A friend, Ken Johnson recently published a two part series on workplace bullying at themedes.org. The series is excellent, with the first article highlighting that violence can be physical or non-physical, and that it is important for people to be cognizant of non-physical forms of violence.
As a firearms instructor, I have to put on my Concealed Firearms Permit instructor hat and point out that violence and force are different. In the Utah Concealed Firearms permit class this is why we always refer to levels of “force” not levels of violence. When someone says, “I’m going to kill you,” it’s important to be aware that they are making a violent threat, but on the use of force continuum, this is at the verbal level. Your responsibility is to make every effort to deescalate the situation.
As I say in my concealed firearms class, “At this level of conflict I can eat a lot of shit and still have a smile on my face.”
It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens to walk away whenever possible. Only when an offender rises to the level of immediate threat to life or limb is it permissible in Utah to use deadly force in defense of self or others. In the case where workplace bullying becomes a life or limb reality, for most of us it is unlikely we will have access to a firearm if our employer has a no weapons policy in the workplace. Defense minded citizens need to find other strategies for dealing with immediate threats in the building. Several firearms groups have made statements about citizen’s rights to self-defense in the workplace, but business owner’s rights to establish rules of conduct prevail.
Ken’s second article in the series addresses the issue of ongoing stress and pressure in the workplace – increased workload, more stringent business goals, manipulative and abusive management tactics which may boil down to an active shooter scenario.
Ken writes, “The problem with catabolic conflict is that it is cyclical and even viral if left unmanaged. According to Dr. Ron Claassen, professor at Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, there are five stages to the unmanaged conflict cycle: Stage I – Change: Confusion/Tension; Stage II – Role Dilemma; Stage III – Injustice Collecting; Stage IV – Confrontation; and Stage V – Adjustments.”
What is unclear in the article, however, is why some situations like this devolve into violence, but the vast majority do not. Every one of us has a story we have experienced or one of our friends has experienced where a district manager bullies the store manager who increases pressure on associates, the environment became oppressive and terminations are near at hand for some, while others duck and cover, and survive under less than ideal conditions.
The primary reason, I believe, is that most people in this kind of environment either don’t participate in stage 3, injustice collecting, or they skip stage IV and make adjustments to their environment, even seeking other employment. The truth is that there are no perfect “just” environments, and people are highly adaptive with different levels of interest in confrontation based on what they see around them and how they interpret the landscape. Someone focused on perceiving injustice might sit right next to someone focused on finishing work and going to a movie with friends. They might work in the same business, but perceive different worlds operating around them.
The question is, if business is responsible to create a safe environment, and the path to the safe environment is managing employee perceptions of justice, to what level is business responsible for managing the mind of the employee?
In ethical business environments there are measures and release valves put in place to identify when interventions on managerial processes should take place. One of these measures is employee turnover. Many businesses identify acceptable and unacceptable rates of turnover. When rates become too high, or employee exit interviews indicate internal problems such as bullying, human resources teams can begin a process of realignment.
Ken makes the statement that “Most companies and even academics do not understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation.” In my experience, this is not the case. Working in both security and management, having studied management and strategy, and teaching business courses including business ethics, I see many case studies of workplace violence discussed at even the store manager level.
In my understanding, where workplace pressures turn to violence, at the bottom of the transition from nonviolent action and adaptation to violent action and adaptation is a worker who perceived there was no release valve, or that they could not use the release valves available to them without catastrophic harm to themselves – their careers, their income, their credibility. The employee may feel stuck in a double bind.
Read more about the double bind in this article. http://www.theguntutor.com/2013/11/15/if-this-isnt-working-i-wont-do-it-anymore/
Ken proposes the use of Restorative Justice techniques to resolve workplace violence. “Somewhat different from a traditional ADR, RJ facilitators focus more on ‘conflict transformation’ than on ‘conflict resolution.’ RJ facilitators are quite at home with concepts such as community-based mediation sessions.”
The focus on conflict transformation rather than resolution suggests a move from the ethical framework based in checks and balances and a move to an integrated emotional model of relationship management in the workplace.
My concern with moving from an ethical architectural model of management, where emphasis is placed on managing business outcomes to an emotional model where business is responsible for managing the mind and the perceptions of justice or injustice held by their employees has to do with the scope organizations have over their employees and the larger culture.
I find this transition to move business from an ethical framework to a moral framework. Regardless of my perceptions, there are many organizations that want to make the switch to this kind of conflict resolution. But what could be the consequences?
Double binds in business are pervasive. Even the ethical structure itself, where store level managers are under scrutiny by human resources and under sales target pressures from senior management, utilizes the double bind to frame manager’s work.
Gregory Bateson described positive and negative double binds – the positive, when someone chooses the role, and the negative, when someone feels entrapped by opposing statements. A manager who takes on and thrives between these conflicting pressures might fit the former, where a manager who believes the company is attempting to undermine his or her success with conflicting forces could fall into the latter.
So, given a corporate business environment, how could the restorative encounter be framed, and would the restorative encounter change the risk of violence in the workplace?
Let’s suppose that employees at a struggling department store feel bullied by their manager to meet ever increasing sales targets due to financial misses earlier in the year. A collaborative roundtable with an emphasis on restoration could be established, but who should participate in the process? The staffing manager might be called out for showing stress in front of employees when discussing sales targets, but then telling them they are doing a good job. Employees may perceive these conflicting expressions as indicators they are at risk in their work environment. Their department managers may then also reinforce individual sales targets with increased levels of verbal warning about missing goals.
In a “restorative” engagement sales associates may be able to express their feelings and gain catharsis, but the manager would be expected to conceal corporate pressures coming from the VP of sales, the store finance director and others within the business. The store manager would be at risk of falling into a negative double bind scenario in the name of restoration.
In such an environment it would not be possible to involve everyone who creates pressure to be involved. Some businesses are set up so that a region is responsible for a dollar return on investment. The parent company simply sets the expectation, and managers are held accountable to deliver. Should the parent company be involved in a restorative meeting, to consider their influence on unhealthy pressures within the regional or store level environment? Should the board of directors and stockholders be involved as well?
From the societal model of ethics promoted by Debbie Thorne McAlister O. C. Ferrell and Linda Ferrell in their book Business and Society: A Strategic Approach to Social Responsibility, there must be a top down commitment to ethics, and release valves such as an ethics hotline where individual identity is kept private. Checks and balances such as private corrective action, feedback sessions where concerns may be heard, considered and an integrated corporate response can be made.
This is a description of the “managed work environment” Dr. Ron Claassen was describing when he wrote about the five stages of the unmanaged conflict cycle. It takes measures to clarify the responsibility and the outcomes expected. From this ethical framework, should an individual employee shift into the mindset of the negative double bind and injustice collecting, the employee’s actions are his or her responsibility, and it is not the businesses responsibility to cater people who may choose to become violent.
The reality is that any employee at any time in any environment can frame their work in terms of injustice and make a choice to become physically violent. Customers can come into a business with violent criminal intent. A person may become violent for no apparent reason, or the sense of injustice may come from another source outside of work. The business does not hold the responsibility to closely investigate the mind of its employees and customers in their personal lives to determine risk, but rather to respond to warnings and risks that emerge within the business setting. There should be a hurdle to investigation based in ethical organizational architecture frameworks. Transforming the business framework to a moral model takes down this hurdle and gives business the responsibility to manage the mind of the employee.
It is, however, incumbent upon these businesses to create opportunities for self-protection against attack. Whether this means allowing concealed carry qualified employees to be armed at work, providing armed security, allowing concealed carry by licensed employees, or allowing lower levels of defensive force such as a stun device, it is an important question for all workers to consider.