Sue Copeman looks at the implications of a recent study on conflict in the workplace
Workplace violence is increasing, and it is not just members of the public who are becoming more aggressive. Disagreements between fellow workers can escalate into abuse, both verbal and physical, as well as into bullying and harassment.
A recent UK study, conducted by the Faculty of Health, University of Central Lancashire, and the Lawrence Allison Group, highlights some alarming trends. It shows that many employers are failing in their duty of care, and it is not only their employees who suffer. Ignoring workplace conflict can lead to higher stress levels, higher absenteeism rates, lower productivity, increased liability, and a tarnished commercial profile. In addition, a high staff turnover affects recruitment and training costs.
In this context, both 'workplace' and 'conflict' have broad definitions. Workplace embraces a far wider area than simply the buildings where your employees work. It includes any location where your employees perform work-related duties. It could be a car park, a field location, a client's home or on transport travel between work assignments. Conflict includes violence, aggressive and abusive behaviour between customers, clients and employees, and bullying and harassment between employees. Each working day, according to Lawrence Allison, hundreds of employees in the UK are harassed, intimidated, threatened or physically assaulted while carrying out their duties.
Where such conflicts are an identifiable hazard, employers have an obligation to act. Their duty extends to the personal protection of the employee, and its neglect can lead to a criminal offence. However, the benefits of a robust policy for the recognition, and management of conflict in the workplace extend beyond statutory requirements. The severe personal and organisational costs are even more compelling reasons for its eradication.
The survey sought to:
Questionnaires were sent to a random sample of 1000 companies and institutions of varying size from a variety of occupational sectors. Two hundred responses were received; 137 organisations provided data.
Four occupational sectors - health and social care, manufacturing, retail and local government - accounted for 61% of the respondents. Not surprisingly given their close interface with the public, they reported between them the greatest proportion of recorded incidents of aggressive or abusive behaviour. These included 13,817 instances of verbal abuse, 2,592 of threats of physical abuse, a worrying 2,379 acts of physical assault and an even more worrying 46 physical assaults with a weapon. The true picture is undoubtedly worse. Many incidents go unreported, and 35% of the organisations surveyed did not keep records of such occurrences in the workplace. More than a quarter have no policy for dealing with violence and aggression at work.
Over half the respondents reported no cases of bullying and harassment of male members of staff, and 41.5% had no reported cases of bullying and harassment of female staff. However, where reports were recorded, there were more incidents of bullying and harassment of males. The findings also suggest that verbal aggression is the most prolific form of workplace aggression (over 17,000 incidents in a 12 month period). However, more than half (52.6%) of respondents provided no training in de-escalation techniques.
Health and Safety Legislation, the common law in relation to assault and self defence, and the Human Rights Act 1998, have bearings on the issue of workplace aggression and violence. Yet 62.2% of respondents said they provided their workforce with no training in the relevant legislation. The law expects potential victims of violence to retreat and escape. Only when withdrawal is clearly not possible is self-defence likely to be seen as legitimate. Yet 80% of respondents said they provided no training in disengagement or breakaway skills.
As the survey demonstrates, a significant number of employers are failing to meet current minimum legislation, and still more are unprepared for the effects of possible future legislative changes. Policies, systems of record-keeping, and adequate training are absent in many organisations. Consequently, assessments of risk and remedial or preventative action can only be piecemeal at best.
Conflict in the workplace is of continuing and escalating concern. Systems exist that can minimise or eradicate its existence. Investment in conflict resolution or reduction can increase staff morale, reduce sickness and stress levels and enable organisations to comply with Health and Safety, RIDDOR and human rights legislation.
Many organisations will, as part of policy development, consider adopting an attitude of zero tolerance. This type of strategy aims to make it absolutely clear to the public that violence against staff is completely unacceptable and that the organisation has made a commitment to stamping it out. It reassures employees that violence and intimidation are being tackled proactively. A zero-tolerance policy should address questions of potential, as well as actual violence. It should clearly state that threats, intimidation, destruction of company property, or violence will not be tolerated and provide for disciplinary action for such conduct.
However, zero tolerance strategies will only be effective where reporting of incidents reflects the true picture. As the survey illustrates a significant number of organisations do not record appropriate data. If accurate records are not kept, it is impossible to establish whether policies and practices are working. It is a requirement of the RIDDOR (1995) regulations that incidents resulting in death, major injury or incapacity for work for three days or more should be reported to the Health and Safety Executive.
Government departments, including the DTI, DfEE and DoH also need to work together to provide consistent guidelines or standards for employers and staff side organisations. These will be a basis for developing effective monitoring systems, establishing training and education programmes and publicising the cost benefits to be achieved in reducing conflict in the workplace.
There are some key steps that organisations can take to improve upon current practice, says Lawrence Allison.
A full copy of the survey on which this article is based is available from Tom Swan, Lawrence Allison Group, Tel: 020 7957 4344, www.lawrenceallisontraining.com
Sue Copeman is editor, StrategicRISK
DIGNITY AT WORK
UK legislation prohibiting workplace harassment, bullying and other distressing conduct may be pending. The Dignity at Work Bill 2001, which received an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords, encompasses behaviour that is offensive or abusive on more than one occasion, unjustified criticism on more than one occasion, punishment imposed without reasonable justification, or detrimental changes to an employee's duties or responsibilities. Employment tribunals will be able to award compensation. The Bill, based on Swedish law, provides that employees have a right to dignity at work and a breach of this can amount to constructive dismissal.
What can organisations do to protect their workers, themselves and their reputations against conflict in the workplace? The Lawrence Allison Group suggests the following guidelines.
NEW Eu STRATEGY
On 11 March, the European Commission published a strategy for health and safety from 2002-2006, Adapting to change in work and society. It focuses on the role of health and safety in improving economic performance, and on the need to promote well-being at work - not just the absence of harm. The Commission is also to examine the appropriateness and scope of a Community instrument on psychological harassment and violence at work.
The strategy is available at http://europa.eu.int/ eur-lex/en/com/pdf/2002/com 2002_0118en01. pdf
The UK Health and Safety Executive has published specific guidance on violence at work.
For information on HSE publications, call 0541 545500 or write to HSE Information Centre, Broad Lane, Sheffield S3 7HQ, UK