Confronting VIolence in the Workplace: Bullies and the Bottom Line


By Dr. Jennifer Newman

We’ve all shaken our heads in horror at news stories about brutal workplace attacks, disgruntled, fired workers shooting down colleagues, taking hostages or attacking co-workers or managers. In fact, Statistics Canada reported 356 thousand criminal-level attacks in the workplace in 2004 or about 1,000 each day. The Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) survey of 32 industrialized countries found workplace assaults in Canada are among the highest in the world.

While these attacks can be headline-grabbing, there are other common and more insidious forms of job violence, ranging from bullying, being a target of office gossip, or isolation. Statistics from a 2007 WBI-Zogby survey show that 13% of U.S. employees are currently bullied, 24% have been bullied in the past and 12% witness workplace bullying. Nearly half of all American workers (49%) have been affected by workplace bullying, either being a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behaviour against a co-worker.

Bullying and abuse takes a profound emotional toll on workers, causing stress, headaches, sleep problems and gastrointestinal issues. It also exerts an emotional cost to the organization in the form of lower productivity and morale and higher turnover rates. That’s why an understanding of it and how to prevent and deal with it is vital to prevention.

There are six examples of workplace violence that organizations need to be aware of:

On-The-Job Violence

Occupations that require employees to handle money such as bank tellers, or require workers to sell goods at night–gas stations and convenience stores – are susceptible to robbery. For example, banks get robbed and those on the front lines – the tellers – suffer as a result. According to WorkSafeBC, the banking industry sees an average 66 days lost per worker following a bank robbery. Nevertheless, there are ways to prevent this kind of absenteeism if organizations plan well.

Vancity Savings and Credit Union employs a Robbery Intervention Program that sees lost days drop to 1.8 per worker. Their program recognizes the trauma experienced when one is a victim of on-the-job violence by providing staff with easy instructions about what to do post robbery, reinforces that the employees are not responsible for “saving the money” and assures them that they did a good job. Since what affects the employee affects their family, services are extended to family members as well. Employees are offered chances to get a massage or shiatsu post robbery as research indicates that these services can mitigate against trauma.

Violence As Part of The Job

Those who provide service to the public can become victims of violence: ranging from being assaulted to harassment and verbal abuse. Nurses are alarmed to find that patients will verbally abuse and harass them while they perform their duties. Being called names, shouted at, sworn at, pushed and having things thrown at them are not uncommon in nursing. Many cannot carry on day-to-day in this atmosphere and either quit or go on leave. Organizations sensitive to this problem have found solutions ranging from signs describing what behaviours will not be tolerated to having clients sign contracts regarding their responsibilities vis a vis appropriate behaviour. Setting guidelines early in the client/patient/caregiver relationship can reduce incidents of violence.

Bullying and Harassment

Organizations that tolerate bullying create an atmosphere of fear and tension when employees are victims of contemptuous behaviour (sneering, eye rolling, yelling, sarcasm) or harsh criticism including assailing a worker’s character calling them lazy, stupid or incompetent. Harassing employees on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability has damaging effects. Organizations that deal effectively with this type of violence have well laid out policies that have teeth. Complaints are well-investigated and procedures are in place to deal quickly with concerns as they arise. Staff know how to use the policies in place and management is trained to implement the policy effectively. Also, managers can nip bullying in the bud by creating a mutually respectful workplace whereby incivility on the job is stopped.

Toxic Offices—Shunning and Gossip

Even more insidious than bullying is behaviour that excludes others or attacks their reputation as is the case when gossip undermines a particular worker. These passive aggressive attempts to exclude, ignore and alienate other staff are difficult to pin down and address. The perpetrator can deny the behaviour or cite instances where the victim is being too sensitive. Once again organizations that create mutually respectful workplaces go a long way to preventing this type of behaviour. Managers who address gossipy talk and ignoring colleagues can maintain a professional environment once these boundaries are reinforced. Failing to invite certain persons to meetings, talking behind other employees backs and refusing to greet another is rude, uncivil and unwelcome in the workplace. Programs that address civil behaviour at work are important. Codes of conduct that describe what is acceptable and what is not are key.


Worker safety depends on team work and a safety culture in which workers look out for each other. Sites where workers remind each other to wear safety equipment and where safety is not compromised in the name of speed or efficiency are safer. When upset, distracted or tired workers are not induced to persevere at a dangerous task, worker safety is ensured. Organizations that train younger workers well and refrain from nurturing a macho culture where risk taking is considered a positive do well. Research shows that businesses that encourage older workers to teach younger workers to use safety equipment, catch them neglecting to do so and take an interest in their training and development have fewer workplace injuries.

Witnessing Violence

Some occupations are in danger of what is known as secondary trauma – witnessing or hearing first-hand accounts of violence and its impact. They suffer emotional rather than physical effects. Seeing people hurt or dead, as do paramedics, police and firefighters, is immensely stressful. Social service personnel hear accounts of torture from refugees, child abuse from its victims and the pain of wife assault and rape when talking to clients. Over time, the effects of witnessing and treating the after effects of violence, can take its toll as evidenced by alcohol abuse, increased stress and difficulty coping. Programs that provide personnel with the opportunity to discuss secondary trauma, engage in self care (exercise, massage and good nutrition) and provide debriefing following particularly difficult calls or cases help staff. This can include access to EAP professionals trained in treating trauma and well designed wellness programs that highlight employee self care.

Workplace violence and its after effects can take its toll on staff and organizations. However, programs designed to prevent, stop and mitigate the effects of violence can and do have lasting, positive effects.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a partner with Newman & Grigg Psychological and consulting services. She is also producing a film on what to do about the six types of workplace violence in conjunction with Steven Hunt of Sound Development Productions an Ottawa based film company. If you are interested in finding out more about workplace violence and the film please contact Jennifer at

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