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Chapter 4: Violence Among Co-Workers and Managers

Workers killing other workers attracts media attention. In reality, far more violent acts are directed at workers, not caused by workers.Although violence among co-workers and managers is relatively rare, union representatives may have to confront this problem.

Violence among co-workers and managers can take many forms. For example, an individual worker may threaten other workers or his or her supervisor, a manager may harass workers, or a group of workers may act disrespectfully to their supervisors and each other, or behave in other inappropriate, potentially violent ways.To further complicate matters, the causes of this type of violence can be numerous, difficult to identify and not always easy to resolve.

RISK FACTORS

Some of the same factors associated with violence committed by patients, clients or intruders also may contribute to violence among co-workers and managers. Such factors include a lack of security,workplace layouts that trap employees behind furniture, inadequate escape routes and a lack of training.

But for conflicts occurring among employees or their managers, other factors may play a role.These other factors may be caused by the workplace itself or stem from outside the workplace, such as personal problems that employees bring to work. Both workplace and non-workplace factors ought to be considered as potential causes of violent behavior.

Workplace Risk Factors

Violence among workers and managers may be linked to the work climate and job stress. Signs of a troubled or at-risk work environment that could lead to worker-on-worker violence include:

  • chronic labor/management disputes
  • frequent grievances filed by employees
  • an extraordinary number of workers’ compensation claims (especially for psychological illness or mental stress)
  • understaffing or excessive demands for overtime
  • a high number of “stressed out”workers
  • limited flexibility in how workers perform their jobs
  • pending or rumored layoffs or “downsizing”
  • significant changes in job responsibilities or workload; and/or
  • an authoritarian management style.

If the workplace creates the potential for violence, the union should urge management to correct the problems identified. By addressing problems in the work environment, the union and management may prevent employees from becoming threatening or violent.

Non-Workplace Risk Factors

In addition to stress created by their jobs,workers may experience stress outside of work. For example:

  • a physical or mental health problem
  • financial difficulties
  • marital or relationship problems
  • caring for an elderly or sick relative
  • child care concerns
  • drug or alcohol abuse

Through discussions with a troubled worker, a union representative may become aware of the factors causing the worker’s violent or threatening behavior. In some cases, the union representative may be able to get the worker assistance to deal with nonworkplace problems before a serious, potentially violent situation at work occurs.

WHAT THE UNION CAN DO

Addressing violence between co-workers and managers is never easy for a union representative.The steward often has to deal with several conflicting interests: the “accused”worker who may want the union to defend him or her against disciplinary charges; the “victims” who may want the union to protect them against an abusive co-worker; and management who may not react appropriately to an incident. Employers or even co-workers may assume that a worker who displays threatening behavior needs to be terminated. The union representative may be caught in the middle — defending the accused worker and protecting his or her due-process rights, and addressing the legitimate safety concerns of the victims of his or her behavior.

Violence among co-workers may need to be handled differently from other union-related issues because in many of these cases no clear winners emerge from the traditional discipline — grievance process. Labor and management should sit down together early in the process to try to work out a solution to the problem, rather than only rely upon the discipline process and the grievance procedure for resolution.

If a real potential for violence exists, the union representative and management should seek the assistance of a professional who is trained to talk to potentially violent individuals, offer counseling to distraught employees and make recommendation on improving the work climate. Actions that signal that a situation may become serious include threats, verbal assaults, property destruction or any major disruptions in the workplace.

Management also may be fearful of becoming victims if they successfully fire the accused worker. Instead, they may do nothing and fail to address the problem.To make matters worse, some managers believe the only recourse against an employee who violates a workplace violence policy is to immediately fire the employee. Termination, however, is not always the best or most appropriate solution.An angry employee may feel the need to retaliate against the employer who fired him or her.

AFSCME in Action

Washington AFSCME Local 270 (Council 2) agreed with the City of Spokane, Washington, to establish a Threat Management Team. The team, which includes union representatives, is charged with assessing and implementing security measures, developing and implementing training for supervisors and employees, investigating prior incidents of workplace violence to prevent future re-occurrences, and investigating all reports of threats.

Get Involved Early

Seemingly insignificant conflicts between co-workers or managers can sometimes erupt into dangerous situations — especially if the problem goes unchecked. In many cases of worker-on-worker violence, minor non-violent conflicts that went unresolved built up until they were no longer manageable. By intervening early in a conflict between two workers or a worker and a supervisor, the union representative may be able to assist in resolving a problem before it gets out of control.

When the union representative gets involved at an early stage, he or she may be able to figure out if an underlying problem — such as an abusive supervisor or a problem at home — is contributing to the worker’s inappropriate behavior.The goal should be to get the worker assistance and start resolving problems before the worker becomes threatening or violent. If a member is formally disciplined or fired for displaying potentially violent behavior, the union steward must represent the employee and protect his or her due-process rights and the integrity of the collective bargaining agreement. At this point, however, the union’s options may be limited to negotiating to have the discipline reduced or get the worker’s job back. Other chances to make real changes to improve the work environment or offer the worker outside assistance may be lost or harder to achieve.

Investigate Underlying Problems

Before union representatives can appropriately address the potential for violence, they need to consider the underlying factors that may cause inappropriate behavior. For example, problems may be identified by:

  • Talking to union stewards, especially those working different shifts, to see if they are having the same problems with management.
  • Analyzing grievances to look for patterns of contract violations. Determine if a particular supervisor is a problem.
  • Examining workplace policies and rules to determine if they are implemented fairly consistently or are either too flexible or too rigid. Ask whether exceptions are made to the policy for certain workers or under certain situations. Do any of the policies violate the collective bargaining agreement?
  • Arranging meetings where members can talk about their problems.
  • Conducting written, anonymous surveys. Sometimes workers may be reluctant to come forward and discuss problems they may be having at home or with their boss.Through a survey, the union may be able to get information without making workers uncomfortable about sharing personal information. The survey could include questions that ask if a worker is having any difficulties or problems resolving conflicts with either a co-worker or supervisor.

Figuring out if a worker is having trouble at home or has an untreated mental or physical condition that may contribute to violent behavior must be done delicately. Simply asking if the union can assist him or her may open communication with the worker. On the other hand, telling the worker that he or she needs professional help may backfire and make the worker resentful or angry at the union.

The union representative can learn techniques for referring a coworker to assistance. If an Employee Assistance Program is available in the workplace, it may be helpful.The AFL-CIO Community Services Program may also be able to provide information about referral services.The AFL-CIO State Federation or Central Labor Council should have a list of community services representatives in your area.

Dealing with an Aggressive Member: Tips for Union Representatives

  • Be familiar with the workplace violence prevention program, if one exists.
  • Research the situation before trying to resolve it (especially before meeting alone with the parties involved). Try to understand both sides of the issue.
  • Determine if the problem may have stemmed from a misunderstanding or miscommunication that was blown out of proportion.
  • Know how to recognize situations that require outside assistance.
  • Express clearly to the aggressive member the consequences for violent and/or threatening behavior as stated in the facility’s policy.
  • Seek advice and support from the local police department. They often offer classes on violence prevention and safety.
  • Be trained in conflict resolution skills and how to defuse a tense situation.
  • Remember that it is management’s responsibility to manage. Do not be the person to tell the aggressive employee about disciplinary decisions.
  • Know if any local laws are being violated.
  • Take threats seriously — report to management (or appropriate authority) to investigate.
  • Don’t be defensive about the union.

Use Two Stewards

Use two union stewards to represent the victim and the accused when violence occurs between two co-workers. One steward should support the victim who may wish to file a grievance while the other steward ensures that the accused’s contractual rights are protected during the investigation and disciplinary process.

Negotiate with Management

To effectively address problems of violence among co-workers and managers, management needs to understand the union’s collective bargaining responsibilities and concerns. Labor and management should work together to resolve workplace violence problems without ignoring the legal or contractual rights of employees, such as the collective bargaining agreement, employment discrimination laws or any other due-process rights that employees may have.

As alternatives to issuing discipline and filing grievances to resolve a potentially violent situation, the following actions may reduce the likelihood of violence among co-workers and managers:

  1. Ensure that management provides a secure workplace, safe from intruders, assaults from clients, patients, customers and, if necessary, co-workers, former co-workers, family members and supervisors.This principle should be an essential part of a workplace violence prevention program (see Chapter 7 for more details on the workplace violence prevention program). Controls that protect workers from outside violence will also protect workers from internal violence.
  2. Urge management to change the work organization, procedures or rules to reduce the causes of stress. For some workers and managers, stress reduction and conflict resolution classes may be beneficial. Special emphasis should be placed on improving labor/management relations.
  3. Provide a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can address workplace stress and violence issues. The union should be involved in coordinating and implementing the EAP program — from helping to select counselors to ensuring that all information is kept confidential.Where employees may need professional assistance beyond the scope of EAP services, encourage management to make available outside counseling services that are agreeable to the union.
  4. Negotiate for alternatives to disciplining or terminating a potentially violent employee when such alternatives are appropriate. For example, managers should have the option of referring an employee to the EAP or other counseling before instituting formal discipline. Another option is to provide training for the potentially violent worker and affected co-workers and managers in communication skills, conflict resolution, sexual harassment, sensitivity or cultural diversity issues.
  5. For some workplaces, a union/management crisis intervention team may be appropriate.The crisis intervention team identifies situations that might escalate into violence and recommends procedures for responding to those situations.The team’s membership and ground rules should be jointly agreed upon by management and the union.There should be at least one union representative on the team along with a mental health professional. (See Chapter 7 for more information on crisis intervention teams.) Training in how to defuse a potentially violent situation may be useful for team members. However, crisis intervention team members should never get directly involved in a potentially violent situation. If one arises, professional psychiatrists, psychologists or counselors should be relied on for crisis intervention.
  6. Personal threats should be promptly investigated and workers should be provided protection, if necessary.

Get Management to Manage

Sometimes management does not know how to handle a violent employee, refuses to do anything or wants the union to handle the problem. For example, management knows about a worker who brought a weapon to work but is either afraid to confront the worker or wants the union steward to do it. If management fails to enforce its own work rules, the union should protest.