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Valentina Hynes

SVH Inc. CIC

Chief Executive Officer

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Will Smith Oscars slap: How to minimise the risk of physical violence at work

How can HR respond to physical violence and set in place measures to create a safer workplace?
Violence at work

The scenes of actor Will Smith striking Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars Ceremony has sparked outrage and provoked discussion about violence and whether it is ever justified. But when violence spills into the workplace, what are the active steps that HR can implement to help build a culture of safety and openness?

Organisations get the most from their people when employees feel safe. Those distracted by concerns about the potential for violence in the workplace are clearly going to be less productive. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the threat of violence, there are strategies that HR can implement to minimise the risk in their workplace, and help employees feel safe psychologically and physically while at work.

Examining the causes

The first thing to recognise is that violence is never a sudden event. There are always other factors at play, before the triggering event.

Event + Response = Outcome

Activating Belief + Behaviour = Consequence

Some factors at play may include:

  • Management dissatisfaction
  • Feels picked on and excluded
  • Job insecurity
  • Illness 
  • Divorce or personal stressors
  • Trauma or other mental health issues
  • Medication

When violence happens at work, take time to examine your organisation’s culture. Has yours contributed in some way to it? Culture is integral to wellbeing, belonging, brand image and employee engagement. 

Policies that do not reflect a wellbeing and happiness culture in practice, are ones that would eventually create consequences like the one we saw at the Oscars, or even P&O ferries in the UK.

When considering workplace violence, clues about potential problems may be found when an employee responds with anger to the experience of being singled out

Violence in all its forms can be traumatic for those directly involved and those who witness it. Often when violence at work occurs, anger is the motivating emotion. It is a given that emodiversity exists in the workplace, emodiversity is the variety and abundance of emotions a person tends to experience. Our range of emotions help us strike a balance with our wellbeing and mental health. Emotions are reactions to situations we find ourselves in –– a form of release or an outlet through which we gain some balance.

When considering workplace violence, clues about potential problems may be found when an employee responds with anger to the experience of being singled out. Generally the more an employee experiences a negative situation as a “personal affront” or feels ridiculed as a result of his or her behaviour, the greater the chance that, if other risk factors are present, the employee will seek retribution for the situation.

What can spark violence at work?

People react in a variety of ways when confronted with an experience or situation where they feel singled out, shamed, ‘wronged’, or personally offended. They could react by situation avoidance, withdrawal, irritability and anger.

Bullying and harassment (a form of violence) could result in trauma for those experiencing it and could trigger trauma at a later time, ending in friction, disengagement and brand sullying.They also are the biggest signs of a toxic culture, posing a threat to the health and safety of your people and brand image. Jokes cross the line when a particular individual is constantly made the butt of them, if the jokes are repetitive, and if any of the below are negative:

  • Intent
  • Reception
  • Impact  
  • Respect

This is not a call to stop jokes or workplace banter, but to examine what passes for jokes or banter, and its impact on your people. Whilst jokes or banter can be a fundamental part of team building, it could also be used to hide bullying or harassment as seen with the Yorkshire Cricket Club debacle and most recently The Oscars. The mental health impacts of violence at work could include depression, anxiety, trauma and addiction (as a coping mechanism). It’s therefore important not only to respond to the act of violence appropriately, but to question whether deeper cultural issues may have contributed to the series of events.

Take a look at your organisational culture

There are several things that HR can do to be proactive in establishing a safe workplace culture.

1. Ask your people

This could involve conducting a survey and directly asking if people feel harassed or bullied in any way. Make sure responders have anonymity. 

2. Be sure to communicate the results of your survey

Always provide feedback and open communication. This assures your people that you are taking an active role in their wellbeing at work. 

3. Take action

You may need to put out another survey (if responses indicate a bullying culture) asking for specific details, so as to launch mental health support, mediation and/or disciplinary action. This sends a message across the business that there is zero tolerance for such behaviour.

4. Repeat at least once a year

Making this a regular action reinforces that violence in not part of the accepted norm within your organisation.

Prevention is key

In addition, HR should also invest time and resources in other ways to prevent workplace aggression such as:

  • Knowing your people, and getting your people to know each other through psychometrics and behavioural assessments like DISC, watercooler events and away days.
  • Educating employees on mental health awareness and emotional intelligence (from top to bottom).
  • Creating a line of communication for colleagues to report claims and concerns safely without fear of retribution or sidelining.
  • Addressing reports and concerns promptly. Silence or delay make you seem complicit.
  • Thoroughly investigating complaints before taking any action.

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How can HR support colleagues after an incident?

1. Address the situation, make it clear the offence is what is being punished, not the person. 

2. Introduce mediation.

3. Encourage professional talking therapies, but don’t make them mandatory, as it could have the opposite effect. 

4. Avoid trivialising the incident or their feelings. 

5. Mobilise your mental health first aiders to provide support.

If you would like any more information on how HR can help prevent workplace violence and put in support for those who might be affected, Violence at work a guide for employers has some useful advice and signposts additional resources.

Interested in this topic? Read Mental Health: The importance of person-led support for serious conditions.

Author Profile Picture
Valentina Hynes

Chief Executive Officer

Read more from Valentina Hynes
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