Training is necessary to prevent violence in the workplace

The threat of conflict has become a frustrating, concerning reality for companies and organizations that deal with the public

When a gunman entered the front office of the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., on Aug. 20, 2013, school office worker Antoinette Tuff didn’t disarm him with force; she implored him to surrender by demonstrating love and compassion.

Tuff didn’t run away and she didn’t panic. In fact, her calm and reassuring manner borne from repeated and intense training de-escalated a potentially dangerous situation to the point where everyone in the school was able to leave the building uninjured.

The threat of workplace conflict and possible resulting violence has become a frustrating and very concerning reality for almost all companies and organizations that deal with the public.

Professionals ranging from hospital receptionists and front desk employees to security officers and janitorial staff are often the first to intercept angry or distraught individuals who direct their aggression at the first available staff member.

It’s no wonder that front-line workers are concerned and even frightened, as more than 572,000 nonfatal violent crimes — rape, robbery or assault — occurred in the workplace in 2009, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

These fears are well-founded, as more recent studies document an increase in workplace violence.

A recent Violence in the American Workplace survey, conducted by AlliedBarton Security Services and David Michaelson and Co., noted that 52 percent of Americans who work outside their homes “have witnessed, heard about or have experienced a violent event or an event that can lead to violence in their workplace.”

The problem is compounded by that fact that many staff members have not been trained or given effective strategies for diffusing the initial conflict.

We now know that the most effective way of combating these threats and potential violence is to educate staff to manage such situations, including ways to calm a highly agitated person so the situation can be contained.

Being able to assess the potential danger, establish a dialogue to defuse hostility and establish a plan to deal with conflict are the keys to maintaining a safe workplace where workers feel empowered and better equipped should a problem arise.

De-escalation strategies

In the case of Antoinette Tuff and the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, school staff had been regularly trained for dangerous situations involving trespassers and emergency protocol. Tuff and two other staff members – a cafeteria manager and a media specialist – were specifically trained in hostile situations.

While Tuff worked to keep the gunman calm and spoke to him, she signaled a code to her two counterparts, who immediately triggered a phone tree to tell teachers to lock doors and send children to safety.

Statistics of violence in the workplace show that when de-escalation strategies are employed in an effective manner, there have been significant decreases in incidents that can negatively impact the sense of security in the workplace and result in significant cost to companies and organizations in lawsuits and personal injury claims. Prevention is essential.

Human Resource departments, CEOs and board members are becoming increasingly aware of the need to supply front-line staff with the tools necessary to respond in an appropriate way to agitated individuals. Human services organizations, hospitals, schools and companies of all sorts that cater to people who might have reason to feel frustrated and at times direct their aggression to the most readily available staff member can respond to these situations by using simple yet effective strategies.

Unfortunately, most employees don’t know how to react when faced with such danger.

The good news is that there are some simple strategies to de-escalating workplace conflict. The point is not to make employees more fearful, but to make them more confident in their abilities to deal with confrontation by giving them practical skills.

While workplace confrontations and violence aren’t going away, our workforce can be better trained to reduce conflict, violence, or even worse, tragedies. This isn’t an option – it’s a vital strategy to ensure that everyone goes home at the end of the day and that the American workforce can thrive in an atmosphere of safety and compassion.

Robert McMahon, CEO of Manchester-based Durante Advantage Training, can be reached at 603-860-5433 or

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice