Conflict management: When colleagues turn

The Bichard Inquiry has identified the importance of employers carrying out thorough checks for staff who work with children.1 But the fact remains that violent employees are present in almost every type of trade, profession or industry, and violence in the UK workplace is massively under-reported.

There were 849,000 incidents of violence at work between 2002-20003 (431,000 assaults and 418,000 threats).2 Yet, employers are often guilty of either ignoring potential violence or simply not knowing what to do about it.

The Liverpool Echo ran a disturbing front page story that suggested employers were not carrying out Criminal Record Office checks on employees. One of the reasons given for this was that the checks take too long, and few employers have the time or staff to carry out such a search.

In an increasingly litigious workplace, such admissions are both worrying, not to mention potentially very costly.

Hiring staff is a high-risk activity, and inter-employee violence, while not new, is a growing problem.

Facts and figures

Statistics published by the Home Office indicate that 35,000 people are violently attacked in the workplace each year. Data on injuries caused by violence at work collected through reports to the RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995) contact centre, indicated that during the financial year 2003/04, two people were fatally injured in violent incidents at work, 998 received major injuries and 5,396 received injuries which, while not considered major, caused them to be off work for at least three days.3

A TUC survey of 5,300 public, private and voluntary sector employees has suggested workplace bullying contributes to the loss of 18 million working days every year,4 and anecdotal figures suggest there are as many as 2,000 to 3,000 violent incidents between employees and former employees per year (excluding sexual assault).

In cases of violence, men are far more likely to be both the victims and perpetrators within the workplace.

So, is inter-employee violence a growing phenomenon in Europe and UK, and, if it is, what can we do about it?

Historically, violence in the workplace has been viewed as an occupational hazard. Today, it is recognised as a health and safety hazard, and people are less likely to put up with threatening or aggressive behaviour.

While certain professions have been identified as being more susceptible to violence than others (such as healthcare, teaching and retail),1 the fact remains that no factory, office, shop, clinic or school can be certain that the person sharing a workstation, staff room or even boardroom will not become the next Joseph T Wesbecker. The emotionally disturbed US employee killed eight co-workers and injured 12 others with a semi-automatic rifle before taking his own life with a pistol in 1989. It wouldn’t happen here though – would it?

Some key questions need to be asked, including:

  • How thorough are employers in their selection of new employees?
  • How much value is attached to references?
  • How often are work references actually chased up?
  • How careful are employers at ensuring new staff are psychologically right for this type of work?

In other words, how do you know you are not employing dangerous, personality-disordered killers within your organisation? It’s a question I pose to HR, OH and line managers when training them in conflict management.

The following 10 questions, while uncomfortable, must be seriously considered. Employing someone is a high-risk activity, and the more information you possess about them, the more likely you are to make the right decision.

10 aspects of an employee we need to know about

  • How does your member of staff cope with stressful situations?
  • How do they function as a member of a team?
  • Has the person ever threatened violence against colleagues?
  • Have they ever been violent towards a colleague?
  • Have they ever been suspended or sacked?
  • How do they react when their performance is criticised by their manager?
  • How would they do if they were suspended pending an investigation?
  • What would they do if they were made redundant?
  • What would they do if they were dismissed?
  • How do they react to change?

The answers to these questions can be obtained without having to ask the candidate directly.

As an adviser to employers, I recommend the development of a far more comprehensive selection programme, enabling employers to obtain a deeper and wider perspective of the employee.

Slowly, employers are recognising the importance of a number of preventative measures, including:

  • Pre-employment screening evaluations: a thorough clinical interview where previous relationships with employers and family are explored. Such evaluations are becoming a crucial part of the recruitment process.
  • Fitness-for-duty evaluations: this type of evaluation is different as the employee is currently employed, but may have displayed behaviours that have a negative impact on workplace performance. It incorporates risk assessment and an action plan as conditions for returning to work.
  • Threat assessment: as the term suggests, this is about examining and managing potentially violent employees in the workplace. It’s about differentiating between a genuine threat or someone simply getting things ‘off their chest’. It involves examining recent acts, threats or verbal exchanges.
  • Profiling violent staff: for instance, research shows that violent employees tend to be disgruntled men in their late 30s who believe they have been victimised throughout their careers and never tire of telling others about their poor fortune. They have a history of disputes and tend to have poor coping skills. According to Crisis and disaster management: violence in the workplace, people who become workplace murderers tend to believe they were going to be sacked or made redundant.5

The Gift of Fear identifies a number of behaviours that can be indicators of future violence:6

  • Inflexibility: The employee resists change and is rigid
  • Sad: Is the person sad, angry or depressed? Chronic anger and resentment are valuable indicators
  • Hopelessness: “What’s the use, nothing ever changes” or “I’ve got no future” are common statements. Pessimism is an important predictor of problems
  • Identification: The person praises or identifies with other staff who may have perpetrated workplace violence. They read violent books and are attracted to violent films
  • Weapons: Has the person obtained a weapon within the past three months? Does the person talk about using them jokingly for power or revenge?
  • Co-worker fear: Other staff are frightened or apprehensive about this person
  • Criticism: They react adversely to criticism or suggestions. They refuse to accept or even believe it when they have been unsuccessful in gaining promotion
  • Grievance: They have a history of making unreasonable grievances
  • Focus: The person monitors the behaviours, activities, performances or comings and goings of colleagues even though it is not their job. They may even compile a dossier on a colleague
  • Contact: If the person was sacked or left in acrimonious circumstances, the person keeps contact with current colleagues. They remain focused on the previous job rather than finding new work.

John Clarke, an Australian psychiatrist and criminal profiler, has talked about workplace psychopaths. He says that employers need to be aware of liars, cheats and smooth-talkers – people who believe they should be higher up within the organisation.

Workplace violence cannot be ignored any longer. Employers cannot sit there wringing their hands citing data protection and the Human Rights Act. They have a duty of care to their other employees. How long before a victim of violence sues their employer for failing to deal with foreseeable danger?

Remember, if you have a difficult member of staff presenting minor problems now, they could be major problems tomorrow. If you think it is difficult to deal with them now, imagine how hard it could be to deal with them later.

Walter Brennan is a training consultant in conflict management. Contact:


1. Independent enquiry arising from the Soham murders,
2. Violence at Work: Findings from the 2002/2003 BCS,
3. Upson A (2004) Violence at Work: New Findings from the 2002/03 British Crime Survey. Home Office Occasional Papers. London
4. Hazards magazine, Issue 70, TUC.
5. Bensimon, HF (1994) Crisis and disaster management: violence in the workplace. Training and Development 28, 27-32
6. De Becker G (1997) The Gift of Fear. Bloomsbury Publishing London

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