Nobody deserves to be harassed, but to many people when they go to work each day, this is part of their reality. In many jobs, harassment and violence are common. Nurses, teachers, social workers and retail employees are at the greatest risk from violence, but it also occurs in other jobs as well. Companies need to determine the risk factors that exist in their workplaces and eliminate the chance of harassment, bullying and other forms of workplace violence from occurring.
A Safety Issue
Workplace violence becomes a safety issues because it falls under one of the categories of classes of hazards. The main classes usually given are physical, chemical and biological. While there is some dispute about whether there are four, five or six classes, I was taught four classes and the fourth class is psychosocial.
Psychosocial hazards focus on the factors that influence the mental health of workers. Besides violence, other stressors that an employee faces are considered a psychosocial hazard. The best definition of psychosocial hazards is “those aspects of the design and management of the work, and its social and organizational contexts that have the potential for causing psychological or physical harm” (Heath Impact of Psychosocial Hazards at Work: An Overview, World Health Organization). While violence and harassment might only be one aspect of this broad area, it can prove to be the most traumatic and having the longest impact.
Harassment, Bullying and Violence
Bullying is defined as repeated mistreatment of one or more persons. It includes: threatening, sabotage, and verbal abuse. Harassment is defined as any behaviour that demeans, embarrasses or humiliates another person and would be expected to be unwelcome. It can involve racism and affect employment decisions. Violence on the other hand is violence of the threat of violence against your workers and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. Neither of these is acceptable. It is also important to remember that these can be caused by co-workers, managers, or clients of the organization. To further illustrate, I want to give a few examples. These may be offensive to some, but they do illustrate the point.
Bullying- a new foreman arrives at a job site. While there, he finds out that one of his co-workers is spreading false stories that undermine his credibility, with the workers and his employers. Finally, one story is told that gets him fired, even though he says it is false.
Harassment- a home care worker goes to a client’s home and the client, seeing the care workers skin tone, yells that he “don’t want no squaw”. The client kicks the care worker out and calls the agency that sent her and tells them not to send her anymore
Violence- a worker is left alone with a new client at a group home for teenagers with special needs. No one associated with the group home has been informed of the client’s violent outbursts. The client attacks the worker, giving her two black eyes, a swollen and bruised face and a broken nose.
Sexual harassment is a very specific type of workplace violence. It involves the interference with another worker, mostly women. Like all forms of violence, sexual harassment has a range of severity, from ogling to comments to unwanted advances to rape. Another aspect of sexual harassment is that a superior may use rewards to get sexual favours (i.e. you do this for me; I will give you a raise).
Besides being a safety and violence issue, sexual harassment is also a human rights issue. While anyone can be sexually harassed, the majority of cases that are reported are by women. Over half of all women in the workforce report experiencing some form of sexual harassment, compared to 17.6% for men. Claims of sexual harassment need to be taken seriously, and the offender dealt with, both to stop the problem but also to prevent it from continuing to happen.
Factors of Workplace Violence
When determining if your organization is at risk for workplace violence, examine the type of work that your firm does, where it is located, and working conditions. These all affect the interactions that your workers will have. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety lists the following factors that increase the chances of violence
- Working with the public
- Handling money, valuables or prescription drugs
- Carrying out inspection or enforcement duties
- Providing service, care, advice, or education
- Working with unstable or volatile persons
- Working in premises where alcohol is served
- Working alone, in small numbers, or in isolated or low traffic areas
- Working in community based settings
- Having a mobile workplace
- Working during periods of intense organizational change
- Working near buildings or businesses that are at risk of violent crimes (i.e. bars, banks)
- Working in areas isolated from other buildings or structures
Preventing Workplace Violence
The first question you may ask is can violence be prevented. Companies do go to great lengths to keep their workers safe and more companies are focusing their efforts on preventing violence from occurring, and these efforts have increased greatly since the 1990’s when only 8% of companies provided workplace training for violence. In Canada, many provincial governments, as well as the federal government, provide guides to help companies develop their violence prevention programs. These are required under the occupational health and safety regulations of both the federal and some provincial governments.
A good policy is an important foundation to prevent violence. This outlines the steps everyone in the company must follow, how they are to apply it, provide examples of unacceptable behaviours, and outline the reporting process that can take place. Employee Assistance Programs may also be utilized to help employees experiencing bullying, harassment or violence receive the help they need.
Workplace violence has an impact on a company. Low morale and trauma will make it hard for workers to do their job, and the stress will affect their life outside of work and their health. By creating a policy structure that deals with the problem of violence on the job, companies can reduce the chances of violence happening and create a structure to allow workers to be free from negative interference while at work.