive Leadership on Board
One of the biggest challenges safety and security professionals face is the need to help their senior leadership understand the importance of having a robust WPV Prevention and Intervention Program that includes comprehensive awareness, prevention, and response training. WPV program initiatives typically compete with a myriad of other priorities, and executives are often forced to make difficult decisions with limited time and resources. As such, it can be helpful for action officers to put themselves in the shoes of the executive leadership team and present information that makes a strong business case for a program that also includes prevention and response training. Cost avoidance and mitigating liability are two powerful ways to help senior leaders understand the importance of a strong program, and two examples of such information might be statistics like these:
- Currently, retribution settlements for “actual violence” (i.e. “physical violence”) in the workplace average $500,000 for out-of-court settlements and $3,000,000 for jury awards.
- The potential impact of a workplace violence-related crisis, such as an event involving loss of human life (e.g., an active shooter incident), on indirect aspects of an organization (such as brand and reputation) are estimated to run as high as 100x -200x the measurable costs of the tragedy.
WPV subject matter experts are increasingly providing eBooks and articles that provide this type of data and perspective as a way to help with WPV Prevention and Intervention Program advocacy.
Creating an Integrated Team Approach
In many organizations, the challenge isn’t so much a lack of awareness about WPV prevention and intervention as it is about specifically what should be done and how the organization should go about doing it. In general, there are often two independent and different groups within organizations that are striving to chart a best way forward.
- Safety/Security professionals who approach the challenge of prevention and intervention from a risk management and emergency response perspective. This typically leads to an approach that’s focused on negative incentives, which means concentrating on deterring, preventing, detecting, and punishing misbehavior. Training programs designed solely from this perspective have the potential to feel punitive in nature, since the focus can often seem to center on “looking for what’s wrong.”
- Human Resources and Learning & Development (HR/L&D) who tend to focus primarily on positive incentives such as employee engagement, connectedness, and support as a way to nurture prevention and enhance early intervention. Training programs designed solely from this perspective can sometimes feel overly optimistic and unrealistic in pragmatic application.
In truth, however, each group brings unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to their approach to the issue of workplace violence. Forming a partnership between HR/L&D and Safety/Security is essential in addressing the issue of workplace violence from a more holistic approach, facilitating balanced deterrence and comprehensive intervention and response.
Utilizing outside experts
Organizations often hire outside professionals with years of experience to augment their internal efforts, such as retaining a Certified Threat Manager to help train as well as guide their Threat Management Team through “real-world” cases. In other instances, the organization may reach to entities that can provide a wide array of services “on demand” in order to assist in the development, implementation, and ongoing maintenance of their Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention Program. Given the inherent complexities related to workplace violence, it can be helpful to reach to long-time professionals with deep subject matter expertise in such things as a) WPV policy development and coordination, b) behavioral threat assessment, c) behavioral analysis to include profiling assistance and guidance in such things as high-risk terminations and/or difficult personnel actions, d) critical incident after care to assist in bridging individuals to proper long-term mental healthcare following a potentially traumatic event, and e) any other emergent issues related to WPV.
Highly effective WPV/APR programs don’t just happen. Providing the right knowledge, empowering people to take appropriate action when needed, and creating a culture where people commit to “looking out for one another” requires careful planning and execution. Those responsible for choosing program components can get a good start by familiarizing themselves with essential building blocks and best-practices, including the following:
Video-based tools - Video examples can be among the most effective and easy-to-digest additions to any WPV prevention and response training program, provided they are relatable, and not overly graphic. The best videos make people mindful, not fearful; they increase awareness of all types of workplace violence, familiarize employees with their options should they witness concerning behaviors, and model actions that can improve a person’s odds of surviving an extreme violence event.
Note: In the area of extreme violence response training, organizations that have previously adopted the Department of Homeland Security’s “Run-Hide-Fight” instruction, may want to select videos that reflect this verbiage versus alternatives.
Manager-Specific Training - In general, workplace violence training advises people to bring concerning behavior to the attention of their manager or supervisor, HR, or Security. But employees typically approach their managers first. Therefore, it’s important that WPV prevention training provide instruction for managers designed to help them become more aware as to whether or not an employee might be on a path toward violence.
This type of training enables managers to have a deeper understanding and a greater confidence in recognizing potential signs of trouble at their earliest stages, when intervention methods are most effective. The more aware and comfortable managers are in recognizing and understanding the potential of workplace violence, the better able they are to create a safe and respectful work environment; one in which employees readily adopt the I’ve-got-your-back mindset and feel comfortable coming forward with concerns.
Facilitation Tips – When selecting training materials, organizations should consider a provider that acknowledges the sensitive nature of this topic and provides supplemental facilitation materials on how to handle complex situations, especially when covering extreme violence response. Common Questions like “Why are we having this training, has there been some kind of threat?” can easily derail a planned training session before it starts.
Infographics offer a quick-reference visual tool to enhance knowledge about issues related to workplace violence —awareness, prevention and response—graphically putting definitions and key statistics front and center. In many instances, infographics also serve as point-of-need job aids, providing employees with reminders about when and how to report concerning behaviors.
Hands-on interactive tools ensure that experiential learning becomes a part of workplace violence prevention training. Online quizzes and assessments are entertaining and illuminating methods individuals can use to learn the facts on this topic and embrace the role they play in prevention and response.
Refresher Training – Studies show that learners can forget as much as 50-80% of acquired knowledge within 24 hours. Refresher training can help fight this trend by ensuring that the most important aspects of prevention and response are kept front of mind. For WPV training, these refreshers could include supplemental courses on the fundamentals of verbal de-escalation, the corrosive emotional impact of workplace incivility, domestic violence and its potential impact on workplace safety, and how concerning behaviors can also be indicators for the risk of Insider Threat and even employee suicide.
Flexible Deployment Options – Particularly in big companies, deployment of training can pose a significant challenge. e-Learning solutions don’t always make it to all employees, especially those on assembly lines and in warehouses. In many cases, supplemental facilitator-led training is needed to reach certain groups of employees. WPV prevention training providers who offer an assortment of delivery options can help ensure a consistent training experience throughout the organization.
The best way to understand where workplace violence prevention training is headed and why, is to first reflect a little on the past. A quick review of this topic’s evolution shows a progression from being focused primarily on incidents of murder and serious physical harm to a focus on all forms of incivility, abuse, and violence.
The Problem Emerges….
Violence within the workplace is probably something that’s always existed at some level. However, awareness of an emerging problem didn’t really enter the public consciousness until the tragic August 1986 Postal Service shooting, where a part-time U.S. letter carrier shot and killed 14 people before turning the gun on himself.*
Even though there had been several prior shootings at U.S. post offices, with one going back as far as 1970, the 1986 incident marked a new phase where heightened media attention pushed the issue of violence in the workplace to a new level of societal awareness. These post office incidents led the FBI to initially define workplace violence as murder or other violent acts by a disgruntled employee against coworkers or supervisors. Since then, of course, the concept of workplace violence has been evolving and expanding.
*It was through this incident that the expression “going postal” was coined. Unfortunately, it’s still possible to hear this phrase quipped in conversation today even though in the year 2000 the United States Postal Service noted that the term is a “misnomer,” citing a commission report, which showed that postal employees are less likely to be homicide victims than are employees of other workplaces.
Phase 1: A “Worst Case Scenario” Approach is Born
The U.S. Postal shootings in the 1980’s captivated the public’s attention through our particular human vulnerability to “extreme vividness” (see sidebar). This was further exacerbated by the tragic shooting in 1999 at Columbine High School, and other mass shooting incidents (in both the workplace and in U.S. schools). 2007’s Virginia Tech shooting became a watershed moment, because it was there, at the center of one of the most tragic and terrifying scenarios imaginable in modern-day society, that workplace violence prevention and response training really had its genesis.
“The Logical Fallacy of Extreme Vividness” and “Catastrophizing”
When faced with information that is new or novel, our initial human response is generally to be fearful.
Couple that innate fear response with a situation that can be easily and frightfully imagined, that is, with “extreme vividness” (such as a mass shooting) and it’s easy to distort our natural fear into “catastrophizing” or obsessing over worst-case scenarios.
The easier it is to imagine a fearful and even gruesome outcome, the more it’s possible to generate increased and irrational fear around that possibility.
Fear of flying is a good example. Even though statistics show that it is 86 times safer to fly than drive, we’ve probably all met or know at least one person who is nervous about getting on a plane.
Phase 2: Short-Range, Immediate Prevention
It’s become apparent that once folks can accept the possibility of ─ and become somewhat comfortable with ─ the worst-case scenario, they naturally progress toward follow-on questions and topics related to prevention. prevention.
Looking at how the U.S. initially grappled with the emerging issue of workplace violence, it made sense to address the worst-case scenario first. In fact, from 2007-2012, workplace violence prevention training (both media-based and in-person training) centered principally around response--and rather specifically on how to survive an active shooter situation.
But now, most workplace violence subject matter experts agree that addressing the worst-case scenario is just the beginning of a longer journey into this emotionally complex and difficult topic. It’s become apparent that once folks can accept the possibility of, and become somewhat comfortable with the worst-case scenario, they naturally progress toward follow-on questions and topics related to prevention.
And so natural questions such as these arose on the back side of active shooter response training:
- “How can we get in front of situations like this?”
- “What kinds of behaviors should I be looking for if I’m concerned that someone might be thinking about acting out violently?”
- “How do I know if a threat is dangerous or not?”
- “What kind of people become active shooters?”
It’s here where issues surrounding prevention can be seriously addressed, and it’s where the overall conversation has been taking place for the past 8-10 years. WPV prevention classes today attempt to answer the questions above through a focus on behaviors, and patterns of behavior, that could be considered short-range-to-immediate precursors to interpersonal violence, including such things as threats, threatening behavior, and/or aggressive outbursts, etc. However, the focus remains primarily on averting violence, which, while necessary for fully balanced deterrence, is still focusing on avoiding bad things vs. nurturing an environment where good things can happen.
From “Active Shooter” to “Active Assailant.” Because extreme violence is not solely perpetrated by an individual with a firearm, the recognized term for someone actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area was recently changed to “Active Assailant, " another sign of the world's emerging awareness in this area.
Workplace Incivility is defined as: “a low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to damage the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. " Uncivil behaviors are characteristically rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others. And while workplace incivility is considered “low intensity,” the sidebar to the right shows that the effect of that behavior is anything but “low impact.” In fact, the nexus between workplace violence and workplace incivility cannot be ignored.
Simply put, workplace incivility is a corrosive form of interpersonal communication that has a powerful emotional contagion effect.
Based on the significant toxic impact that workplace incivility has, and given that workplace incivility can readily metastasize into workplace violence, it’s imperative that any mature organizational workplace violence prevention program also include a serious push into awareness and recognition of this issue. Organizational leaders should reinforce the idea of bringing uncivil behavioral concerns forward to management and/or HR. Likewise, leadership and management should work to ensure they’re creating and nurturing a workplace culture that makes it safe to do so. Addressing workplace incivility could further be enhanced by helping employees and associates become familiar with and master verbal de-escalation skills and techniques that are often effective at cooling expressive encounters
As prevention is pushed further and further forward, it will, at some point, connect with an organization’s foundational values and culture. This is where senior leadership has the greatest influence and role.
The measurable cost of workplace incivility is substantial. In a nationwide poll of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries, Christine Porath and her colleague Christine Pearson learned that “among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility:”
- 48 percent intentionally decreased their work effort
- 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work
- 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident
- 63 percent lost work time avoiding the offender
- 66 percent said their performance declined
- 78 percent said their commitment to the organization declined
- 12 percent said they had left their job because of the uncivil treatment
- 25 percent admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.
Recent research has shown an intrinsic connection between organizational culture and the risk of interpersonal violence. The impact employee connectedness, enthusiasm, and commitment to an organization’s mission and vision can have on organizational safety is becoming increasingly clear.
Employee Engagement’s Impact on Safety. Gallup’s 2016 meta-analysis study, which examined more than 82,000 business units and 1.8 million employees in 230 organizations, across 49 industries and in 73 countries, showed that business units with employee “engagement scores” in the top quartile of Gallup’s employee engagement database have a whopping 70% fewer safety incidents compared with bottom-quartile units. And while “safety” is a broad term, it’s important to point out that OSHA considers workplace violence to fall within the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a safe and healthful workplace.
Relatedly, there is ample evidence to suggest that strong social bonds within an organization help deter malicious insider acts such as intentional insider cyber-misbehaviors.
Bystander training can help create “feedback rich” environments where harassing or offensive situations are immediately addressed and potentially diffused through a variety of communication techniques. (An example of one such technique is provided in the sidebar to the right.) Mid-level managers can also be taught to respond to complaints and issues in an emotionally intelligent way, which can help create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up as well as listening, no matter what the issue might be.
“Remember how we talked and agreed about what’s OK to say at work? That’s not it.” 
Phase 3: Whereto from Here?
Even though there’s no magic formula for predicting violence, or workplace violence offenders for that matter, the ongoing conversation over the past 10 years has resulted in an increase in an awareness of “Behaviors of Concern” summarized earlier in this post. And while overall it’s helpful to have this awareness, the continued question that keeps surfacing is “How do we push prevention forward?”
This line of thinking requires movement upstream into behavioral territory that isn’t so much focused on “behavior that generates a concern for safety from violence due to its nature and severity,” as articulated by the American National Standard on Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention, as much as behaviors that can be categorized as “uncivil.”
Bringing it All Together
At the end of this 3-phase journey, workplace violence prevention will perhaps have been pushed as far forward as possible. Efforts will have:
- Started with and navigated the worst-case scenarios
- Pushed through the basics of interpersonal violence awareness and the short-range-to-immediate precursors to violence
- Presented a recognition of the toxic effects of workplace incivility and the need for increased awareness here
- and reached to the cultural foundations of any organization
The goal is to hopefully arrive at the fundamental truth of any organization or social assembly: that while each and every individual is decidedly unique and yet, together, we have the collective power to create an environment of dignity and respect. It is in such environments where people feel connected and supported that our most healthy and safe work environments can be established and grown.
James Sporleder has more than 25 years’ experience in the security industry. With a unique background in specialized captivity survival, James has trained thousands of US military personnel from some of the most elite units in the US Department of Defense. He’s worked in the corporate arena for more than 17 years, focusing on the development and implementation of specialized training programs and helping more than 50 percent of the Fortune 100 prepare for and respond to emerging challenges related to workplace violence, intimate partner violence, and extreme violence such as active shooter.
 Gerberich, S.G., Church, T.R., McGovern, P.M., Hansen, H.E., Nachreiner, N.M., Geisser, M.S., Ryan, A.D., Mongin, S.J., and Watt, G.D. 2004. An epidemiological study of the magnitude and consequence of work related violence: The Minnesota Nurses’ Study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 61(6):495–503
 The Bulletproof Mind, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, DVD Series, circa 2008
 Christine Porath, Mastering Civility, A Manifesto for the Workplace, Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2016
 T. Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency. Transaction Publishers, 2002, cited in CERT 2018 IEEE Symposium