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Workplace Violence and Bullies Don’t Help Improve the Safety Culture

In 2012 4,547 workers were killed on the job in the United States.  Of that number, 506 were homicides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace; violence is the fourth leading cause of workplace injury in the U.S.   The world is a very stressful place.  Some job classifications such as social work and nursing have been identified by OSHA as industries with the highest non-fatal incident rates related to workplace violence.

We see people taking violent action against others on television, movies, and gaming and sometimes we see people behaving violently when they feel mistreated.  Workplace violence is a major cause of concern for employers and can involve employees, customers, and visitors to company facilities.

Recently while I was traveling for business, a person driving behind me began honking as soon as the traffic light turned green, presumably to hurry me.  For a second, I wanted to put the car in park, get out and walk back to see what the guy’s problem was.  A cool head prevailed and I just kept going.  Very quickly the guy shot past me and gave me a dirty look.  What if I had decided to unleash on him? Sometimes people push others’ emotional buttons not thinking about preventing a violent response.  I’ve been in meetings where if everyone was armed with weapons a war would have broken out.

Defining Workplace Violence

A comprehensive definition of workplace violence is any action or threat of “physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site” according to NIOSH.  It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide.

Some experts believe that workplace violence, in any degree, is introduced from the external environment; in other words, people bring their problems to work which can result in disruptive or harmful behavior.  Others situations can be reactions to internal work environment that is perceived as hostile.

Workplace violence is typically not just a one time event and being observant of behaviors can help to stop someone taking action.  We all possess the fight or flight response to hostility.  If you observe a leader, or employee being hostile to another employee, beware.  Someone who quietly takes abuse from a leader or another employee might be the one who snaps.  As the old saying goes, “Still water runs deep.”  But beware of the mouthy person who is continually making threats.

The antagonist or person who exhibits hostility is likely just blowing off steam, but this makes everyone uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable people are motivated to make a change and stop the hostility.  Mouthy people tend to get everyone’s emotions stirred up and if the one they stir-up is already stressed out, violence may erupt.  When the smoke clears it is to late to take action.

First, don’t allow hostile behavior in your workplace, confront it quickly.  If during a meeting someone verbally assaults you or someone else, respond with the same emotion but also with facts.  A few times when I was conducting one of my seminars or workshops a bully tried hostility to shut me down.  It is evident that they are attacking from fear because they try to make themselves bigger by raising their voice and or standing up.

In these cases, if I am standing and they are sitting (as in a class) I move towards them and without yelling, speaking directly to them.  My words to them are usually formed as a question, “Do you really believe that …?”  “I sure do!”  “So you are saying that…”  At this point they realize they are in trouble with their statements.  Their statements made with a loud voice are often emotional and irrational.  Since nobody ever questions their statements and people back away to avoid confrontation, the bullying, harassing, or disrupting behavior continues unchecked.

Second, if you are a leader in the organization, don’t be a bully; deal with facts.  Many people deal with bullies through the only means they know – violence.  If you are a leader who has bullied and intimidated the people you work with, you need to mend the relationship and earn their trust to improve the safety culture.  Trust me when I say, they are collecting whatever means it takes to get rid of you.  Nobody respects or trusts a bully.  It is in your best interest to become a better leader.

A positive safety culture is one where people work issues out through civil discussion.  The workplace is a business and not a warzone.  When trying to get our points across, things can get out of hand emotionally.  Sometimes peoples’ emotions can get heated and a cooling off period is a good idea.  Always come back after cooling off and state the intended goal of the discussion, “injury prevention.”  Keep in mind that developing a safety culture where everyone trusts that every person’s goal is, “nobody gets hurt” and everybody wins.

Be Safe!

Carl Potter, CSP


Improve your organization’s safety culture in 2014.  Carl Potter is ready to work with you to prevent every workplace injury through his consulting and training.  Schedule a conference call with him to discuss moving forward by emailing a request to:

One Response to Workplace Violence and Bullies Don’t Help Improve the Safety Culture

  • Ndong Gerald says:

    Hello, carl.

    Wonderful a piece to count on when looking for workplace violenc prevention. That is great. very often we do things, talk in certain ways , winthout minding the natural or systematic conséquences of our actions. They can mar or make peace.

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