Understanding and Preventing Workplace Aggression

Welcome to this article on workplace aggression, a topic related to workplace violence. We will look at this topic with the goal of helping to prevent incidents of aggression and violence in the workplace. Let's get started.

How workplace aggression and workplace violence are related

We can consider that these terms describe the same situation. Workplace aggression - as with workplace violence - is a type of aggression and violence that we observe in a workplace.

  • It can include verbal violence as well as physical violence. It can be anything from insulting someone to punching them or even using a gun with the most horrifying consequences, as we sometimes see in news stories.

  • One example of workplace aggression - a most terrifying kind - comes from former employees as with the attacks at postal offices and by postal office employees.

Some definitions and concepts

Aggression we can define – as is common in behavioral and social sciences - in a way that is similar to how we define violence. It is any act a person takes to harm another. In can include any act in the workplace from verbal or emotional harm to physical harm and homicide. This can include coworkers, current employers, past employers, or anyone else in the workplace including customers, clients, and contractors.

In attempting to group aggressive behavior in the workplace, here are some possible groupings where you should be alert to all of them as they could trigger even more disturbing workplace violence and hurt you and your coworkers.

  1. Expressing hostility including verbal abuse
  2. Obstructionist activities include trying to stop a person from doing their job and the organization from accomplishing its goals
  3. Overt actions including aggression and violence

Aggression in the workplace can be any combination of verbal and physical or direct and indirect or active and passive. Here are more possible types of workplace aggression.

  1. Criminal - with this the intent is aggression or violence and the perpetrator does not know the victim and is not part of the organization - as with a bank or store robbery
  2. Customer or client - with this the perpetrator is being served as a customer or client and aggression occurs during this time
  3. Co workers - with this the perpetrator and victim work together in the same organization and can include a supervisor-worker relationship
  4. Personal relationship - with this the perpetrator has a relationship with the employee but has no relationship with the organization and includes assault at work by a domestic partner

Aggression in the workplace can be covert or overt. Covert behavior can occur when the attacker participates in activities they want to disguise from the target so the target does not know about the aggressive intentions or behavior. With overt behavior the perpetrator does not disguise or hide their intentions and are open. Here are some examples.

  • Covert aggression includes actions that are verbal, passive, and indirect
  • Overt aggression includes actions that are physical, active, and direct

In the workplace you should be aware of each. Covert aggression could be a warning sign of future overt aggression. Each kind of aggression can cause harm.

Covert behavior in the workplace can reflect workplace aggression. A perpetrator could take a covert action because they evaluate the danger of committing an aggressive act. The aggressor could want to take action but have a low risk of danger to themselves. Factors concerning cover aggression to consider include:

  • Because people work together for a prolonged period of time victims could have a chance to retaliate so this discourages overt aggression
  • An aggressor could feat punishment from the group with an overt expression of violence so the aggressor might prefer a covert action

Predicting workplace aggression

We should look now at what predictors there are for workplace aggression or violence. These can occur at the individual or group level. At the individual level are factors such as gender, drug and alcohol use, and age. At the group level are factors such as surveillance, supervision, organizational culture, changes such as job elimination and downsizing, and specific stress due to a job. We can look at these items to predict and minimize workplace aggression and violence if we take proper action.

Some organizations can encourage workplace violence especially if no program or policy exists to actively and proactively minimize workplace aggression and violence.

  • Do people feel they are treated fairly and with respect on the job? That is a major factor in negative feels on the job. This can trigger physical and psychological aggression. The victim can be management. Perceived injustice in the workplace can be the motivation.

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Violence course?
  • Another trigger could be the perception that rules at an organization are not fair. This can also trigger violence or aggression against management. If a group feels the rules are fair and the treatment of workers is respectful, the incidents of workplace aggression and violence are less than a negative perception of these factors.

  •  Job security and termination can trigger extreme forms of workplace aggression and violence. We see accounts of a person going back to a place of employment and killing people. This can come after the person was let go from the company. We saw this during periods of economic hardship such as in 2008 during the Great Recession. When there is a slow down in business organizations can increase profits by downsizing. The results can be an increase in workplace aggression and violence. A perception of impending termination and job insecurity can be predictors of workplace violence and aggression.

  • Supervision and surveillance at the workplace are factors related to workplace aggression and violence against managers. The more monitoring and the greater the number of methods used to do employee surveillance, the greater the amount of workplace violence and aggression. When there is aggression against a supervisor, this can be tied to the control over performance in the workplace. We see this with teenagers and adults.

Changes in the the workplace can trigger workplace aggression and violence. Certain changes can trigger stress and anxiety. Here are items that can lead to higher levels of violence and aggression.

  • Pay cuts
  • Changes in management
  • Pay freezes
  • Increased monitoring of computer activity
  • Increases in diversity
  • Increases in use of part time workers

Here are more factors that are predictors of aggression and violence.

  • Certain jobs can be predictors of workplace violence and aggression. This can include handling cash and other valuables and guns.
  • Length of time spent on the job is another predictor. The more time someone spends at work, the more likely they are to report violence and aggression. Long hours can cause frustration and fatigue that can lead to aggression and violence. The more hours you spend at work the greater your chance also of being a victim.
  • Gender can be a predictor. Males are more likely to be involved in aggression against manager. Males are also more likely to be involved in aggression in the presence of other males.
  • Age can be a predictor also. If you are aged 40 or older you are less likely to be involved in workplace aggression and violence. This is compared to younger employees.
  • Alcohol consumption can also be a predictor. The more alcohol you consume the more likely are you to commit an act of workplace aggression or violence.

Cyber activity, cyber harassment, and aggression

Factors to consider with cyber aggression include:

  • An obscene or hateful email or text message that is frightening or threatening
  • An email or text message that has offensive content such as racist or sexist material

This kind of workplace harassment can come from those outside of the workplace in addition to those within the workplace. It can also come in the form of spam. This kind of harassment has spread throughout workplaces. It appears to be growing and can be harmful as a trigger to aggression and violence.

If an employee feels threatened, offended, or upset about problems in the workplace, this can cause the employee to resort to cyber aggression. They retaliate through emails and text messages. Some call this flaming. It can also extend to social media such as Facebook and Twitter as well as comments on blogs. People can express hostility to a group or an individual.

  • Instant messaging can contribute to the problem of cyberbullying. It is hard for a manager to control these platforms. Employees can have private conversations through instant messaging. It can lead to aggressive communication. It can be easier for some to communicate aggression this way than in person. With instant messaging you see the person is available real time.
  • Email is a tool often used for cyber aggression. It is prevalent in the workplace. Someone who is upset can vent through email. They can send email to a large group at once. Some advice on how to avoid being aggressive in email is to not send email when you are upset. You should also not use profanity.
  • Social networking is another way to express aggression and anger. It can be considered cyber bullying. You can be aggressive in a public way and in an open forum. You can express yourself to a large audience without seeing them face to face. This can include Facebook and Twitter as well as comments sections of blogs.

Consequences of aggression and violence in the workplace

We have looked at many behaviors that are related to workplace aggression and violence. The consequences of this kind of behavior are wide ranging. They can result in physical harm to employees and customers and harm a business and its reputation. The result can also be job performance and the well being and health of employees. Let's look at some of the factors that impact the consequences of aggression and violence in the workplace.

Your place in the organization will impact how severely you are reprimanded due to workplace aggression. A supervisor is reprimanded most. This is followed by a co worker and then a vendor, client, customer, or other outsider.

Employees suffer in many ways from workplace aggression. Here are some of the impacts.

  • Well being suffers for those who are targets of workplace aggression or violence.

  • Victims suffer from health problems

  • Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder can be evident after an incident of workplace aggression or violence

  • Anxiety and depression can result after workplace aggression

  • For hospital workers pain and other disorders are evident after workplace aggression

Here are some additional factors that show a negative impact after an incident of workplace aggression or violence.

  • Teams perform more poorly after an incident. Team effectiveness can be hurt.

  • Job satisfaction can be hurt. Victims especially can suffer from lower job satisfaction. If you see yourself as a target of workplace aggression or violence your overall job satisfaction can be impacted negatively. If you perceive abuse from management this can also have a negative impact on job satisfaction.

Data shows that gender can play in role in reactions to workplace aggression and violence. Each gender shows lower well being after an incident in the workplace. Males tend to report lower well being. Males tend to report more of a negative impact on cognitive, physical, and social problems. Females non sexual aggression has a strong impact on their job satisfaction. This is when compared to sexual aggression. Non sexual aggress also hurt job satisfaction more for females than males.

A look at prevention

Let's look now at programs that attempt to prevent and reduce instances of workplace aggression and violence. We will look at training, personnel selection, and organizational factors.

  • Concerning personnel selection, programs stress that it is important to screen potential employees. You can test to find out who could likely in the future behave aggressively and violently in the workplace. This is a proactive approach. If a person is predisposed to be aggressive and violent, you can consider this before you hire them.

  • Concerning organizational factors, a group that has a clear policy concerning workplace aggression and violence can find less incidents. If an employee considers that their group would punish workplace aggress, the employee is less likely to act out aggressively and violently. An organization can find that policies and procedures that are anti-aggression and anti-violence can help.

  • Concerning training, this is a critical part of a prevention program. This training should include both employees and management. The training should cover how to deal with aggression and violence in the workplace. Training should also stress that management takes seriously any threat or act of aggression or violence. Employees should be encouraged to report incidents. Management should support this reporting.

Let's note now that organizational support can greatly impact workplace aggression and violence. Organizations can support individuals if they are victims or feel they could use help with their aggression. Organizations can also provide employees with information about where they can get help.

A quick review

In this article we looked more closely at issues of aggression and violence in the workplace with the goal of using this information to prevent workplace violence and aggression. We hope you found the information of value.