TESTIMONY OF LEWIS L. MALTBY
PRESIDENT-NATIONAL WORKRIGHTS INSTITUTE
REGARDING WORKPLACE VIOLENCE
BEFORE THE HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE ON EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE RELATIONS
SEPTEMBER 26, 2002
Workplace violence is an important but misunderstood problem. The primary problem is not violence by workers, but violence against workers. The most common form of workplace violence consists of attacks by outsiders against workers. In light of this, the most important step in reducing workplace violence is to increase workplace security.
Another constructive step would be to make the workplace less stressful by increasing workers’ rights and reducing abusive behavior by supervisors.
It would also be helpful for the government to help employers acquire the skills needed to respond effectively to potentially violent situations.
Increasing electronic surveillance of workers would not reduce violence, but increase violence by elevating the already high level of workplace stress.
My name is Lewis Maltby. I am president of the National Workrights Institute. The Institute is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to expanding human rights in the workplace. Thank you for inviting me to testify today.
I. NATURE OF THE PROBLEM
The issue of workplace violence is important, but widely misunderstood. Many people believe that workplace violence primarily consists of workers assaulting other workers, or attacking managers. This is not the case. The majority of workplace violence consists of outsiders attacking workers. Common forms of this include police officers being shot, and taxi drivers and convenience store clerks being robbed. Another common form of violence is medical workers being attacked by patients, especially those who have been institutionalized for mental problems. Attacks by workers on co-workers and managers are far less frequent.
In order to solve any problem, the first rule is to focus our efforts on the largest part of the problem. In the case of workplace violence, this means protecting workers from assaults by outsiders, clients, and customers.
There is much that can be done in this area. Physical barriers, more secure workplaces, and better alarm systems have already helped, and more extensive use of these tools will yield additional benefits. OSHA’s voluntary standards for reducing workplace violence are steps in the right direction.
II. REDUCE WORKPLACE STRESS
In the less common case where violence comes from workers themselves, there are also constructive steps to be taken. The first is to reduce the level of stress in the workplace. Work is inherently stressful. There are deadlines to meet, abrasive supervisors and co-workers to deal with, and the constant knowledge that if we don’t perform well enough, or the company falters, we may be fired. Termination of employment is second only to the death of a loved one in producing human stress.
The level of stress in the American workplace has increased sharply in recent years due to greater levels of competition. American employers must now compete with foreign firms, many of whom have lower wages and benefits. This leads to higher production quotas and shorter deadlines, while reductions in force leave fewer people to do the work.
There are many steps employers could take to reduce the level of stress. For example, employers could specify the circumstances under which employees will be terminated and provide progressive discipline culminating with review by an arbitrator or other neutral. Many employers have taken this step with no loss of productivity or profit.
Employers could also adopt and enforce rules against supervisory harassment. Many corporations today have strict policies against sexual harassment. A supervisor who belittles female workers for their gender or makes sexually inappropriate remarks will often be subject to discipline. But a supervisor who is generally hostile or abusive to men and women alike is all too often ignored, even when the problem is brought to management’s attention. For example, there is a well-known incident at the Anderson Water Valley District in which management became aware that workers reporting to a particular foreman were having nightmares about him, often of a violent nature. The response was treat the nightmares as threats and fire the workers. Management made no attempt to look into the behavior of the supervisor whose behavior caused the nightmares.
Employers could establish Employee Assistance Plans. Trouble often occurs when workplace stress is added to the stress of personal problems, such as substance abuse or financial difficulties. While some employers have EAPs, many do not. And many employers with EAPs provide little or no financial support for employees who need counseling. Employers who want to invest in reducing working violence should seriously consider better funding for the EAP.
III. RESPONDING TO POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS SITUATIONS
Even the most successful stress reduction program will not completely eliminate workplace violence. Workplace stress can not be completely eliminated. Nor is it possible to avoid the existence of troubled individuals, many of whom will inevitably have jobs.
Therefore, it is necessary for employers to be prepared to deal with potentially violent situations. Contrary to popular belief, people rarely become violent without giving warning. The problem is that others, including employers, fail to heed the signals, or do the wrong thing.
One key to responding to potential violence is advance preparation. When potential violence arises, fast reaction is essential. But careful thought is also required. This can only occur when the employer has determined in advance who is responsible for dealing with such situations, the rules and principles to be used, and provided proper training.
A critical step in advance preparation is forming a working relationship with a violence prevention expert. Consultants are available with deep expertise in the psychology of human violence and extensive industrial experience. Trying to handle a potentially violent situation without access to this expertise is like representing oneself in court or trying to remove one’s own appendix. For example, the threshold question is whether an individual is actually dangerous. Managers are not trained to make this decision, and the consequences of a wrong answer can be severe. Violence prevention specialists are capable of providing much better answers.
IV. GOVERNMENT ACTION
The government’s ability to reduce workplace violence is limited, but important. Government can not eliminate stress from the workplace. Many of the steps needed to reduce violence are the responsibility of management, and do not lend themselves to legislative solutions. But there are steps government can take that would make a positive contribution. These include:
a. Safety Standards
There are many steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of violence against workers by outsiders. These include physical modifications that make it harder for intruders to enter the workplace, better alarm systems to detect intrusions, and physical barriers between workers and others in high risk environments (such as taxis). Some employers have made steps in this direction voluntarily. But many employers have not been willing to spend the money required to implement such steps.
The government can help by developing and enforcing standards in this area. Current OSHA standards are helpful, but need more complete development. The current standards are also voluntary. They would be far more useful if they were mandatory.
OSHA could also help through better development and enforcement of safety and health standards. Lawmakers generally think about workplace violence and workplace accidents as distinct issues. But from the standpoint of the worker, they are very much the same. In each case, a person dies violently in the workplace.
Moreover, fatal workplace accidents are more common than fatal workplace assaults. Following the principle of directing the greatest effort toward the most damaging aspect of a problem, government’s first priority in making the workplace safer should be to make OSHA more effective.
b. Whistleblower Protection
Even where we have legally required safety standards, they are often of little help because our law makes them extremely difficult to enforce. Workers are generally the first to know when an illegal unsafe condition exists. But workers who report such situations are generally punished by the managers they embarrass. Neither federal nor state law provides meaningful protection for whistleblowers. The result is that many, perhaps most, illegal dangerous situations go unreported.
As discussed above, even the strongest management team needs training on how to respond to situations of potential violence. While large employers can afford to pay for this training, many smaller employers find the cost to be a serious obstacle.
The federal government has often helped small employers acquire knowledge of important workplace subjects. It might constructively play a similar role here.
d. Right to Organize
It is well known that incidents of violence by ordinary people (including workers) are deeply rooted in feelings of desperation. Violence occurs when someone feels that he or she cannot live in their current situation and feel powerless to change it.
This suggests that changes which give workers a voice with which they can influence their working lives reduce workplace violence. Unions provide workers with the ability to affect workplace conditions through collective bargaining and the grievance/arbitration process.
Federal law, however, does not effectively protect the right to organize. While this right is protected in theory by the National Labor Relations Act, the penalties for firing employees who try to organize are so trivial that they have little or no impact in practice. Reforming the NLRA to make the right to organize meaningful could be a helpful step in reducing workplace violence.
V. COUNTERPRODUCTIVE ACTIONS
The bedrock principle of medicine is “first, do no harm”. This principle applies with equal force to lawmaking. The least those who are concerned about workplace violence can do is to avoid making the situation worse.
One response which will do nothing to reduce workplace violence, and may even increase it, is to expand electronic surveillance of workers. Electronic surveillance has already stripped Americans of their privacy on the job. At least 80% of employers now conduct electronic surveillance of workers.
Some forms of surveillance are valuable. We are all safer when employers place security cameras in parking garages and parking lots. There are also circumstances where employers legitimately use electronic technology to examine employees’ work.
But much electronic surveillance serves no legitimate purpose, and intrudes deeply upon the privacy of workers. For example, employers may often need to read the contents of work related e-mail messages. But when a worker sends his or her spouse an e-mail about an intimate family matter, the employer has no legitimate right to read it.
Federal law recognizes the principle that personal communication is ordinarily off-limits to the employer. The Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) generally prohibits employers from listening to the contents of personal telephone calls to or from the workplace. This requirement has not been a problem for employers.
It is time to update ECPA to cover other forms of communication which were not commonly used in 1986.
There are many other steps employers can take to meet their legitimate needs while reducing intrusiveness. One such technique involves the response to excessive personal web surfing. Traditionally, employers have monitored each and every web site visit on an employee by employee basis. Detecting abuse after it has occurred is of very limited use to employers, and is extremely intrusive for employees.
Advanced web access software is now available that automatically enforces any employer’s individual web access policy. This allows employers to eliminate unauthorized web use without monitoring the web sites each employee visits.
Many employers are now engaged in the process of determining how to reduce the intrusiveness of monitoring without sacrificing management goals. Leading employer organizations such as Business for Social Responsibility and Privacy and American Business are working with their members in this area. Many leading corporations, such as the Cannon Corporation, have already adopted these new techniques.
Proposals for wall-to-wall monitoring undercut this important process.
Moreover, excessive monitoring makes the workplace less safe. Research conducted by the University of Wisconsin establishes that workers who are intensively monitored experience higher levels of stress than other workers.
Increasing workplace stress will only increase violence.
Another approach that would be extremely counterproductive is to use the issue of workplace violence as a vehicle to advance pre-existing political agendas. Many individuals and organizations, including the Institute, have strong and conflicting opinions about unions, and about workplace privacy. While the strength of unions and employer surveillance practices have some impact on workplace safety, they are not the critical factors. Workplace safety deserves to be debated in terms of the criteria that truly affect it, not turned into a stalking horse to advance our views on other issues.