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The fast-growing problem of aggression in the workplace is being validated.

With homicide as the leading cause of work-related deaths among women and the second-leading cause for men, incidents of workplace violence are on the rise. But aggression in the workplace does not necessarily involve homicide.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 97% of workplace aggression incidents range from verbal threats to fistfights. The remaining 3% include shootings, knifings and sexual assaults.

In 1994, 16 million U.S. workers reported they were harassed in the office; 6 million were verbally threatened at work; 2 million were physically attacked on the job; and 1,004 were killed.

In addition, a survey released by the society reports that nearly half the respondents have seen or experienced one or more acts of workplace violence in their companies, up from 33% in 1993.

Anyone can become

an aggressor

The problem doesn't stop with disgruntled employees. Perpetrators of workplace aggression often range from dissatisfied clients to complete strangers.

Although most reported cases of workplace aggression involve company employees or unknown outsiders, experts now are citing domestic abuse as a major contributor to on-the-job violence. In a recent year, for example, 13,000 acts of violence were committed against women at work by their husbands or boyfriends, according to a 1994 U.S. Department of Justice study. The reasoning is logical: The woman's office is the one place an angry spouse or boyfriend is sure to find his target.

The November 1996 shootout at a Ford Motor Co. plant that killed one person and left three injured apparently was a case of a spurned potential fiance seeking revenge on a woman, The Associated Press reported. The woman was not among the victims.

Violence: A costly

business quandary

Although immeasurable, the social ramifications of this problem can be overwhelming. The psychological repercussions can be devastating. And the price tag? A staggering $4.2 billion each year, spent on medical bills, litigation fees, increased security, employee turnover, lost productivity and workers compensation.

The Wall Street Journal recently described workplace violence as a Catch-22 for all companies: Firing is not a feasible option because of potential liability of discrimination; mandating a psychological test can be considered an invasion of privacy; reference-checking for past violence may result in a slander lawsuit against the referrer; and reducing employee responsibilities and status because of emotional instability can be challenged by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet ignoring a potentially violent employee can result in extensive company liabilities.

Finding a viable solution

What can businesses do to curb this growing problem?

There are several solutions. Corporations nationwide now are implementing workplace violence policies and procedures, increasing security, adding special insurance policies and developing post-crisis management plans.

But according to experts such as Patricia Biles, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration workplace violence coordinator, the most viable solution-and one U.S. businesses are recognizing more and more-is employee training.

To substantiate this need, OSHA implemented national guidelines in 1995 that recommend employee training in workplace violence prevention. OSHA now uses these guidelines as a basis for its general provision requiring U.S. corporations to provide a workplace free of harm.

Because workplace aggression is a human problem, it is important to train humans to deal with it. Practical aggression management training provides employees the skills to identify, predict, prevent and defuse aggression. In today's litigious society, it also is crucial to learn techniques for effective intervention that will help prevent potential lawsuits.

Understanding workplace aggression

Aggression typically is viewed as a explosive event, but there are several phases of aggression that offer opportunities for averting the possibility of violence.

It is important to note that aggression is made up of three parts: the trigger phase, the escalation phase and the crisis phase.

Human aggression can be triggered by other people, events, situations, objects or a combination of these elements. After the trigger phase, the first clear warning sign that someone might be approaching the escalation phase of aggression is a noticeable change in behavior.

During the escalation phase, one trigger accumulates on top of another, and the symptoms of mounting anxiety appear. From irritable and scattered behavior to shallow and fast breathing, signs of mounting anxiety should not be overlooked. Recognizing this stage makes it easy to quickly assess a situation and select the response most likely to head off an explosion.

During the crisis phase, words become garbled and facial color changes, often to white with rage. It is important to keep the agitated person talking, because this usually keeps the person from becoming physical. Law enforcement research shows that armed people seldom pull the trigger while talking; they wait until they're finished.

The crisis phase leaves the responder, or "aggression manager," with two primal human instincts: "fight" or "flight." "Fight" may lead to injury and almost certainly will lead to costly litigation. When an aggressor cannot be defused, the aggression manager must choose "flight."

This is where "safe escape" comes into play. The typical person can move up to 7 feet in half a second. Because of this, it is important to be cognizant and manage the workplace environment. By arranging office furniture in a way that allows for "safe escape," employees are better protected against potentially violent attacks.

When faced with a potentially explosive situation, part of the problem is the responder's own aggression-resulting from the attacker's aggression. An effective means of controlling this adrenaline-related anxiety is cycle-breathing. This technique is what law enforcement experts use to regain the methodical mind-set needed to keep calm. Cycle-breathing helps prevent hyperventilation and fosters the control needed to help an aggression manager react appropriately and professionally.

On-the-job violence is a significant threat to employees involved in altercations and to companies unprepared to deal with the financial and social repercussions associated with it.

As more businesses and government agencies recognize this problem and begin to implement viable solutions, such as the training of aggression managers, the U.S. workplace will become safer and, ultimately, more productive.

In the past, employers looked to their workers compensation policies to cover expenses of victims of workplace violence. But an increasing number of industry experts have said that as incidents of workplace violence increase, victims may seek additional restitution under their employers' general liability policies for failure to provide workplaces free from harm. That's why insurance policies and programs to teach employees to effectively manage workplace aggression are so important. In fact, training employees to recognize a potentially harmful co-worker or situation and to defuse the aggression may be the only way to ultimately control losses resulting from workplace violence.

The most effective way to train employees is to first identify those personnel with the greatest likelihood of encountering aggression on the job. In some companies, this may be human resources professionals (particularly in organizations that are re-engineering or downsizing), and in other organizations it may be customer service personnel, risk managers or others. For example, a bus company may train people in administrative offices as well as bus operators. Likewise, hospitals and airlines may decide to train administrative personnel as well as front-line employees such as nurses and flight attendants.

Once employees or areas within the company are identified for training, employers then may choose to provide training to all individuals or to a select group that, in turn, will train the remainder of the targeted individuals, as in a "train the trainer" format.

Either way, those who undergo training are preparing to become aggression managers who will be better able to prevent aggression from escalating to violence in the workplace. Properly trained aggression managers will gain practical skills and techniques that can be used immediately.

John D. Byrnes is president of the Center for Aggression Management in Winter Park, Fla. The center offers workshops for employers on aggression management.