The circumstances surrounding the death of Annie Le has begun a larger conversation on the nature of workplace violence. Prior to this incident, workplace violence was largely ignored or even the source of jokes such as in this Bud Light ad from last year’s Super Bowl. Most large companies and government departments have policies regarding workplace violence, but, particularly in white collar settings, they are generally seen more as institutional safeguards than something that needs to be addressed on a daily basis. These policies focus on protocol for resolving a violent situation already in progress and outline the punishments in store for those involved.
While the Annie Le situation was at the extreme end of the spectrum of workplace violence, it is not as rare as we might hope. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 10% of the 5071 workplace fatalities that took place in the United States in 2008 were the result of homicide. The National Crime Victimization Survey found that an average of 1.7 million acts of workplace violence are committed annually in the America. Most of these incidents are simple assault, not murder, but the numbers indicate that this is a far reaching and serious problem.
The numbers are concerning but not necessarily surprising. Fulltime employees spend at least eight hours per day at work which consumes half their waking hours. We rarely get to choose the people who become our colleagues. Consequently, we may begin working in the company of people whose habits annoy us, whose values are different than ours and whose very presence seems to make our tasks more challenging. A basic career challenge is forming a working relationship with colleagues. Meeting that challenge may require overcoming initial reservations.
The evidence shows that this process does not always unfold smoothly. People often need a lot of help to build fulfilling working relationships. Collegiality just does not come all that naturally, especially in an increasingly diverse work world.
Workgroups with histories of long-term animosities need even more help.
Creating or increasing a culture of civility and respect in the workplace is the most logical way to resolve the problem of workplace violence. Co-workers who respect each other are less likely to physically harm each other and co-workers who are polite to each other are less likely to antagonize each other or escalate a conflict. In this way, workplace violence is something that employers need to address through improving day-to-day interactions. Workplace violence rarely occurs after just one negative interaction. It is the result of slowly escalating tensions and growing resentment toward a co-worker or the organization. As it develops over time, it must be counteracted over time. It is not enough for an organization to punish those who do violence in the workplace, it is the responsibility of employers to make every reasonable effort to keep their employees safe by actively promoting a civil and respectful workplace.