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Workplace violence may stem from bad bosses

April 07, 2010

High-profile workplace violence incidents, including the recent shootings at the University of Alabama and Ohio State University, have garnered a lot of attention this year. Murder is officially among the top five causes of work-related death in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, a new book by an Arizona State University professor and his wife takes a closer look at the causes and warning signs of workplace violence, including how bad management often plays a role.

“People don’t just snap,” said professor David Van Fleet of the W. P. Carey School of Business, who co-wrote the new book “The Violence Volcano: Reducing the Threat of Workplace Violence” with his wife, Dr. Ella Van Fleet. “It’s really building over time, and workplace violence incidents are just the last step in a series of behavioral and emotional developments.”

Van Fleet explains it’s similar to the pressures that build up in volcanoes and eventually erupt. Frequently, problems could be stemmed by the presence of good, capable bosses and managers, but that doesn’t happen. He says bad managers can sometimes be linked to employees going over the edge.

“We have read a lot of previous literature mostly tying workplace violence to the individuals committing the crimes, but our work focuses more on the organization and the environment,” Van Fleet said. “It became clear that bad management of tough workplace problems has frequently led to fewer and fewer options for handling the problems, resulting in these eruptions.”

Van Fleet goes on to explain that dictatorial, abusive or bullying managers, and those who try to enforce unfair practices like inequitable pay, can be key in creating environments prone to workplace violence. Good managers can be key in stopping the violence.

The Van Fleets organized their new book so practicing managers can use it as a guide on how to better handle potential workplace violence situations. For example, it includes information about setting up anti-violence policies, creating crisis management plans, looking at legal issues and liabilities, and learning how to deal with knowledge about individuals who might commit a violent act.

Professor Van Fleet explains the signs to look for in employees who might become violent:

1. The employee starts swearing and using abusive language.

2. The employee begins to reject coworkers, verbally hurting or defying them or giving them the cold shoulder.

3. He or she spreads rumors and gossip or argues with co-workers and customers.

4. He or she exhibits bullying behavior, blaming other people for problems.

5. There is an escalation in these signs, including more frequent episodes.

6. The employee starts to “lose it” at times, relieving pressure by blocking people in hallways, destroying property and other detrimental actions.

7. The employee eventually erupts or “snaps.”

Professor Van Fleet has written seven books, the two most recent ones co-authored with his wife in a series on “bad bosses.” He currently uses the new book in a class he teaches at the W. P. Carey School of Business. He hopes it will be used by others, including criminal justice programs, managers and human resource personnel who can train people in an organization to be on the lookout for potential workplace violence cases.

“Workplace violence can happen in any type of company and can be committed by any type of person,” he said. “We want to focus on prevention.”