Screening new hires won’t end workplace violence, study says

It’s not bad employees, but poor management that’s the problem

Managers might be doing their companies a disservice by screening out candidates in the hiring process in an attempt to prevent violent incidents, a recent study finds.

In fact, individual employees have less to do with violence in the workplace than the work environment itself, says Julian Barling, associate dean of research at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont. He’s one of the authors of Understanding Supervisor-Targeted Aggression.

“In trying to understand why people behave aggressively in the workplace, we should give primary responsibility to situational rather than personal considerations,” he says. “It’s not the kind of person they are, it’s the kind of situation they find themselves in.”

The study of 105 workers showed that poor interaction or abusive supervision is more to blame for aggression (yelling) and violence (throwing an object at someone) in the workplace than the characteristics of the aggressors themselves.

Barling defines poor interaction as managers or co-workers yelling at an employee, withholding information or speaking about an employee behind his back. Abusive supervision includes everything just short of physical aggression, he says.

“We need to redirect our efforts away from the hopes that we can exclude aggressive people,” says Barling. “We should be devoting far more of our energies towards high quality management development, in a sense helping people learn leadership.”

Excluding candidates based on personality considerations isn’t effective in reducing the chance of aggression and as such, the organization could be missing out on an excellent candidate, says Barling

If weeding out potentially aggressive employees isn’t the answer, how can HR hope to reduce the incidence of violence in the workplace? The answer, according to Barling, is both simple and complex: create a healthy environment with professional supervision.

“A healthy relationship would be one in which leaders, managers and supervisors express real concern for employees and treat people fairly,” he says.

“They would inspire people, get people to think for themselves rather than manipulate them into thinking in a particular way, which would be a hallmark of an abusive supervisor.”

When there is an act of violence or aggression at work, HR often looks to the employee’s personal life for the cause. The HR manager often assumes that the employee has a psychological problem, but that usually isn’t the case, says Barling.

“We seem unwilling to look inside the workplace to find the cause,” he says.

Some organizations have traditionally rewarded managers’ abusive behaviours because they seemed to result in good performance. Now HR has to stand up and say that it’s not okay to treat people unfairly — regardless of the reason, says Barling.

In trying to contain the situation HR often focuses only on the aggressor and the victim. It’s important to remember that other employees have witnessed the incident and are traumatized by it, says Barling.

“There are second-hand or vicarious victims,” he says. “HR needs to realize it’s not just the direct victims or the direct perpetrators who should be the focus of their attention. The focus should be a lot wider.”

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