Management Development ForumVolume 3 - N0. 1 (00)
Violence, Aggression and Passive-Aggression in the Workplace Remedies
Rudy Nydegger
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By most reports, the frequency and severity of workplace aggression and violence is increasing. One only has to listen to the evening news or read the daily paper to realize how large a problem this has become (Baron, 1993; Neumann & Baron, 1998; Rigdon, 1994). Interestingly, most workplace violence is committed by people from outside of the organization. For example, recent statistics demonstrate that robberies and other crimes account for 81.82% of violence in the workplace, followed by business disputes (8.69%), police in the line of duty (5.59%), and personal disputes (3.9%) (Greenberg & Baron, 1997). Regardless of the source of the problem, workers and managers today are justifiably concerned about violence and aggression, and how the work environment can be kept safe without infringing unnecessarily on individual rights.

Much of the attention regarding violence in the workplace, as well as in other organizations, is focused on the United States. However, in looking at the newer literature in this field, one is instantly struck by the international nature of this problem. This is an even larger concern as more firms become international and multinational, markets broaden and become worldwide, and workers find jobs outside of their national boundaries with increasing frequency (Robbins, 1999).

Frequent attention in the news media is focused on workplace violence. Violence is here defined as the actual infliction or threat of infliction of physical harm by a person or persons on another person, a group or on the broader organization which includes physical and human components. Thus, a person (or persons) decides and intends to do physical harm to another person, group or organization, and actually does it, or at least threatens to do so. As big a problem as this is, the broader problem of workplace aggression must be addressed as well.

Violence is the most obvious form of aggression, but there are other forms of aggression that, although they may not do physical harm, are destructive and harmful. Aggression, the intent to harm another or an organization, may take a variety of forms. For example, direct aggression occurs when a person takes an action intended to inflict harm on another or on the organization. Thus, verbal aggression or bullying might not inflict physical harm like violence, but it could still be quite harmful. Similarly, a person might hurt an organization directly through acts like giving away proprietary information or spreading false rumors about the company.

Recently, some writers have been paying attention to various forms of “passive-aggression.” While psychologists have talked about passive-aggressive behavior in clinical and family contexts for decades, it is only in the past few years that writers and researchers have looked at this type of behavior in the workplace (Bjorkqvist, Osterman, & Lagerspitz, 1994; Neumann & Baron, 1998). Passive-aggressive behavior refers to actions that are intended to do harm (aggressive), but are not direct. That is, the person would resort to passive means to fulfill the aggressive intent. Such things as forgetting appointments, not returning calls, being tardy, or spreading rumors are examples of passive-aggressive behavior if the intention is to cause harm. That is one reason why it is often difficult to identify passive-aggressiveness, because it often looks like something else. For example, if someone forgets to return a telephone call, is it passive-aggression or is it just a sign of busyness? In practice, the best way to identify passive-aggressive behavior is by looking at patterns of behavior over time. If there are trends that suggest intention, then it is likely to be passive-aggression. Recent researchers have suggested that not only is passive-aggressive behavior harmful, but it is more common than overt aggression (Neumann & Baron, 1998). It is also true that passive-aggressive behavior is found in countries other than the U.S. (Bjorkqvist et al., 1994).

Severity of the Problem

When the most violent of aggressive behaviors are evaluated, it is clear that the problem is of significant proportions. Violence is a major cause of death or injury on the job, and homicide is the second leading cause of occupational injury death (behind motor vehicle accidents) (NIOSH, 1999). In fact, homicide is the leading cause of work-related deaths for females in the U.S. (Barrett, 1997). Further, workplace homicide is the fastest growing type of homicide, although other forms of aggression are increasing as well: two million workplace assaults occur per year, 16 million workers are harassed each year, and six million workers are threatened each year. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor found that one out of six crimes in the U.S. occurs in the workplace (Barrett, 1997). Another alarming statistic is the rate at which supervisors have been murdered has doubled since 1985 (Barrett, 1997). In the U.S., about 56% of workplace homicides are in the retail or service environments, and this is usually worse when the employee is dealing with money or is making deliveries (NIOSH, 1999). While these numbers are reflective of problems in the U.S., similar trends are found around the world as well.

Although violence is frightening and terrible, most workplace aggression is verbal, or indirect and passive. It is also true that recent changes in many organizations have created conditions that directly lead to increases in aggression among employees (Baron & Neumann, 1996). Interestingly, 44.5% of workers who committed aggressive acts did so against a coworker, 31.4% against a supervisor and 26.8% against a subordinate. Importantly, in these cases the workers involved in committing the aggressive acts typically believed that their behavior was justified (Baron & Neumann, 1996).

Not only is aggression and violence harmful to the person and the organization, it is also very expensive. In one recent year, over two million Americans reported being physically attacked at work resulting in $13.5 million in medical costs alone (Bowman & Zigmund, 1997). There are also some international data regarding costs that are troubling. In 1992, workplace violence cost the U.S. over $4 billion, and that has likely gone up in recent years. In Canada, wage loss claims by hospital workers from acts of violence have increased by 88% since 1985. One study in Germany found that the direct cost of psychological violence in an enterprise with 1,000 workers has been calculated at about $112,000/year along with indirect costs of $56,000/year (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998).

Clearly, workplace violence and various forms of aggression can affect organizations in a variety of ways. The presence of violence, aggression and passive-aggression in the workplace is very stressful to the workers and managers who experience it. This type of stress is felt in many ways in organizations, and all of these have consequences. One of the most obvious impacts of stress is its effect upon employee health. It is believed that many illnesses are either caused by stress or are exacerbated by it. Research suggests that these types of stress-related illnesses cost billions of dollars annually in health care costs alone, and even more in employee absenteeism and turnover (Beehr & Bhagat, 1985; Gherman, 1981; Hatfield, 1990).

Not surprisingly, stress can also have a significant and negative effect on the psychological condition of workers. Anxiety disorders, depression, chronic fatigue, sleep problems, relationship difficulties, substance abuse, and increased accident rates are also related to high levels of stress (Wolf, 1986). Other things like emotional exhaustion, detachment from coworkers, negative self-evaluation, and decreased self-esteem are also results of workplace stress (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993).

Stress is also significantly related to other work outcomes as well. Although the relationship between stress and work outcomes is complex, some findings seem to have credence. In health care settings, stress was related to depression in nurses, and this depression decreased the quality of their work and increased the difficulties that they had with coworkers (Motowidlo, Packard, & Manning, 1986). Substantial evidence exists that work stress can lead to increased turnover and absenteeism (Dwyer & Ganster, 1991; Gupta & Beehr, 1979; Mayes & Ganster, 1988).

To the extent that the organization is interested in managing work stress it then holds that managing and/or controlling the effects of workplace violence and aggression is of paramount importance for organizations that are committed to maintaining a healthy and productive work environment.

International Aspects

It is very difficult to get reliable international data on the frequency and types of violence that occur in different countries. There are no widely accepted standards of reporting and record keeping among countries, but this has improved somewhat in recent years. Certainly there is more worldwide interest in violence and aggression, and the topic is gaining considerable attention in scientific and professional publications. However, it is clear from the data and information that we do have that violence at work is transcending national boundaries, and is fast becoming a major problem around the world. Internationally, the highest risk professions are taxi drivers, health care workers, teachers, social workers, domestics in foreign countries, and people working alone (especially at night in retail establishments). It has also been asserted that female workers are at higher risk for being the victims of violence at work. This is due at least in part to the fact that they tend to be disproportionately represented in some of the high-risk jobs (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998).

In addition to physical violence, workers and employers are beginning to recognize that psychological aggression is also serious, and needs to be addressed as well. There is considerable emerging international literature on psychological aggression, and many countries are taking aggression very seriously. Bullying by supervisors and coworkers has attracted attention in a number of countries, as has been “ganging up” on or “mobbing” a targeted employee. Countries that are studying and dealing with these problems include Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998).

With respect to violence in general, French employees are most likely to believe that they have been victims of violence in the workplace. France, Argentina, Romania, Canada, and England have the highest reported rates of assaults and sexual harassment on the job (United Nations, 1998). In the United Kingdom, a survey by the British Retail Consortium into crime in the retail sector found over 11,000 retail workers were victims of physical violence on the job in fiscal 1994-95, and 350,000 reported threats and verbal abuse. The majority of attacks on retail workers (59%) occurred when the employees were trying to prevent theft. This survey found that the risk of physical violence for retail staff was 5/1,000/year, while the risk of threatened violence was 35/1,000/year, and the risk of verbal abuse was 81/1,000/year (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998).

Other statistics of interest reported by the International Labor Office (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998) included the finding that, when German workers were interviewed in 1991 about violence and aggression in the workplace, 93% of the women workers interviewed indicated they had been sexually harassed at work. Another report from Japan stated that corporate downsizing in 1996 led to increased complaints of bullying and fears of violence. In Japan, where people were used to expecting jobs with virtual guarantees of lifetime employment, dealing with the idea of layoffs was very difficult. This resulted, because of personal pride and other factors, in the suicides of some Japanese workers. It was later found that many of the calls complaining about abusive treatment and bullying came from the suicide victims’ surviving family members.

The Philippines has reported an interesting twist on the problem of workplace aggression. Historically, Philippine workers have migrated to other countries to find jobs and make money. More than half of these migratory workers are female, and many of them work as domestics. The rate of reported violence and aggression against these workers is very high, and they frequently complain that their employers keep their passports to maintain control over them and to keep them from leaving their jobs (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998).

International comparisons are difficult, but certainly there are some countries that report far more problems than others do. What we do not know is the extent to which some countries may lack the resources to track the information reliably, and thus to what extent some of the differences may be actually due to reporting problems. However, it is clear that violence in the work environment is a problem that goes far beyond national boundaries and must be addressed at all levels.

Problems like violence and aggression are not only human, legal, political, and police issues, but business issues as well. Anything that affects workers and organizations adversely will affect productivity, job satisfaction and cost effectiveness. This complicates business, but also complicates some of the problems with which we deal. Violence and aggression are facts of the work environment that must be taken seriously by all organizations and by all governments. Perhaps the best thing that organizations can do is to be good role models, and make a point of addressing the issues of violence, aggression and passive-aggression in their own workplaces.

Causes and Reasons for Violence and Aggression in the Workplace

In the press, in popular media and in the professional literature there is considerable discussion about the various causes of the violence and aggression around us. While there is not likely to be an easy solution to the problem of violence today, we must begin looking at this problem in its various manifestations, with the hope of understanding and ultimately controlling it as effectively as possible.

When we look for causes of violence and aggression, the tendency is to look for things that can be isolated or understood easily. Thus, people look at the perpetrator of violence as the problem, and that to eliminate violence and aggression we simply must understand, fix or isolate the elements of society that produce the problem. While this might protect us from those who are violence prone, it does not deal with some of the causal factors that might help us prevent the problem. Others would have us believe that violence is a by-product of society’s ills, and that fixing society will eliminate the problem of violence. This, of course, does not allow for individual responsibility for one’s acts, and it also does not allow for the fact that some people are more likely to commit violent and aggressive acts regardless of the culture in which they are placed. The answer is likely not to be an answer, but a continuing process of dealing with violence and aggression where they occur with the intention of trying to understand and control them more effectively and efficiently. To understand violence and aggression we must try to understand the people who commit these acts, but also the contexts in which these acts occur.

When people are asked why they commit violent or aggressive acts they typically say that someone did something to them that justified the violent or aggressive response (Harris, 1993; Torestad, 1990). Thus, the perpetrators usually see the cause of their violence or aggression as being someone or something outside of themselves; they are not personally responsible because someone or something drove them to do it. Obviously, this explanation is rarely satisfactory to anyone except the perpetrator, but it also does not adequately account for the ways in which violence and aggression are expressed, and who commits the acts. It seems unlikely that any complex human behavior is determined by a single factor. In fact, virtually all of human behavior has multiple determinants, and if we are to find an answer to the causes of violence and aggression, we must look for all possible contributing factors.

Certainly, personal determinants for aggression must have some role. Specifically, it has been suggested that a Type A personality could be related to aggression. (Holmes & Will, 1985). Type A individuals are usually working under stress, are easily frustrated, are generally aggressive anyway, and are neither patient nor understanding. Clearly, this type of person would be high risk for violence or aggression, and there is some evidence that this is in fact the case. Self-monitoring is another personality variable that has been linked to violence and aggression; self-monitoring refers to the extent to which individuals are aware of themselves relative to other people, and the extent to which they are aware of their own behavior and the effects of their behavior on others. People who are low in self-monitoring often seem oblivious to others, and are rarely aware of the effects of their behavior on others. Thus, they might be inadvertently obstructionist or inconsiderate which might increase the likelihood that their insensitive behavior might cause a hostile/aggressive response from someone else. It could also lead the low self-monitoring person to have a hostile attributional bias (since others really might be more hostile to them), and this might lead to more aggressive behavior on their part (Dodge, Price, Bachorowski, & Neumann, 1990; Neumann & Baron, 1998). It is also true that people’s affective state and cognitive appraisal could lead to violence or other forms of aggression. When people experience negative affect (e.g., they are in a bad mood), they are more likely to respond aggressively, and they are more likely to elicit hostile and aggressive responses from others. Not only is this true, but it is interesting to note that when people are experiencing negative affect they typically look outside themselves to explain it. If individuals do feel this way, then it may be very likely that they will expect hostility and/or aggression, or behave aggressively towards others (Neumann & Baron, 1998).

Some recent work by Neumann and Baron (1998) and their colleagues has examined a variety of causal factors in workplace violence and aggression. Social determinants certainly have a role in violence and aggression. For example, when employees are treated unfairly, or perceive that they are treated unfairly, they become a higher risk for violence or aggression. In fact, it has been demonstrated that some employees will steal from their employers (a form of aggression against the organization) as a way to “get even” for real or imagined harm done to them by the employer (Greenberg & Scott, 1996). Obviously, this does not suggest that all employees who feel that they are being treated unfairly will become violent. However, the perception of being unfairly treated will certainly lower the threshold for violence or aggression to be expressed. Another social factor found to be significant is the presence of frustrating events for the employee. Psychologists have known for decades that there is a relationship between frustration and aggression, and that factor is valid in the workplace as well. Increased workforce diversity also increases the possibility of aggression or violence in the workplace (Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992). Diversity may lead to misunderstandings, mistrust and resentments that could easily emerge directly or indirectly as aggression or even violence. Finally, the social situation in which workers find themselves may have norms that actually permit or even promote various types of aggression. In other words, the norms in the relevant social group may encourage aggression. Violation of certain norms or guidelines may engender resentment or hostility that may actually lead to violence (Neumann & Baron, 1998).

There may be situational as well as social factors that could be related to the emergence of violence. Layoffs, downsizing and wage freezes create hostility that could lead to problems (Brockner, Gover, Reed, & DeWitt, 1992). Other things like cost- cutting budgetary constraints and other organizational changes might also create difficulties. We do know that change – even good change – is stressful, and stress can sometimes fuel the tendency for violence and aggression to emerge. Finally, some researchers have found that environmental conditions such as noise, heat and humidity can lead to stress and negative affect that also contribute to the tendency toward violence and aggression (Baron, 1993; Neumann & Baron, 1998).

In addition to examining some of the potential causes for workplace violence and aggression, it is also helpful to examine some of the warning signs that employers or coworkers might observe that might suggest that someone is at high risk for aggression. No single one of these factors is a reliable indicator in and of themselves, but care should be taken to observe trends and patterns that might indicate a potential problem. Having one of the warning signs – or even several of them – does not mean that someone will commit a violent or aggressive act. However, if workers display one or more of these factors, there is reason to be watchful. Further, by observing individuals over time and looking for trends, employers and coworkers will have a better chance of actually predicting who might be inclined to act aggressively. We know that psychologists have considerable difficulty predicting future violence in people, and we should not expect that a manager or employee would be able to accurately predict which employees might or might not act out. Being aware of warning signs does, however, allow us to be ready to intervene if a situation warrants it. Here are some of the warning signs that might indicate employee who are at higher risk for aggression or violence (from Gray, 1998):

Managing, Controlling and Preventing Aggression and Violence

According to Barrett (1997), all employers have the responsibility to provide a safe and healthy work environment. Further, Bowman and Zigmond (1997) suggest that workplace violence is a form of hazard which employers must manage. The International Labor Organization suggests that a number of responses must be considered to manager violence in the workplace (Chappell & DiMartino, 1998):

The United States Postal Service, as an example, has a violence prevention program that deals with a number of different factors: personnel selection, security, workplace violence and aggression policies, organizational climate, employee support, and dealing with employee separation or termination (Anfuso, 1994).

Certainly in all organizations there are some things that need to be done to prevent and manage violence and aggression in the workplace. First, screening and selection are critical (Folger & Skarlicki, 1995). Some people are more prone to explode than others are. Past work experiences, interviews and testing can be used to identify people that might be high risk for violence and aggression. Second, all organizations should have a clear disciplinary process that includes progressive punishment (Arvey & Jones, 1985). The rules, violations and consequences should be clearly spelled out. Further, progressive punishment suggests that subsequent infringements of the rules be dealt with more severely. Third, aggression often stems from people feeling as if they are being treated unfairly (Greenberg, 1993). Care should be taken to ensure strict organizational justice. Finally, managers and employees should be trained on how to deal with violence or aggression when it occurs (Mantell & Albrecht, 1994). When people know what to do in difficult situations, they are more likely to manage them effectively and to reduce the problems that could emerge.

Finally, Moffatt (1998) has some guidelines for organizations to reduce the threats of violence (Moffatt’s guidelines in quotes):

Summary and Closing Points

Ignoring issues of violence and aggression in the workplace is shortsighted to the point of negligence. Too many incidents occur today that might have been prevented under different circumstances. Too often we find out after a tragedy that there were signs or issues that could have been recognized and dealt with had someone been aware or willing to intervene. For example, in 1998, an employee at the Connecticut State Lottery, who was upset because he felt that his supervisors were not listening to him, killed four employees before killing himself (Aamodt, 1999). Another tragedy occurred in 1988 when an employee in a Micropure Plant in California killed two and wounded four employees because he was frustrated with his job (Aamodt, 1999). Clearly, these extreme reactions cannot be completely explained by looking at the environment – the people in question obviously had serious emotional issues that led to the tragedy of which they were a part. However, had their work-related issues been recognized earlier, the violence might have been circumvented, and the perpetrator given the kind of treatment or help that might have made a difference.

Violence and the various forms of aggression in the workplace are serious threats to workers, managers and organizations in general. This is a problem that is becoming increasingly serious in all corners of the world. As organizations become more multinational, these problems will continue to grow. Concerted efforts to recognize and deal with issues related to violence, aggression and passive-aggression in the workplace are necessary for the protection of workers, managers and organizations themselves.

Some more general and guiding principles can be added as well. To manage violence and aggression in the workplace, the best solution by far is prevention. Of course, we will never eliminate these problems completely, but the better we understand the causes and the issues, the more likely we are to anticipate and even avoid some of the problems of violence and aggression in the work environment that are manifested around the world. For example, we know that in highly politicized organizational environments we will find more frustration, mistrust and hostility; these feelings, of course, breed direct and indirect aggression. A number of things can be done to avoid or minimize these problems. Most important are open communication and an environment where people can talk and listen to one another’s problems. And certainly the most important communication skill of all is listening. Managers and leaders who listen are aware of issues, potential problems, dissatisfied employees, and high-risk situations. The best advice for managers in terms of minimizing the effects of violence and aggression is to listen, to pay attention and to give evidence that they are hearing what is going on and that they care about it. This will help identify problems before they become explosive or destructive.

The second thing that must be done is to try to reduce uncertainty and unnecessary stress. Stress is abundant in most organizations, but it can be minimized by keeping people informed when information is available and avoiding the creation of unnecessary stress. Managers should answer questions to the best of their abilities and ask for questions, thereby providing workers with a forum for addressing issues and finding answers.

Third, managers and workers should be educated on the issues surrounding violence and aggression, and the importance of communication and trust in organizations. An informed and educated workforce is far easier to manage and will generally create fewer problems. Teaching people about conflict management, negotiation and diversity will also help.

Finally, all managers and leaders in organizations must be good role models, showing how to communicate effectively, how to manage stress, how to listen, and how to deal with controversy and conflict. People in organizations learn much by what they observe, and it is important that they see people in positions of influence behaving rationally, considerately and ethically.


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Rudy Nydegger, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management and psychology at the Graduate Management Institute at Union College in Schenectady, New York. In addition to consulting, his teaching and research focus in areas of organizational behavior, specifically workplace aggression, leadership, personality characteristics in the workplace, and psychological factors in the provision of health care.

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