Last month the world was rocked by the news of a series of workplace suicides at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China. Although the tragedy is especially troubling because of the number of deaths, it is not the only incident of workplace violence -- self-directed or not -- across the globe in the last couple years. Consider these news clips:

  • Three-quarters of Canadian family doctors say they suffered at least one incident of major abuse at the hands of a patient, according to a new study.
  • Since the beginning of the year, two Disneyland Paris employees have committed suicide. One of them, Franck, a cook at Disneyland for 10 years, killed himself on the day that he was supposed to return to the park after a long period of sickness. According to his father-in-law, he scratched a message on the wall of his home which read: Je ne veux pas retourner chez Mickey (I don't want to work for Mickey any more).

Managers struggle to understand how the workplace could become the setting for tragedy and violence. For them, the husband-wife team of Drs. David and Ella Van Fleet chose the metaphor of a volcano for a book about the dark side of human interactions in the workplace. The Violence Volcano: Reducing the Threat of Workplace Violence, is a guide for executives, managers, business educators and students. The book is a study of the agents and processes leading to workplace violence, and offers real-world managers a set of tools to recognize and avoid the worst scenarios.

Like a volcano, workplace violence has distinct and perceptible levels of activity:

  • Level I - Reaction to a changing condition or conditions
  • Level II - Expression, escalation and intensification of anger/frustration
  • Level III - Eruption of violence

Exploring the metaphor in greater depth, the authors contend that just as the forces causing eruptions in physical volcanoes are complex and not yet well understood, so too, are the causes of the Violence Volcano. Some are environmental -- economic, social, political, they write. Some are organizational, occupational, or managerial; some are the result of interpersonal reactions; and some spring from individual characteristics.

It is clear, though, they contend, that the major forces underlying any escalation in the Violence Volcano are the environment, the workplace, members of the organization, and the organization itself.

It's a topic that can be unpleasant and frightening. Reading the Van Fleets' book has the curious and unsettling effect of a Rorschach inkblot test, in that once you are made to see the pervasiveness of workplace violence in global society, you can't un-see it -- and it is all around us. The Van Fleets expand the definition of workplace violence, presenting a Venn diagram in which it overlaps with domestic violence/abuse, organized crime, terrorism, white-collar crime, suicide, and other societal dysfunction which, ordinarily, we tend to consider outside the workplace violence umbrella.

Violence trending upward

The first 20 pages consist mainly of documenting incidents of workplace violence as it mushroomed in the 1990s and 2000s. (While the occurrence of violence in connection with workplaces is nothing new, it has grown exponentially since first capturing widespread media attention in the 1980s, notably with the fatal shootings at several U.S. postal facilities -- resulting in the coinage of the term going postal.) The apogee of this phenomenon occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, with the deaths of 3,000 persons -- mostly office and government workers -- in the worst terrorist attack perpetrated in the U.S. homeland to date.

The authors are noted experts in this area of psychosocial study as it relates to management training and education. David Van Fleet is a professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business. He has more than 35 years of experience including full-time graduate and undergraduate teaching experience and more than 200 publications and presentations. An active consultant in the United States and abroad, he focuses on leadership, strategy, workplace violence and terrorism, and management history.

Ella Van Fleet is founder and president of Professional Business Associates. With 35 years of experience in teaching, training, managing and consulting, plus three interdisciplinary degrees in Business and Higher Education, she specializes in the study of entrepreneurship and workplace violence and terrorism.

Together the Van Fleets have published numerous works in professional journals on topics of dysfunctional organizational behaviors including terrorism, sexual harassment, bad management and sick workplaces.

Changes and stressors

Why is the problem of workplace violence so prevalent today? Some experts have noted that better reporting of incidents is partially responsible for our increased awareness of the issue. But there are other factors at work.

It can be difficult to differentiate between causes that stem from work factors and those that come from personal and environmental factors, the authors state. Today's workers are characterized by change, innovation, uncertainty, and therefore stress.

In addition, changes in our socioeconomic environment have tended to make violence more acceptable and thus, workers more vulnerable. Changing economic conditions make all jobs less secure; restructuring in organizations leads to fewer and more complex jobs; and increased diversity brings its inherent escalation in problems of communication. Awareness of these factors and how they may act as triggers can help organizations understand the causes of stress among employees and move toward minimizing risks of workplace violence.

A problem of motivation?

Fans of the cult comedy film Office Space may recall this dialogue between Peter, a disgruntled Initech employee, and Bob, the efficiency expert hired to spearhead a corporate downsizing plan:

Peter: The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care.
Bob: Don't ... don't care?
Peter: It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation? And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob: I beg your pardon?
Peter: Eight bosses.
Bob: Eight?
Peter: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. My only real motivation is not to be hassled -- that, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

Office Space was a sleeper hit in 1999. Ten years later it continues to attract enthusiastic viewers who relate to the woes of Peter and his IT teammates in the dysfunctional Initech workplace. But beneath the laughter lies an undercurrent of discomfort: the audience watches all too gleefully as Peter and his coworkers move along the continuum from apathy to simmering rage, acting out their frustration through willful absenteeism, sabotage of company property, an embezzlement scheme, and finally, arson.

That such a twisted tale of escalating workplace violence is fodder for a comedic caper film points to our ready familiarity with (and alarming complacency in the face of) an all too grim social issue.

Tools for managers

While the Violence Volcano may be traced to myriad causes and connections, the authors emphasize that the responsibility for understanding and being proactive in this area rests squarely on the shoulders of management.

Those who are on the 'front line' -- managers and supervisors -- have important roles in reducing the extent to which external stresses impact the workplace and in identifying those workers who may be escalating toward a violent eruption, they write.

The Van Fleets lend assistance in the form of managers' tools at the back of the book. These include a useful chapter on applicable legal issues and law enforcement, touching on company liability and individual privacy laws which may vary somewhat from state to state. Additionally, the authors provide a comprehensive list of organizations that assist in learning about workplace violence.

Other tools for managers are provided, including:

  • Sample Incident Self-Report
  • Violence Prevention Checklist
  • Training Outline Using the Violence Volcano Metaphor
  • Evaluation Instrument: Identifying Your Organization's Propensity to Elicit Violence

Developing a healthy workplace culture

Management must maintain a 360-degree view of the workplace culture with an eye to reducing the likelihood of employees reaching the critical Level III eruption stage, the Van Fleets contend.

The organization's culture is the key to minimizing the risks of violent behavior associated with the workplace. A culture that does not tolerate abusing, bullying, or harassing managers or employees will go a long way to preventing the eruption of the Violence Volcano.

A psychologically healthy workplace culture can be developed through administrative means. The organization should establish anti-violence policies and improve asset securing while working closely with law enforcement and public safety organizations. Employees should feel safe and cared for while they are at work; they should see evidence of this in the policies and performance of management.

Over and over, the authors stress that effective communication can help in identifying and resolving problems before stressors build to the point where violent behavior erupts.

Bottom Line:

  • All members of organizations need to be knowledgeable about workplace violence and ready to act in advance so as to reduce the threat of violent incidents.
  • In this age of socioeconomic upheaval and reduced government funding to help individuals undergoing financial, medical and personal stressors, workplaces are the critical ground zero for the expression of rage and frustration.
  • Managers have an especially heavy responsibility to ensure that the workplace culture is friendly to employees, assuring them that their health and safety is valued and safeguarded.
  • By implementing policies that promote awareness of the risks of workplace violence, organizations will make strides in reducing these tragic occurrences.