It’s no surprise to HR Managers that employees are bringing this increased stress — lingering effects of the pandemic — into the workplace, although recent data indicate significant increases in workplace aggression.
A recent study by Lifeworks that surveyed 3,000 Canadians found that 20% of them have experienced increased aggression or conflict in the workplace when dealing with clients or the public. 
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 10 steps HR Managers can take to prevent aggression and 5 steps you could consider to mitigate incidents of aggression.
- Do you have a workplace agression issue? Do you have questions about setting a policy on workplace agression? Ask the HR Management experts at Pivotal Solutions>>
What is workplace aggression?
When we think of workplace aggression, the images that come to mind are likely to be physical violence and employees fist-fighting in the office.
Workplace aggression can take many forms, and it doesn’t always have to involve physical contact to be a problem.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Safety and Health defines workplace violence as harassment as “any act in which a person is abused, threatened, intimidated or assaulted in his or her employment.” 
- This can include some of the following:
- Threatening or intimidating behaviour. This can include stalking, cyberbullying (using technology to harass or intimidate an employee), or making threatening gestures.
- Verbal or written threats. Whether via email, text messages, voicemail, or other means, any form of communication that contains a threat is considered workplace aggression.
- Physical violence. This can include hitting, kicking, shoving, or using any type of weapon.
- Verbal abuse, such as making demeaning or derogatory comments, yelling, or swearing.
- Sexual harassment or assault. This can include unwelcome comments or jokes of a sexual nature, unwanted physical touching, or sexual assault.
Note that workplace aggression comes from customers, clients, or the public, as well as from other employees.
And according to the Lifeworks study, some employees are especially vulnerable to workplace aggression. Women are 40 percent more likely to experience workplace aggression than men, and managers are 60 percent more likely than non-managers.
The consequences of workplace aggression can be far-reaching and long-lasting. And it can have a serious impact on both the person who is experiencing it and the workplace as a whole.
Why is workplace aggression on the rise?
You can probably remember the images of store workers during the pandemic being punched or spat at by customers who were angry about wearing masks or following other safety guidelines.
An increase in stress can often translate into an increase in aggression. And there’s no doubt that the last few years have been a stressful time for many people.
In addition to the stress of the pandemic itself, many workers are dealing with job insecurity, financial stress, inflation, and the challenges of adapting to changing operating models at work.
As aggression rises, empathy is declining, with a survey by Businessolver showing that only 69 percent of employees rate their organizations as empathetic, down from 72 percent the previous year. 
The situation is even worse when looking at company leadership, with 79 percent of CEOs stating that they struggle to be empathetic, even though most recognize that it’s part of their job.
With stress on the rise, employee turnover increasing after the Great Resignation, and empathy declining, it’s no wonder that one in four workers in the US quit their jobs because of mental health troubles, according to a study by JobSage. 
How can you HR managers prevent workplace aggression?
HR as a function is, by definition, responsible for the human side of the workplace, which includes managing stress and conflict and making employees feel safe and supported.
There are several steps that HR managers can take to prevent workplace aggression:
- Most important is to communicate a zero-tolerance policy towards aggression and violence. This should be clearly stated in the employee handbook. The policy should be clearly communicated to all employees and include a process for reporting incidents of workplace aggression. As with all policies, it’s essential that they don’t just remain on paper but that they’re actually enforced.
- Identify red flags when hiring through proper screening — this is where a professional HR Recruitment firm or HR Management team can be useful. When screening candidates during the hiring process, look out for any signals that could indicate that they may be more likely to become aggressive in the workplace. These can include a history of violence, anger management issues, or a general unwillingness to follow the rules and guidelines or work as a team.
- Monitor employee morale and stress levels. As prolonged stress and job dissatisfaction can quickly turn into aggression, keeping an eye on employees’ well-being is crucial. This can be done through regular check-ins, surveys, and pulse checks.
- Encourage open communication. Employees should feel like they can come to HR management with any concerns they have without fear of reprisal. This open line of communication will help identify potential problems early on before they turn into full-blown aggression.
- Provide an anonymous reporting system so that employees who might be hesitant to report inappropriate behaviour, will not hesitate.
- Provide training on how to deal with aggression. This can include conflict resolution, stress management, and assertiveness training, among others.
- If employees have to deal with clients or the general public, it’s important to provide them with training on managing difficult people and what to do if someone becomes aggressive. This way, they will feel better equipped to diffuse the situation before it gets out of hand.
- Install surveillance cameras if necessary — especially in sensitive sectors such as healthcare, education, or retail— bearing in mind the balance between security and right to privacy. They often act as a deterrent to aggression, and if it comes to the worst, they can also provide valuable evidence if an incident does occur.
- Enforce relevant legislation for workplace safety. In some cases, there may be laws and regulations that dictate what employers need to do to ensure the safety of their employees. It’s important to be aware of these and ensure your organization is compliant. This could include things like conducting risk assessments, providing personal protective equipment, or implementing security measures.
- Prevention through early detection of warning signs and creating an environment where aggression is not tolerated is the best way to ensure that aggression doesn’t happen in the first place. But it’s also essential to have mechanisms in place to know how to handle any incidents, should they arise.
How can you manage it when it happens?
When workplace aggression does happen, it’s vital to deal with it swiftly and appropriately. A zero-tolerance policy means nothing if employees see that nothing is being done when an incident does occur.
Here are some of the mitigation steps to bear in mind when tackling a case of workplace aggression:
- Implement protective measures. First and foremost, ensuring the victim is safe while any investigation is carried out is essential. This may include providing them with a safe workplace space, escorting them to and from the workplace, or giving them time off work if appropriate.
- Investigate the incident fully. This includes talking to all parties involved, as well as any witnesses. It’s important to get as much information as possible to make a fair and informed decision about how to proceed. In some cases, it may be necessary to involve law enforcement if the incident involves criminal behaviour.
- Consider all possible disciplinary actions. Depending on the severity of the incident, there may be a range of different disciplinary actions that could be taken, as contemplated in the company policies and the relevant labour laws.
- Take action based on the findings of the investigation. This could involve anything from issuing a warning to the employee in question to terminating their employment. In some cases, it may be appropriate for the company to take legal action.
- Ensure that any victims receive support. It’s important to ensure that any victims of workplace aggression receive the support they need, both in the immediate aftermath of the incident and in the long term. This could include things like counseling, psychological support, or financial assistance. Depending on the incident and its impact on others, it may be necessary to provide support to a broader group of employees.
All employees have the right to feel safe and secure in their workplace. Failure to act appropriately (or not to act at all) in the event of workplace aggression can have serious consequences, both for the individuals involved and for the company as a whole. It can also result in costly lawsuits if employees feel that the company did not adequately protect them or did not take their complaints seriously.
By taking steps to prevent workplace aggression and dealing with it effectively when it does happen, HR managers can create a safer and more productive environment for everyone where employees feel free to do their best work.
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