Workplace violence a big problem (Guest commentary)

Aggression in the workplace is increasing so employers need to be vigilant and prepared

Violence in the workplace is mirroring violence in society — it’s generally increasing worldwide. Yet many Canadian organizations, despite written policies and procedures, seem to be complacent about the issue.

Many Canadians aren’t too concerned because they’re under the illusion that violence in the workplace is something that happens more often south of the border. But 1998 numbers from the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva paint a different picture. A survey of more than 30 countries ranked Canada fourth for workplace aggression — higher than the United States, which ranked seventh. (First was Argentina, second France and third England and Wales.)

According to the ILO, workplace violence is defined as “any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances relating to their work. This definition includes all forms of harassment, bullying, intimidation, physical threats and assaults, robbery and other intrusive behaviours. These behaviours can originate from customers, suppliers and co-workers at any level of the organization.”

While there are more workplace homicides in the U.S., Canadians are more likely to harass, bully and intimidate. And such behaviour has significant psychological ramifications for individuals and enormous financial consequences for organizations.

A report released earlier this year by Statistics Canada found there were 356,000 violent incidents in Canadian workplaces in 2004, including physical assault, sexual assault and robbery.

Interestingly, the Statistics Canada report, which was released earlier this year, did not refer to non-physical aggression such as verbal assault, bullying, harassment, intimidation, stalking and mobbing, which occur with greater frequency. Mobbing, which is a growing concern in the workplace, is group bullying and involves isolating people, gossiping, spreading false information and making continuous negative remarks.

The Statistics Canada report may reflect the sentiments of the Canadian population at large — that workplace violence refers to acts of physical, not psychological, harm. However, psychological aggression is just as critical and organizations need to respond just as quickly

In her book Taming the Beast: Getting Violence Out of the Workplace, Canadian organizational consultant Frema Engel claims certain workplace cultures support and foster abusive behaviours because of restrictive structures and practices.

“Violence exists because many workplaces are tough, competitive environments with an organizational culture that condones or supports violence,” Engel writes.

“Ambitious people are admired, even those who are ruthless. Abusive, aggressive, acting-out behaviours, mainly in the form of verbal or psychological abuse, are often equated with toughness, determination and power, all essential ingredients for success. Equating abusive behaviour with success makes this conduct acceptable and even respectable.”

Are employers doing all they can to comply with existing legislation or guidelines? Are organizations progressive in their attitudes toward workplace violence? Every employer should ask these questions:

• Is there a workplace violence policy in place?

• Are employees aware of the company’s workplace violence policy?

• Is there workplace violence prevention training in place and has everyone taken that training?

• Are managers trained to deal with all forms of workplace violence?

• Are inappropriate behaviours or worrisome situations addressed immediately?

If the answer is no to any of the questions, an employer should consider a more focused approach reflecting a top-down commitment to preventing workplace bullying.

It’s important to remember that even companies with harmonious, inclusive work environments are not immune to violence. Most extreme situations come from outside the workplace — robberies, domestic situations, disgruntled ex-employees, clients and suppliers. So it’s important for all of us to be proactive by making the prevention of workplace violence — in all its forms — an organizational priority.

Ingrid Taylor is the director of trauma and organizational services for Ceridian Canada.

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