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'Going Postal': Is the Media Sensationalizing the 'disgruntled employee' as the next perpetrator of Workplace Homicide?

Updated on May 20, 2015
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Professional and Adj. Professor in I/O Psychology & Technology. Passion in Research of Data Applications and Human Technology Integration.

Going Postal: Myth or Mayhem?

Dispelling the Media’s myth and portrayal of ‘going postal’

Stress and violence in the workplace are often correlated together, especially in the media. However, based on statistics published by the U.S. Department of Justice (2011) it would not appear that violence is ‘commonplace’ in organizations, but that rates of both homicidal and non-homicidal incidents have significantly declined since 1992. Incidents of workplace violence in 2009 indicate a 35% decrease from the prior seven years and the U.S. Department of Justice also found that 70% of these violent incidents categorized as homicidal were committed by third parties such as robbers and other types of assailants (2011). Based on these figures, it is difficult to correlate employee stress and workplace violence as two related variables.

Therefore, a careful examination of the difference between employee stress and workplace violence should be conducted. The annual rate, as of 2009, relating to workplace violence is only .5% or 5 violent crimes out of 1,000 employed workers (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011). This small percentage also encompasses the 70% of homicidal violence conducted by individuals that are not affiliated with the organization. By focusing on stress as a predictive variable of workplace violence may not prove to be fruitful for most organizations as a few occupations are deemed the most vulnerable to violence such as police officers, security guards and bartenders which ranked highest of national workplace violence. Thus, it is the position of this article to create a distinct difference between employee stress and workplace violence, while addressing contributing factors of each in a separate manner. Ultimately, it will be shown that there are misconceptions of workplace violence and identify the organizational role to mitigate both risks in the workplace. Organizations are not immune from complying with the legal and ethical obligations, regardless of the source of violence, but by understanding contributing factors to stress and violence, placing an emphasis on the difference, organizations may find more efficient utilization of resources allocated to this issue.

Misconceptions of Workplace Violence

Violent behaviors in the workplace, which include acts of aggression, stabbings, shootings, physical altercations, harassment, homicides or other manifestations of hostility are fairly unpredictable and can occur at anytime, mainly due to the significant percentage of perpetrators being unaffiliated criminals. Since an overwhelming amount of violence in the workplace is attributed to unaffiliated criminals, it is important to note that an organizational focus of resources would better protect employees if allocated to third party protection measures and protocols. Not only do organizations need to comply with local, state and federal regulations to protect employees from violence, but also to protect the organization’s solvency. Bruce & Nowlin (2011) estimate that on average, organizations incur costs of about $5,000,000 per incident due to litigation, legal fees and lost productivity during investigations.

Contributing factors of workplace violence should be examined by each organization, as well as external factors such as the locality and industry of an organization may pose higher or lesser degrees of risks associated with the unaffiliated criminal component of violence. Banks, retail stores and gas stations are among the highest risk industries of unaffiliated workplace violence, as cited by Bruce & Nowlin (2011). Internal factors contributing to workplace violence, accounting for worker on worker violence, include layoffs, management and leadership issues, applicant screening and non-effective termination policies. Mainly, the internal factors are all associated with some level of employee stress, yet some stress is carried over into the workplace that stems from domestic issues. It is not a denial of stress as a contributing factor to workplace violence, but the logic of the improbability that an affiliated employee or individual of an organization will commit workplace violence. Another perspective of the statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice (2011) reveals that 99.5% of the employed workforce will not be effected by workplace violence and accounting for employee initiated workplace violence increases this statistic to 99.8%. Statistically, this probability would be deemed unlikely, but risk of litigation, stress, alienation and attrition are not worth the chance to assume such liability.

Workplace Violence Decreasing over Past 20 years

Travis S. Patterson, PhD created the graphic based on the 2010, U.S. Dept of Justice NCVS
Travis S. Patterson, PhD created the graphic based on the 2010, U.S. Dept of Justice NCVS | Source

Employee Stress and Negative Effects

Stress in the workforce does not typically lead to the above-mentioned violence, but is an issue facing almost every organization in every industry. Employee stress can lead to productivity loss, health risks and irrational behavior. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance assists in explaining how individuals behave, base on the reality of a situation or action against the perception and beliefs of an individual (1957). When the human psyche has a high dissonance to equalize, the result is abnormal behavior, stress, impairment and even substance abuse. Avey et al. (2009) describes a multitude of factors that are contributing to modern day employee stress that include increased workloads, demands of business travel, toxic environments, changes in technology, pressures of globalization, role ambiguity, management and downsizing. There is also an interesting reference to cognitive dissonance in the research published by Avey et al. (2009), noting that stress is the perception of the demands compared to the belief of meeting these demands. Thus, this definition of stress would appear to be based on the cognitive dissonance model, with a more specific situation applied. Knowing these contributing factors allow organizations to develop stress mitigation techniques and also complying with safety and health regulations.

A Quick Poll on Workplace Violence

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Organizations can Reduce Employee Stress and Mitigate Violence

Numerous theories and models exist to assist organizations in reducing employee stress, yet the same factors still exist. A major contributing factor that is difficult to gauge in each employee, is violations of the psychological contract. Again, this could also be argued as premise of cognitive dissonance, as the psychological perception is an employee’s informal expectation of the position, tasks, environment and expectations. As new employees integrate into the organization, the reality of the position and working environment may different than the perception. The perception is typically based on verbal communication, which occurs in the interview process. This may also occur as written communication in a job description, which if poorly or deceitfully written, will add stress to hiring managers in frustration of lost time in the review and interview process.

Regardless of the industry or organization, no one is truly immune to workplace stress or violence. These two terms may be convoluted and many times used to describe the same situation, but close to 70% of employees in the workforce deal with work related stress at a given time (Avey et al., 2009). The stark contrast is that workplace violence may affect roughly .5% of the working population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011). With respect to both employee stress and violence, organizations would be wise to comply with all applicable regulations from local, state and federal governments. It is the organization or employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees are working a protected and safe environment (OSHA, 2014).

Many experts in this field recommend writing, implementing and practicing organizational policies that address workplace violence and stress. Avey et al. (2009) explains that organizations that have written policies and procedures addressing issues of stress and violence may reduce the potential of the contributing factors leading to dangerous levels of violence, mental health and associated health conditions, all of which can cost an organization in the short-term and long-term. It was also found that organizations which practice a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy toward violence are more likely to identify contributing factors, while managers are also more likely to act upon the identification of a factor to reduce the potential of harmful actions (Avey et al., 2009).

Employee Stress and the Influences on Individuals

Symptoms of Stress:  Can Influence Organizations in Several Negative Ways.
Symptoms of Stress: Can Influence Organizations in Several Negative Ways. | Source

The Media 'Myth' of Employee Violence

In modern society and culture, technology allows for 24/7 access to the news, events and entertainment occurring around the globe. It should be noted that organizations do not have unlimited resources and need to strategically plan any policies and procedures, including those related to stress and violence. Although many seem to feel the workplace violence is commonplace, the national statistics not only dispel this perception, but indicate annual decreases in workplace violence year-over-year since the early 1990s. With one click of a remote, it becomes evident that the reason many perceive workplace violence as common, is due to a sensationalized approach to media. Menendez et al. (2012) provide multiple examples of case studies with full details of workplace violence and compared these incidents to media reports. They found that the media was more interested in the headline of ‘going postal’ or ‘disgruntled employee’, many of the facts were completely left out of media coverage. This reduces or muddles the separation of violence and stress, leading many to believe that attention should only be focused on the perpetrator. This may be dangerous, as this perception trickles into organizations and hinders the ability to formulate an effective policy on violence, leaving many to the mercy of the uninformed.

Workplace Safety, Standards and Regulations

Organizations are Still Liable for Workplace Violence

Organizations should not lose site of sound policy and complying with government agencies and laws such OSHA. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 established policies and enforces standards related to the health and safety of all employees. Organizations should become familiar with OSHA and the applicable guidelines to follow, ensuring compliance and reducing associated risks. Ultimately, the United States Department of Labor overseas many of the agencies, including OSHA, that enforce most of the regulations employers must follow relating to stress, violence, health, safety, disability and compensation. Employers may be found liable for any incident on or off of the premises of the organization. This amounts to huge liabilities and complying with all applicable laws will minimize the chance of losing or engaging in litigation, as ignorance is not an excuse to break the law.

References

References

Avey, J. B., Luthans, F., & Jensen, S. M. (2009). Psychological capital: A positive resource for combating employee stress and turnover. Human Resource Management, 48(5), 677-693.

Bruce, M. D., & Nowlin, W. A. (2011). Workplace Violence: Awareness, Prevention, and Response. Public Personnel Management, 40(4), 293-308.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Menendez, C., Denenberg, R. V., & Denenberg, T. (2012). Workplace violence and the media: The myth of the disgruntled employee. Work, 42(1), 5-7.

US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (2011, March 29). Presents data from 1993 through 2009 from the National Crime Victimization Survey estimating the extent of workplace violence in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Press.

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