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Workplace Violence in Higher Education

by Edward D. Rice

Ed Rice is associate vice president for administration and finance at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas; he can be reached at erice@ksu.edu. This article is adapted from his doctoral dissertation.

     In August 1992, on the campus of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, four employees were killed and one was injured when another employee, Valery Fabrikant, entered their workplace and shot them. Three of the victims were intended targets and the fourth happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fabrikant was carrying three handguns and a briefcase full of ammunition when he was caught. The university’s board of governors ordered an independent review of the incident, which indicated that Fabrikant “exhibited repeated nonconformance to regulations and social norms, impulsive and erratic behavior, irritability and aggressiveness, and a lack of remorse for the implications of his actions.” The university had never verified Fabrikant’s resume, and there were university documents describing how he had harassed and terrorized administrators and coworkers for years.

      In February 1993, a patient at the University of Southern California Hospital critically wounded three doctors. The perpetrator had two handguns, a sawed-off rifle, and a ten-inch knife. Afterwards, doctors working in this environment commented they were not surprised that violence had occurred. However, there were apparently few, if any, security measures in effect at the time. It seems a contradiction that no one was surprised the violence took place and yet there was nothing in place to prevent it.

      On March 9, 1995, in a parking lot at Northwestern University, John Costalupes ambushed his former supervisor, shooting him four times. According to witnesses Costalupes tried to drive over the victim as he left the parking lot. One day after the shooting Costalupes appeared at the dean’s office of the University of Minnesota medical school. Confronted by a security guard that had been stationed there because of a fear of such an appearance, Costalupes fled. When caught, he killed himself with his own gun. Costalupes had been fired eight years before by his former supervisor when both were at the  University of Minnesota medical school. In 1989, when Costalupes was fired, the current dean of the medical school was working at another university. Sources at the Minnesota campus indicated that Costalupes was a loner and had been fired because he failed to follow instructions. After being fired, Costalupes claimed he was a victim and wrote threatening letters to university officials. No record of any threat could be found in the university police files.  

      On June 28, 2000, Jian Chen entered the office of his supervisor, Rodger Haggitt, at the University of Washington and closed the door. Witnesses later said they heard loud angry voices and then two popping sounds. Chen had killed Haggitt and then committed suicide. Investigators were looking into reports that prior to the shooting there had been concern by university officials that Chen had purchased a gun.

     Despite these examples—or possibly because of them—there is a perception that acts of workplace violence consist primarily of murder. Workplace violence is more complex than an employee suddenly appearing at his or her workplace heavily armed with the intention of killing supervisors or other employees. E. Carll, author of Violence in Our Lives, provides a list of types of workplace violence that includes “threats (letters, faxes, verbal, e-mail, voice mail), vandalism, equipment sabotage, personal conflict (fighting coworkers, punching supervisors, assaults, shootings, stabbings, romantic obsessions with coworkers), family conflict (husband arrives at workplace and attacks his wife and possibly coworkers), hostage taking, suicide, and homicide.” To
address the need for workplace violence prevention and training, administrators must have an understanding of the breadth of workplace violence.

Defining Violence
     A major reason that workplace violence is misunderstood is that there are no standard definitions for it. The following definition is direct and easy to understand, “workplace violence consists of violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.”   Violent acts can also be directed against workplace property. This definition may be the most suitable way to identify workplace violence because it refers to violence that occurs either in the workplace or while a victim is at work or on duty.

Becoming Violent
     What many people do not understand is that workplace violence is never a sudden event, and anyone can become violent given the right conditions. Workplace violence can begin with an individual becoming stressed due to events happening in their work or at home or a combination of work and home events. This stress can escalate through a series of events that take place in the individual’s life. According to C. Labig in Preventing Violence in the Workplace, events in the workplace such as “grievance, termination, poor work environment, and downsizing are always stressful for the employees involved and are therefore capable of provoking violence.”  Today’s stress is about too much information coming from too many sources,  coupled with the feeling of loss of control. An example occurred when an aerospace engineer watched, horrified, as two coworkers had to be physically
separated during a disagreement over the proper procedure for filing paperwork.

Cycle of Violence
     Through 15 years of clinical research, psychologist John Monahan developed a cycle of violence model that explains how an individual can become violent. Monahan’s cycle of violence has four stages:
1. The potential for violence can begin when an individual encounters an event that he or she experiences as stressful.
2. The individual involved reacts to this event with certain kinds of thoughts to which she or he is inclined because of her or his personality.
3. The thoughts caused by the reaction to the event lead to emotional responses by the individual.
4. The emotional responses in turn determine the behavior that the individual will use to respond to the situation.

     The cycle continues as other people in the individual’s environment respond to the individual’s behavior. The way people respond can either increase or decrease the individual’s experience of stress. If the individual’s environment increases stress levels, reactive thoughts and emotions are likely to be intensified and lead to escalating behaviors. The individual can reach a point where he/she comes to believe that violence is the only viable solution.

     According to Labig, this model fits the available data about individuals who have committed workplace violence. An individual in the cycle of violence is reacting and responding in certain ways. These reactions and responses by the individual are the threats, behaviors, or warning signs that employees can be trained to recognize and report. Once recognized, reported, and investigated, a determination can be made to get the individual help. A workplace violence prevention program that is effective will help the individual and prevent the act of violence. This must happen before the individual reaches the point where he or she believes violence is the only solution. Understanding the cycle of violence model can aid administrators in managing the threat of workplace violence before it becomes an act of violence.

The Workplace
     Our workplace is an important part of our lives. Many people spend from 35 to 65 percent of their waking hours at work. We dedicate a great amount of time and energy to our work. Much of the frustration and anger exhibited by potentially violent employees may be attributed to work environment factors. According to M. Kelleher, “The quality of the work environment is a factor that is generally considered after an incident of violence.” College and
university administrators must understand that a poor work environment can contribute to violence. Work environmental factors to consider include safety and general working conditions, inept or uncaring management,
inadequate rewards for work, ineffective training and education programs, and inadequate communication. Administrators of organizations that are good at preventing workplace violence tend to understand the need for a supportive work environment, open communications, and effective training.

Workplace Violence Prevention
     An effective workplace violence prevention program must have financial support, employees trained to recognize and report threats or warning signs of potential violence, a staff trained for quick intervention, and open communications across all lines. Braverman, Castrey, Denenberg, and Denenberg explain, “You need to
create systems that can detect people who are breaking down under stress and that can deal with them in a way that is fair, legal, and compassionate.”

     Many campuses already have existing policies and procedures that can be used with a workplace violence prevention program. Examples of policies and procedures that can be an integral part of a prevention program are: the hiring process, counseling for employees, the termination process, safety and security, training, communications, crisis management, and a healthy work environment.  K. Wolf developed a model for a workplace violence prevention program that focuses on three activities: pre-incident planning, threat management, and post-incident response. Because each campus is unique, a prevention program such
as Wolf’s is a guide that can be adopted or tailored to fit the needs of a campus.

Pre-incident Planning
     Wolf emphasizes the development of three elements for a prevention program.  First a written prevention policy is used to explain to employees what actions will not be tolerated, the disciplinary action that will take place, what to report, and to whom to report it. The second element is a communication structure that informs  employees of the policy and how to use it. The third element is training, which prepares employees to recognize threats and take action to prevent incidents of violence.

      The most important element of the pre-incident planning is to establish in the policy statement an Incident Management Team (IMT). The IMT is the thread that ties all three elements together; in other words, it takes ownership of the violence prevention program.

Incident Management Team
     The IMT is responsible for receiving reports of threats from employees and then investigating the threats. Generally, the IMT is made up of representatives from personnel, security, legal, health and safety, facilities, and the labor union. At smaller campuses the IMT could be made up of representatives from personnel or from other campus areas that can provide beneficial input. In their responsibilities, the IMT members are required to implement and operate the prevention program. These responsibilities make the IMT a key to workplace
violence prevention on campus.

     If the written policy is the foundation of the prevention program, the IMT is the engine that makes it happen. The IMT is also responsible for developing lines of communication to explain the violence prevention policy to employees and establish the training needs for campus employees. If no one understands the workplace prevention program and how to use it, it will not be used. Training is so vital to all elements of workplace violence prevention that it is discussed on its own merits after this section.

Threat Management
      Threat management focuses on the process of workplace violence prevention. In threat management the IMT receives, investigates, and assesses threats reported by employees. The campus point person on threats makes the decision to bring in the IMT to investigate the threat or investigates it internally, or may even allow the department involved to resolve the incident. This points out the uniqueness of each campus and how each campus can adapt a prevention program around its resources.

Assessment
     The assessment is critical because the IMT must attempt to determine the risk potential of a threat by an employee. It is the IMT’s responsibility to also attempt to discover the stresses affecting the individual. In assessing threats, a crucial aspect is in developing lines of communication with all affected employees. During this period, the IMT will be identifying and establishing contacts with outside resources, i.e., law enforcement, threat assessment professionals, and mental health resources to assist in threat management, assessment, treatment, and developing protective strategies for credible threats. For the workplace violence prevention program to function properly, IMT members must be trained, dedicated, and empowered to do their task.

Post-incident Response
     The post-incident response is the crisis management needed after a violent event has occurred, which many campuses already have in place. If campuses do not have a post-incident response they need to develop a written crisis management plan. This plan should identify the resources that will be needed should a violent event occur. The post-incident response includes helping employees understand the psychological impact of a violent event, conducting critical-incident debriefing sessions to facilitate recovery, identifying and referring distressed employees to counseling resources, and helping to re-stabilize the organization.

Training
     C. Wilkinson states the case succinctly, “Without training one does not have a full workplace violence prevention program.” If the policy and procedures are the foundation and the IMT the engine, then training is the energy that runs the engine. “The ability to identify those individuals and circumstances that have a
high correlation to violence comes only through training,” wrote D. Davis in Threats Pending Fuses Burning. The tragedy of workplace violence occurs when those warning signs go unrecognized. Managers, supervisors, and employees can be trained to identify and report the warning signs that indicate a potential for violence. Many campuses will already have training programs for communication and stress management in place. Although important, these programs do not relate directly to the workplace violence prevention needs of identifying and
reporting threats or warning signs of potential violence. Training can also be used to communicate to employees the consequences of making threats or acting violently. Just by informing employees that this type of behavior is not tolerated will have a positive effect on preventing workplace violence.

Training Needs
      Training requires a significant commitment of campus resources and expertise to manage workplace violence and assure a safe work environment. Workplace violence training requires more than just training managers, supervisors, and employees to identify and report the warning signs. The experts generally agree on the value overall of training needs, but each emphasizes his or her own particular area of interest. D. Davis, for instance, believes that “More than mid- level and upper-level managers, first-level supervisors and managers are the
ones interacting with employees, customers, and clients on a regular basis”—the rationale being that the first-level supervisors are the ones more likely to notice potential threats of violence before the behavior escalates to dangerous levels.

     However, another expert makes an excellent point by emphasizing more training for employees, under the assumption that employees are the eyes and ears of an organization and know what is going on before
management does. Employee training should include security and safety-related topics, and recognizing and reporting threats or warning signs of potentially violent behavior. Most employees want to do the right thing and are willing to do what is needed. The participation in a workplace violence prevention program by all employees is vital for a safe workplace environment.

Analysis
     In understanding workplace violence, administrators must be aware that violence can strike a college or university campus at any time. Administrators must also understand that the only effective defense against  workplace violence is their campus employees. For the employees to be effective requires that the campus have a workplace violence prevention program and workplace violence training to support the program.

      There is enough information about the Costalupes case to know that he was fired, he believed he was a victim, he was very angry, and he wrote threatening letters. In addition, we know that he failed to follow instructions and was a loner.  The written threats alone should have been a clear warning sign of the potential
for violence. Although he had written threatening letters, there were no records of any such letters. One of the basic rules of workplace violence prevention is to take all threats seriously.

     It appears that there were ample warning signs of potential violence. Could this tragedy have been averted if the administrators involved had understood workplace violence and had taken a workplace violence prevention and training course? There are always opportunities for intervention before violence is committed. The key is to recognize the opportunities and intervene quickly and effectively before the violence takes place. The success or failure of violence prevention hinges on suitable actions taken by people in the organization.

      The individuals who killed employees in the incidents of campus workplace violence had two things in common. First, they each had reached a point where murder was the only answer to their particular problem. Second, in reaching that point of murder, each of these individuals had performed numerous acts of non-fatal violence. The non-fatal acts of violence took place over a period of one to ten years. There definitely were lost opportunities to stop these individuals long before they reached the point where killing was the only
solution. The tragedy is when nothing is done.

Selected References
Braverman, M., B.P. Castrey, R.V. Denenberg, & T.S.Denenberg. “Preventing Violence in the Workplace.”
Paper presented at the National Labor-Management Conference, Chicago, Illinois, 1998.
Carll, E. Violence in Our Lives. Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
Davis, D. Threats Pending Fuses Burning. Palo Alto, California: Davis-Black, 1997.
Hymowitz, C., & R. Silverman. “Can Workplace Stress Get Worse?” The Wall Street Journal, 2001.
Jenkins, E. “Violence in the Workplace: Scope of the Problem and Risk Factors.” In C. Wilkinson (ed.), Violence in the Workplace, Rockville, Maryland: Government Institutes, 1998.
Kelleher, M. Profiling the Lethal Employee: Case Studies of Violence in the Workplace. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997.
Labig, C. Preventing Violence in the Workplace. New York: AMACOM, 1995.
Wilkinson, C., editor. Violence in the Workplace. Rockville, Maryland: Government Institutes, 1998.
Wolf, K. “Implementing a Workplace Violence Prevention and Threat Management System.” In C. Wilkinson (ed.),
Violence in the Workplace, Rockville, Maryland: Government Institutes, 1998.