Responding to campus workplace violence
What is workplace violence? Who is at risk? What can be done to help protect campus employees and help them protect themselves? Workplace violence attacks, such as that which occurred at the University of Arizona and elsewhere in recent years, has forced colleges and universities to address these and related questions.
Workplace violence defined
Workplace violence is generally considered to be any violence or threat of violence against workers on the job or away from the work site. Acts of concern can range from verbal threats to homicides, to disruptive behaviors such as interference with or obstruction of campus functions, to behaviors that endanger the health or safety of others, including shouting, use of profanity, waving of arms or fists, or verbal abuse. Threatening acts can extend from physical actions short of personal contact to implicit threats on campus. Violent job site behaviors can include physical assaults, other acts people would believe to be potentially violent, or specific threats to inflict physical harm.
Who is at risk?
It would appear that every employee is at some risk in today's work environment for some form of violence. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more than two million American workers were subjected to violence last year. According to the Department of Labor, those employees facing the greatest risk are those in community settings and those with extensive contact with the public.
What's to be done?
As employers, colleges, and universities need to help educate employees on conduct that is unacceptable, what to do if they see or are victims of workplace violence, and how to protect themselves.
To the extent possible, consideration should be given to securing the work site through appropriate lighting, locking and alarm systems, video surveillance, and patrols.
Campus employees, including faculty and staff, can help to reduce the opportunities for workplace violence. They can assist in the identification of potentially violent situations and learn how to avoid or defuse the incident. They also need to understand the importance of reporting any safety or security concerns to supervisors as quickly as possible.
The campus should be alert to behaviors or attitudes that may be indicators of disruptive, threatening, or even violent behaviors. Among the behavior patterns to watch for include the following:
- recent changes in behavior, appearance, or demeanor
- work or personal crisis
- withdrawal from normal activities or contacts
- challenges to authority
- substance abuse
- threats or references to violence or self-harm, history of either
- possession or fascination with weapons
A pattern of attitudes can also be a warning sign. These can include the following:
- isolation or being a loner
- feelings of superiority or self-righteousness
- since of being wronged, humiliated, degraded, or a desire for revenge
- lack of choices or options short of violence
Faculty and staff should be advised to watch for patterns of these behaviors and attitudes and to consult with supervisors and security staff about them.
It is important for all members of the campus community to know how to respond in the event of threats, crimes, or violence. Experts on campus safety say call for help immediately if someone:
- makes threats of imminent physical violence
- has a weapon
- acts in a manner that causes fear for safety
Let the professionals respond. Professionals urge those on campus not to attempt to physically intervene or deal with the situation. Instead, they recommend getting everyone to safety and to do so as swiftly as possible.
Workplace violence should be of concern to the campus community, although the occurrence rate is statistically low. But tragedies like the attacks that occurred at the University of Arizona do serve as a reminder that no workplace is secure from all possible disruption, threats, or violence.
Be prepared. Become aware of the warning signs. Develop response. Understand and reduce the risks.
What to do when faced with someone who has crossed the line
Anytime someone has crossed the line using some of the above examples, the University Police Department should be notified by calling 911. Do not attempt to handle a situation on your own. Sometimes, however, you come upon a situation that is potentially violent and you have the opportunity to calm the person down. Here are some steps that will aid in that process:
- Remain calm. Allowing yourself to become more anxious will only make the other person more anxious. Let them know who you are and acknowledge that they are having a tough time.
- Be polite, show them respect, and be ready to listen. Letting them vent may relieve some pressure, and it will buy you the time to consider your next move.
- While remaining calm, and using a nonthreatening tone, set some limits. For example, "I will call the police if you don't sit down and stop yelling. I can't help you if you don't calm down." Say that foul language or name calling cannot be used if you are going to continue working with him or her. If necessary, try to get the individual out of a public area in order to get the person to calm down, but try not to be alone with him or her.
- Use emphatic listening. Try to listen to the tone as well as the content. Let the person know you are interested in understanding what the person has to say. Is he angry, frustrated, hurt, and disappointed? Ask the person if this is what he or she is feeling. Don't assume. You can acknowledge feelings without necessarily agreeing with them. Avoid being judgmental or defensive. Avoid entering "personal space" - keep a safe distance of three to six feet.
- Apologize, if appropriate. Provide helpful verbal responses or short-term options, if possible. Do not make promises you can't fulfill.
- If the problem is continuing, get help and consultation from the faculty/staff supervisor.
What to do when faced with someone who becomes violent
- Remain calm. To the extent that you can, try to continue to communicate with the individual calmly and confidently.
- Call the University Police Department at 911. If you can not call, instruct another employee to call. Report your name and location and information on "who, what, where and when."
- Direct the adversaries to leave the scene of the confrontation. If possible, ask another supervisor to stay with them.
- Do not physically attempt to get the person to leave. Do not touch the person.
- If violent behavior is occurring, escape, hide if not already seen, or find cover if injury is likely.
- Make every possible effort to get others out of the immediate area.
- Never attempt to disarm or accept a weapon from the person in question.
- If a weapon is involved, calmly ask the person to put it in a neutral location while you continue to talk with him or her. Don't argue, threaten, or block the person's exit.