Staffing Management

Taking Control of Anger Management

By Juliette Fairley

Oct. 20, 2010

When Chris Havrilla recruits employees for Hitachi Consulting Corp. in Atlanta, she asks questions about interpersonal relationships to help eliminate candidates who may be prone to violence.

“I don’t ask about workplace violence; I ask about how they work in teams or how they resolve conflict,” she says. “It’s a red flag if they get agitated when describing a conflict resolution situation.” Havrilla remembers a job applicant who used foul language during such questioning. “I made a note of it,” she says. “An angry tone or attitude is a good indicator of someone who could become violent on the job or with clients.”

HR professionals received several wake-up calls this summer about the potential for workplace rage and violence. An employee allegedly killed two fellow workers at a Kraft Foods Inc. plant in Philadelphia, and a truck driver shot and killed eight co-workers, then himself, at a beer distributor in Connecticut. Then there was the disgruntled JetBlue Airways flight attendant who exited a plane via the emergency slide after a dispute with a passenger.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that last year about 16 percent of fatal occupational injuries resulted from workplace violence. Of those, 10 percent were homicides.

Experts believe the recession has put more employees on edge because of heavier workloads and worries about job security as colleagues are pushed out the door. “It makes sense that the credit crunch, bad economy, layoffs and mortgage crisis are contributing to severe stress and causing people to act out violently, but there are early warning signs that, if addressed, can prevent violence in the workplace,” says W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence, a company in Lake Forest, California, that helps organizations implement violence-prevention programs.

Warning signs that an employee may be near the breaking point include: veiled threats; vindictiveness; a resentful attitude; foul language; anger issues; depression; co-worker complaints; substance abuse; obsessive-compulsive controlling behavior; and an inability to get along with co-workers.

Nixon says that a respectful workplace is the best defense against violence on the job. “Create a culture in which violence is less likely to occur by treating adults in a respectful manner and building respect into the company’s policies and training,” he says. “It’s also important to train staffers for interpersonal skills and conflict resolution so that they can solve problems in an appropriate way.”

Companies could head off behavior problems if they simply screened applicants more carefully before hiring them. “One of the mistakes companies make is not searching criminal records, civil records and driving records to check for substance-abuse issues or domestic violence at home,” says Gordon Basichis, co-founder of the Corra Group, an international corporate security firm in Los Angeles. “At first blush, a person’s background check for misdemeanors may not look so bad, but it can get worse because sexual and violent crimes, especially domestic ones, can get plea-bargained down or dropped by family members.”

To help deal with personal issues, companies are offering more employee assistance program (EAP) services. Managed Health Network Inc., the behavioral health subsidiary of Health Net Inc., has seen the number of its employer training programs for helping workers cope with job changes and stress grow 45 percent between 2007 and last year. San Rafael, California-based Managed Health Network also doubled the number of financial consultations it provides employees under company plans as the economy worsened. And according to the 2009 Watson Wyatt Staying@Work Report (Watson Wyatt is now part of the merged Towers Watson & Co.), nearly half of employers reported an increase in their workers’ use of EAPs.

EAP experts advise addressing aggression that could lead to violence immediately. “We evaluate an employee for potential violence and whatever the employee says is reported back to the employer” right away, says Ewa Antonowicz, clinical director of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based company that provides EAP services to 13,000 organizations. The company “can then make a decision whether to terminate, put on medical disability or prescribe counseling before returning the employee to their position.”

Workforce Management, October 2010, p. 10Subscribe Now!

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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