Businesses re-opening after many months of COVID-19 related restrictions are beginning to shift the focus of their security concerns to the potential threat of conflict in the workplace. While tensions or disagreements may be part of any work setting, identifying the warning signs and responding appropriately can prevent conflict from escalating into something more dangerous.

Among those most dramatically impacted by workplace violence are workers in the healthcare community, with the Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) designating workplace violence a “recognized hazard” for all healthcare organizations. Furthermore, The Joint Commission (TJC), which provides hospital accreditation, is recommending changes to its standards to address workplace violence that, if approved, would require preventive measures to take effect as early as January of 2022. TJC’s proposal requires an annual assessment of policies, procedures and education, including de-escalation training techniques and strategies to help prevent conflict from igniting into workplace violence that is defined as including verbal and non-verbal actions, threats and intimidation.  

Although workers in other industries may face fewer or different risks related to workplace violence than those in the healthcare community, the acknowledgement and formal recognition that workplace violence is an urgent problem represents an important trend other organizations would be wise to consider as they evaluate the potential threat posed to their employees, visitors and customers. Those working in fields such as education, transportation and retail may face elevated risk as well, but the potential exists in any work environment for conflict to escalate into aggressive or violent behavior unless you know the warning signs and how to address them. 

Having worked on crime problems that pose major threats to the U.S. in my past, I understand how violent crime can paralyze entire communities and strain state and local law enforcement resources. In addition, I see huge value for companies to recognize this trend and begin to give it priority, not only to prevent violent workplace incidents, but to create more positive and productive environments where people can best contribute, collaborate and thrive with the added benefit that organizations will be helping to create safer communities across the country.

Security and other business leaders who are aware of how team members interact with each other verbally, through emails and during meetings can look for red flag warnings that can signal a conversation or encounter might be spiraling in the wrong direction or out of control.

Conflict management and team dynamics experts at Resologics have assembled a helpful list of some of the most common warning signs that a problem might be developing.

  1. Dysfunctional meetings that devolve into gripe sessions instead of positive gatherings to brainstorm with one or two people repeatedly dominating the discussion while others appear annoyed or distracted.
  2. Productivity slowdowns by a usually high-tempo worker who starts to perform or behave differently can be cause for concern.
  3. Anger or over-the-top reactions are reasons to take notice, especially if anyone seems easily triggered or overly emotional. Anxiety brought on by the stresses of the pandemic can compound the frustrations people are feeling, but anger is rarely the response for a first time or one-off upset and requires immediate attention.
  4. Inappropriate communications by someone consistently using rude or disrespectful language during meetings, interpersonally or in e-mails can indicate issues that need to be addressed quickly.
  5. Cliques forming that go beyond healthy or established employee work teams can create a sense of exclusion that may lead to disagreements that can escalate.
  6. Distrust may develop when a feeling of skepticism dominates a team’s project or management’s ability, eroding the trust that is so essential to any team environment. 

No two situations are exactly the same, but when faced with intervening during a conflict, the best first step is to completely understand the situation and all points of view, so the actions that follow can be most effective and have a positive impact.  

  • Acknowledge the concerns or frustrations of the person or people involved in the conflict. Make your initial goal to come to some agreeable resolution in a few hours. This may not always happen, but it’s important to set that as the objective.
  • Establish guidelines and ground rules for the conversation. This will vary depending upon the situation.
  • Remain neutral by not judging, agreeing or disagreeing with any side. Patiently allow everyone to talk and express their point of view. 
  • Avoid using coercion or intimidation to direct a specific outcome.
  • Focus on the problems, not any one incident that may have occurred.
  • Act decisively so that the person who is experiencing conflict knows what is going to happen next. 

De-escalation training is an important part of any comprehensive risk assessment and workplace violence prevention program that should also include having a robust, monitored electronic security system in place. 

Prioritizing a comprehensive workplace violence prevention program in your organization is key to providing a safe, healthy workplace. Implementing prevention measures in the workplace before a violent incident occurs can help prevent conflict from turning into a crisis that results in lost productivity, brand erosion or worse, injury or the loss of life.