Engagement Killers: The many faces of workplace violence

Long ago, (1976) and far away Josephine had finally had it with her job. Normally she was far from demonstrative, took most things in stride, and did her level best to put forth a calm and pleasant image. Not this afternoon.

For several months we had been in the process of moving the human resources department from one end of the building to another. Right now I can’t exactly recall why. The process of moving was not particularly painful. I had been charged with shepherding the construction and logistics of moving to the new space, all of which went smoothly. At least I thought it went smoothly.

In the final stages of the move we were also managing a new hiring initiative for our plant. We were considered a premier employer in the area and our need for 15 new people had drawn responses from more than 2,000 applicants! Without the aid of digitized applications and everything we take for granted these days it was a major task just keeping track of it all. We had applications stacked everywhere and Josephine was responsible for their safekeeping.

Shortly after lunch on this particular day I heard a scream issuing from her work area, about 30 feet outside my office, then a muffled crash. I quickly headed for my doorway and as I emerged into the hall I saw the source of the crash. Josephine was standing ankle deep in applications with her hands covering her face.

She had reached the limit of her tranquil presentation. The move coupled with the confusion of the new surroundings and the added stress of keeping track of all the paper had pushed her right through calm and pleasant and on into hysterical. Who knew that was just on the other side of her placid exterior. I found out later from an eyewitness that Josephine was working with the applications when suddenly she screamed and then proceed to sweep the several thousand applications from their stacks and onto the floor.

That was it. She was duly embarrassed by her outburst. She didn’t say much as we all pitched in and began helping pick up the mess of applications. We didn’t say much either. Back then nobody ever said much about anything that remotely smacked of the personal. Our Christmas lunches were brutal!

Josephine took the rest of the afternoon off and returned the next morning and we never talked about the incident again. I heard recently that she died in her late forties from complications related to colon cancer. I wonder if the way she handled stress was a contributing factor.

I’d like to think that if I had another opportunity to revisit those circumstances I might pay closer attention and maybe save Josephine from herself. I’d like to think that.

I’d like to think we are paying closer attention to each other in our places of work, especially now that stress levels are compounded by fear of job loss in so many places. I’d like to think that.

Recently, a friend sent me a picture of a conference table crowded with laptops and power cords. It was not a photo taken at a meeting, this was her workspace which was also occupied by several other people and had been for months.

Here’s the note she sent with the picture:

“You too can work 12-14 hours a day in these luxurious facilities. You just have to meet the following criteria:

 – You have no personal space issues
 – You have no issues of entitlement
 – You have good hygiene”

This company is not in trouble; its investors think everything is rosy. My friend is looking for other opportunities and has been for a while. She says that it’s not too bad trying to work in those surroundings. I think she has been there too long!

Normally I would now proceed to provide you with links to articles and sources that point to workplace violence being on the rise, but there is little point. My research quickly revealed sources citing studies beginning very recently indicating that violence is on the rise in many places of work, many of them you have heard of. I didn’t find any stories about violence declining but you know media, always going for the sensational.

Take a look around you. Do you see anyone who looks like they might benefit from someone asking how they are doing? Ask them how they are doing; you might save them from colon cancer.

I’d like to think that we would be willing to include the damage people do to themselves as a form of workplace violence.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on BBJToday.com every other Tuesday. He publishes a semi-weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com and also facilitates a monthly business book reading group at Village Books.

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