After an outburst of workplace violence, co-workers often express disbelief that one of their own was capable of such an act. But frequently, had colleagues taken time to get to know the person, they might have been able to ward off, or at least recognize, impending danger, says an expert on aggression management.

“You need to be more aware of the people you work around so you can identify changes in their behavior,” said John Byrnes, founder and president of the Center for Aggression Management Inc., in Winter Park, Fla., which conducts training in workplace aggression.

“What you’re looking for are changes. You can tell when someone’s anxious or when their anxiety level is high,” he said.

“For example, you have someone you know to be methodical and pragmatic, but he comes in scattered and disjointed. We recommend you go up to this person and say, ‘You look scattered. Tell me about it,’ and then shut up and allow this person to communicate with you,” Byrnes said. “You may be defusing someone.”

At the same time, employees have an overarching responsibility for their own safety and should become sensitized to when, and when not, to intervene.

The workplace, it hardly needs stating, is a major source of stress for many Americans. “Conflict has always been in the workplace, but there’s a number of other ingredients going on today that we didn’t have 50 years ago, and they are lending themselves to a system that is permeated with conflict,” Byrnes said.

Businesses are streamlining, and employees who counted on working for 40 years before retiring are facing slashed workforces and a scramble for the remaining jobs. Those who stay on are asked to do more duties that are different from the ones they originally were trained for and, in some cases, for less money, Byrnes said.

“We live in a different world today. We used to be given a task and given three days to do it, but now with computers, fax and e-mail, they want responses instantly and there is tremendously more stress and anxiety placed on us,” he said.

Eruptions occur, ranging from a bad attitude and hostility all the way up to violent behavior, the worst of which, of course, is homicide, Byrnes said.

Of nearly 1,000 workers who are murdered and 1.5 million who are assaulted in the workplace each year, disputes among co-workers and with customers and clients account for about one-tenth of the total, according to OSHA. Robbery continues to be the primary motive of job-related homicide, accounting for 85 percent of the deaths.

Security measures designed to protect workers often end up causing more stress, experts said.

“There is some fear of going to work and being in that location, just like there is with kids going to school,” says John Helie, a Berkeley, Calif., mediator and conflict resolution consultant. “We’re seeing more job environments that have metal detectors and security guards. They’re very literally gun-shy and that’s got to translate into a level of stress and anxiety for people going to work.”

Locks, metal detectors and security cameras are not the answer, Byrnes said.

“This is a human-based problem, and it doesn’t matter how many locks you put on the doors,” he said. “It is always one human coming in conflict with another human and, all too often, that turns into an incident.”

Helie draws comparisons between the workplace and eruptions of violence in schools. Perpetrators in violent school incidents frequently are described as withdrawn and isolated — words that often describe workplace offenders too, he said.

“Workers may have ostracized them as being weird or out there, very much like the kids are doing,” he said. “It happens. If there is somebody who is a little kinky or a little too quiet, they get pushed off to the side and socially abused.”

Warning Signs of Pending Workplace Violence

There are signs of pending trouble, violence or retaliation in the workplace that co-workers should be alert to, says John Byrnes, consultant on workplace violence and founder of the Center for Aggression Management Inc.

A co-worker who stares at others is a red flag, Byrnes warned. “Humans don’t stare at other humans. They stare at pictures or horizons,” he said. “If a person is beginning to stare at you, they’re making you an object.”

It’s not instinctual for a human to attack another, so attacks usually are prefaced by “dehumanizing” the target, he said. “What they’ll do is have to disconnect with you, and one of the first and foremost ways is that they start to stare at you and turn you into an object,” he said.

Other red flags include belligerence, profanity and feelings of victimization, he said.

Additional signs of escalating behavior are outlined in an Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration course in developing violence prevention programs:

• Confusion: behavior characterized by bewilderment or distraction.

• Frustration: displaying impatience or a sense of defeat.

• Blame: placing responsibility for problems on everyone else for finding fault with the action of others.

• Anger: visible change in body posture and disposition with actions like pounding fists, pointing fingers, shouting or screaming.

• Hostility: physical actions or threats that appear imminent. Out-of-control behavior signals they have crossed over the line.

• According to Byrnes, only when individuals learn how to manage aggression can they learn how to prevent it and protect themselves. He calls this the “paradigm of prevention,” which encompasses:

• Identifying the emergence of aggression. (What is aggression and how does it affect you?)

• Foreseeing the possibility of conflict. (Learn how to gain a sense of responsibility as well as a sense of urgency so that you can respond appropriately to aggressive behavior.)

• Engaging the aggressor and preventing aggression before it becomes conflict. (Understanding the verbal skills you need to engage a threatening individual without escalating the potential aggression. Finding out how to deal with threatening behavior and how to communicate with those who need to know.)

• Conducting a safe escape. If all else fails, how do you and those around you conduct a safe escape? (Learn the human skills to respond to an escalating aggressor and how to safely remove yourself as a target.)

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By Carol Davis, American News Service

© COPYRIGHT 1999 The American News Service

Carol Davis is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn., and a former editor for the Nashville Banner.