Curbing workplace violence starts with talking to employees.

Workers often back away when they witness an outburst from a disgruntled fellow employee, and supervisors don’t engage with the employee to determine the problem.

When grievances don’t get addressed, or managers don’t try to determine what’s going on and defuse a situation, that may be setting up the workplace for violence, said Tina Todd, a partner in the Fort Collins human resources firm simplyHR.

“We ask businesses, ‘If you were to terminate this employee today, would [he or she] be surprised?’ They should never be surprised,” Todd said.

Workplace violence grabs headlines when people die. In 2016, 396 American workers were shot and killed on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 291 people committed suicide at work. Both numbers represent an increase over the previous year.

While vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for workers, violence is the third leading cause of death for health care workers and employees in professional and business services such as education, law and media, and the fourth leading cause of workplace deaths overall.

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Workers experience nearly 2 million incidents of workplace violence each year, and it’s likely that many other incidents go unreported.

Given the increasing levels of workplace violence, the issue has been the focus of intense scrutiny in the past few decades. Tools and techniques have been developed that can help de-escalate potentially violent situations, deal with employee issues over the long run and make businesses safer.

A complex issue

The causes of workplace violence are varied and complex, said Dr. Cal Paries, manager of health and wellness at Profile EAP. The organization is a behavioral risk management-based Employee Assistance Program that began at Centura Health and now serves that organization plus 75 other companies in the Colorado Springs area.

“If a manager, supervisor or leader has a concern about an employee and they need something more than an HR intervention, they call us,” Paries said. “Our expert consultants talk to them and see how we can best help them in a behavioral way.”

A groundbreaking study by the University of Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center in 2000 identified four types of workplace violence:

• Criminal intent, such as robberies by a person not associated with the workplace;

• Customer or client violence, where an individual creates violence such as a patient or family member attacking a health care worker;

• An employee who threatens or bullies another employee; and

• An attack based on a personal relationship, such as a domestic violence situation that boils over into the workplace.

Employee-on-employee attacks constitute only about 7 percent of workplace violence but get the most attention, Paries said.

Those issues commonly are about fairness. They occur when employees feel they are not listened to and decide to make sure that they are heard by acting out aggressively.

Without conversations leading up to a disciplinary action after repeated aggressive acts, “the employee might feel it was unfair and that they were blindsided,” Todd said. “Often that’s when you see employees retaliate.”

Potential for violence

Besides counseling potentially violent or emotionally compromised employees, employee assistance programs like Profile EAP help managers recognize the potential for violence. Among the symptoms such individuals commonly display are:

A history of violence or aggressiveness. This might manifest as shouting matches and verbal abuse on the phone and in meetings with other employees or causing property damage in the workplace. A history of domestic violence also is “a huge piece,” Paries said.

An impaired physical or mental health background, such as untreated depression or medication that might impact the ability to be rational.

An obsession with violence or guns, including frequent accessing of websites about guns or violence.

A victim stance, indicated by statements like, “no one likes me,” “no one understands me,” “no one respects me” or “the whole world is out to get me.” Paries said these employees typically have a history of job-performance issues.

An inability to handle criticism or coaching in the workplace. An employee who blames everyone else for a mistake and becomes defensive and argumentative when confronted by a supervisor may be manifesting low self-esteem.

A marked change in attendance or tardiness.

Fixating on a certain individual or event that the employee can’t get past and keeps bringing up.

Increasingly aggressive language in emails.

Untreated substance abuse, which generates paranoia and lack of impulse control and puts employees at high risk.

“These individuals who are disgruntled are disgruntled for a reason,” Paries said. “It’s important to train managers to help them and their employees to be heard and understood and to get people the help they need.”

Workplace conditions may need to be addressed as well.

“If a workplace has done a lot of downsizing and restructuring, is understaffed and mismanaging individuals, that workplace is setting itself up to have challenges,” Paries said. “Poorly defined job descriptions, managers who don’t confront employees with issues, inadequate job training, aggressive managers, unsafe work environments — all those things can contribute to disgruntled employees.”

Preventing workplace violence

Resources like Profile EAP, along with communication, training for managers and employees, and a crisis plan, are key to policies that can help prevent violence.

“So much of what we do is refer people to EAP to get additional support and guidance,” said Connie Rogers, president of the Education Support Professionals group at Colorado Springs School District 11.

The district, which is a client of Profile EAP, provides employees with five free counseling sessions per topic. Employees can be referred for anything from the loss of a loved one to a work conflict.

In addition, “a couple of us have gone through training and will do our best to mediate between employees,” Rogers said. “If it becomes an HR issue, we will sometimes hire a company to offer formal mediation.”

Rogers acts as an advocate and sounding board for the employees in her group on everything from pay and benefits to working conditions, and represents them in the event of disciplinary or performance issues.

The district also has “ambassadors” in every building who are able to answer employees’ questions, hear concerns and intervene before supervisors get involved.

That kind of staffing is possible for large organizations, but even small businesses can take steps to improve communication with employees.

“The No. 1 thing they can do is talk to employees,” Todd said. “I would start from a place of compassion if that’s possible. You’d be surprised at how many companies never ask, ‘Are you OK? What can we do to support you?’ The owner or manager should do their best to genuinely listen, being as empathetic as possible without agreeing or endorsing inappropriate actions.”

It’s important to keep the conversation factual and to show concern, while making sure the employee fully understands what is expected, she said. The employee should be informed that if the undesirable behavior continues, there will be consequences up to and including separation.

“We strongly recommend a handbook that outlines the expectations of the employer and employees regarding the company culture and what is and is not acceptable, and also outlines employee rights,” Todd said. “We also recommend documenting everything to minimize risk to the business.”

It’s vital for large organizations to have a crisis management system, Paries said.

“If an employee comes to a manager and says, ‘I feel uncomfortable about what this person said’ or ‘I feel threatened,’ you’ve got to have a process through which they can go to someone they trust so it can be investigated and handled in an appropriate way,” he said. “If not, those are the situations that eventually become problematic.”

“It helps employees to know their employer is taking action,” Todd said.