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Merger threats and greater employee diversity are among factors contributing to workplace violence

Changes in the workplace continue to breed a climate of hostility and fear that is turning the workplace into a domestic battleground. But crisis management experts have found a new way to diffuse the hostility: They are using dispute resolution for violence prevention.

Tia Schneider Denenberg, arbitrator, mediator and principal in Workplace Solutions, a project of Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), reports in the January-March 1996 issue of Dispute Resolution Journal that competitive pressures, loss of autonomy and changing work force demographics are being recognized more and more as factors contributing to workplace violence.

"Ubiquitous threats of mergers, takeovers and midlife 'career crash' feed anxieties that may elicit hostility," Denenberg noted. "The long-term consequences of such insecurity may be overwhelming psychological stress and even trauma, leading to hostility and outbursts or bizarre behavior." Tia Denenberg and co-authors of the article will discuss workplace violence and offer solutions at a conference April 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. at the Marriott Hotel in Newton, Mass. Highlights include skills-building workshops and a performance of "Unless There's Blood," a drama about stress and violence in the workplace. Key presenters include Richard M. Reilly, senior vice president of the American Arbitration Association; Craig Cornish, author of Workplace Rights of Privacy and Dignity; and Susan and Mark Braverman, principals of Crisis Management Group and Workplace Solutions Project. The conference is sponsored by the American Arbitration Association and the Workplace Solutions Project at Cornell.

Denenberg said bizarre behavior comes in all forms. "Hostility surfaces as threats, intimidation, harassment and sublethal assault," she said, adding that an electronic form of harassment, cyberstalking, has surfaced with the increase in advanced technology. Many threats come from non- employees, such as customers, employees, clients and patients.

Murder, the most dramatic consequence of workplace violence, accounts for less than 4 percent of all documented incidents. The carnage from workplace violence is startling: The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reports that 6,965 work-related homicides occurred between 1980 and 1988.

An essential step in preventing workplace violence is making the transformation from a "crisis-prone" workplace to a "crisis-prepared" organization. A crisis-prepared organization, she said, reports and analyzes signs of distress at an early stage; cultivates a sense of mutual interest among all parties in responding to incipient strains; develops and disseminates a policy for dealing with potential and actual crises; and encourages a climate in which employees can communicate freely their distress to management, and management accepts responsibility to act.

"Each workplace should have a violence prevention plan that articulates the rules against harassment, threats of violence, intimidation and violent or disruptive behavior," Denenberg said. Such a plan, she noted, is still uncommon in many workplaces. An American Management Association survey found that 65 percent of employers lack policies designed to deal with actual or potential violence within or outside the workplace.

Dispute resolution is the one approach to resolving workplace conflicts that adequately addresses the emotions of the situation, Denenberg claims.

"As in litigation, anointing one party the winner or formally assigning blame rarely resolves the underlying conflict, which continues to fester," she said. "Although arbitration may dispose of the surface issues, the underlying causes of an outburst or act of insubordination typically are not addressed."

Denenberg suggests that a successful dispute resolution attempts to "find new information, achieve better mutual understanding and elicit beneficial emotional expression and engagement."

The process seeks to restore the harmony of a relationship -- such as sharing a workbench -- that must continue after the dispute."

The article's co-authors are Richard V. Denenberg, writer and editor specializing in dispute resolution and other public- policy issues; Mark Braverman, a psychologist who has advised the U.S. Postal Service and other major employers on violence prevention; and Susan Braverman, an occupational mental health specialist who designs crisis intervention programs. They are authors of the forthcoming book, Fear and Loathing on the Job: Coping with Workplace Violence and Hostility, from Cornell University Press.

The Workplace Solutions Project at Cornell's ILR School seeks to use mediation and collaborative problem-solving to help alleviate a climate of fear, prevent critical incidents and facilitate emergency planning. The project provides training in communication and dispute-resolution skills, teaches problem-solving as a job skill, and develops risk assessment, prevention and intervention strategies. The project, with headquarters at the ILR extension office at 16 E. 34th St. in New York City, is supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.