Is Workplace Violence Preventable? At Yale and Elsewhere?

I don’t mean to fan the flames of the tragic death of Yale graduate student, Annie M. Le,  nor do I wish to criminalize the suspect, Raymond Clark III.  I do however, want to bring attention to the issue of “workplace violence” and more importantly, its prevention.

Based on my experiences as a workplace mediator and advocate, I have come to learn that workplace conflict can escalate from a simple dispute to all out rage.  Nationally known organizational consultant Speed Leas describes five “levels of conflict intensity”:

  • Level I:  Problems to Solve – Differences exist, people understand one another, and they have conflicting goals, values, needs, action plans, or information.
  • Level II:  Disagreement – A mixing of personalities and issues occurs; problem cannot be clearly defined.
  • Level III: Contest – Distortion becomes a serious problem. The dynamics of win/lose begin. There is resistance to peace overtures.
  • Level IV: Fight, Flight – Conflict shifts from winning to getting rid of person(s). They no longer believe others can change, or want them to change.
  • Level V: Intractable – Conflict is now unmanageable.  Vindictive. There is no objectivity or control of emotion.  People usually perceive themselves to be a part of an eternal cause, fighting for universal principles.

work-place-violence-68330I am not suggesting that the Yale case followed this particular pattern, or that the suspect demonstrated any particular conflict cues.  I am suggesting that chances of preventing a highly destructive outcome are increased in most workplaces when conflict is addressed at lower levels of intensity.  For example, in response to the workplace violence that took place at the US Postal Service, the REDRESS (Resolve Employment Disputes Reach Equitable Solutions Swiftly) program was created.  I serve as a mediator for this program, and it is designed to address workplace conflict at the lowest level of intensity.  There have been fewer incidents of dramatic violence since this program was instituted.

There are many qualified professionals who understand how to manage and prevent workplace conflict such as members of the Association for Conflict Resolution (which includes specialists in workplace dispute resolution).

Following are a few quotes from the New York Times article Lab Technician Arrested in Murder of  Yale Student (September 17, 2009), which underscore the importance of paying attention to workplace conflict.

New Haven Chief James Lewis says of the murder of  Ms. Le “It is important to note that this is not about urban crime, university crime, domestic crime, but an issue of workplace violence, which is becoming a growing concern around the country.”

“Chief Lewis  repeated that it was not a “street crime” or a “domestic crime.” He added: “We have to really educate ourselves who we work with and how we deal with each other and those issues.”

Richard C. Levin, the president of Yale, released a statement that echoed Chief Lewis’s comment describing the killing as workplace related. “This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace,” he said. “It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”

I certainly understand the perspective of the Yale president that “It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”  And, employers must also take responsibility to reduce the chances of such horrific events.  For example, by creating integrated conflict management programs that address workplace problems when they arise.

For information about preventing conflict in a nonprofit setting, see my article Understanding Conflict in Nonprofit Organizations

Contact me to learn more about my conflict management services.

One thought on “Is Workplace Violence Preventable? At Yale and Elsewhere?

  1. David

    Absolutely! My experience in the workplace is that management usually doesn’t like to get involved in disputes. The manager says, “Work it out among yourselves.” Sometimes that is sufficient, but sometimes it’s not. I think that managers have a lot of power to mediate disputes because of their position of authority, but they don’t use it because they don’t want to offend anyone or take time away from their ‘real’ work. But that allows problems to fester.

    There’s no one simple answer to workplace disputes. Some require intervention and some don’t. But, for sure, the management has to pay attention , think about the situation, and use their best judgment as to when to intervene.

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