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A workplace fight in this Toronto sushi restaurant last weekend left one employee dead. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A workplace fight in this Toronto sushi restaurant last weekend left one employee dead. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Office altercations

What to do when workplace tensions turn violent Add to ...

A recent "minor" workplace tiff in a Toronto sushi restaurant left one employee dead. Clashes in a Yale University laboratory led to the murder of a young graduate student in September, her body stuffed in a basement utility space.

These are extreme cases, but they cast a grim light on everyday tensions that can boil over in the average office and create a dangerous work environment if they are not dealt with properly.

Many Canadians' identity and sense of self-worth is wrapped up in their work, making the office an ideal target for carrying out a violent act, says Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour and psychology at Queen's University.

And incidents appear to be on the rise. "I think there's an increase in really extreme [cases]" says Kevin Kelloway, professor of psychology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, who has kept a close eye on workplace clashes reported in the media. "I was around 20 years ago and reading papers and I don't think we would have not reported a murder or stabbing years ago," he says. "We are a lot angrier people than we ever were, or we seem to be. And it doesn't take much for that to blow up very quickly."

But even seasoned workplace violence researchers such as Prof. Barling and Prof. Kelloway say there's little hard data showing the rate of such incidents in Canada.

Statistics Canada's 2007 report on criminal victimization in the workplace (using police and self-reported data from 2004) says nearly one-fifth of all violent incidents in this country, including physical assaults, sexual assaults and robberies, happened in the victim's workplace. Seventy-one per cent of these reported workplace incidents - which may happen in a workplace parking lot or at a company golf tournament - were physical assaults. Twenty-seven per cent of incidents involving male victims resulted in injuries, compared with 17 per cent involving female victims.

But violence is not just a shove in the lunchroom, a sock in the eye at your desk or worse. The Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Act defines workplace violence as "any action, conduct, threat or gesture" toward an employee that will likely cause them harm, illness or injury.

This gives employees and managers more licence to intervene before people are seriously hurt, says Prof. Kelloway, who is starting research on whether training employees to identify potential threats will help prevent workplace violence. While introducing policies is a positive move, "people who are taking a knife to work and pulling a knife, they probably don't care that they're violating the policy."

Restaurant kitchens, construction sites, factories and newsrooms can be aggressive working cultures, Prof. Kelloway says, a point that may explain the fisticuffs in a Washington Post newsroom last week when an editor socked a writer during a tiff about a story. Tempers are also apt to boil over on the sports field - last week, New Mexico college football coach Mike Locksley was suspended for punching an assistant coach. Cases of workplace violence can be far more complex than a single skirmish or mounting grudge. The layers of motive and frustration that led to the horrific massacre at a Fort Hood, Tex., army base last week remain a mystery.

While employees and managers may feel their hands are tied or their safety may be at risk if they intervene, speaking up can block future incidents, says Chris Hinkle, president of Firm Foundations, a Barrie, Ont.-based consultancy that specializes in workplace violence prevention.

"One thing we really stress is standing up for yourself when it first happens," says Ms. Hinkle, who pegs the rate of non-physical workplace aggression in Canada at one incident a week.

In most workplaces, managers are obligated to do "due diligence" to snuff conflicts before they explode. This could mean taking the aggressive person aside and addressing the beef right away.

"I would address it as soon as you can," she says. "The earlier you do it, the less people it's affecting, the less of an issue it is to resolve."

A victim or even observer of tense interactions should write everything down - times, dates, what was said - to help with any future investigations.

To Prof. Kelloway, the red flags are clear: "Swearing, agitation, volume and threat," he says, is the ramp of aggression that usually leads to a physical outburst.

"People always wonder, 'Is that a serious threat or not a serious threat?' The answer is it's a serious threat every time," he says, adding that's a sure time for a manager to intervene.

Recession-fuelled stress has also been blamed for a perceived uptick in the number of office altercations, says Ross Arrowsmith, the Calgary-based co-creator of workplaceviolencenews.com, who has worked in the security business for 20 years.

"Certainly with the recession, that level of stress compounds anything that you've got going on in your life," he says. "[Whether it be]financial pressures, family problems … [or]your inability to deal with conflict on the job site, that's all exacerbated by a weakened economy."

But the skyrocketing unemployment rates and reports of work-induced stress haven't sparked as many rage-fests as one might expect, Prof. Barling says.

"If all those stresses really did have that meaningful an effect on workplace violence, we would have seen many more incidents of really terrible violence," he says. "What might be the most remarkable observation is despite the economy, we haven't seen the levels of extreme violence that many people might've feared. And it's not to say that what we've seen is okay."

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