Not So Violent Workplace Violence

Last year I stood before a group of healthcare workers on their first day, all of them excited to be joining a prestigious organization. The day carried much of the usual peaks and valleys of a requisite onboarding program—procedural information about time and attendance, exuberant welcomes from leadership, visits from subject-matter experts, potential pathways to professional development, a meticulously catered lunch—and workplace violence. 


As I started to address the topic, looking at their eager faces, I felt bad: they had worked so hard to get here, only to contend with this odd, seemingly punitive subject. Even if they didn’t see it that way, I watched the body language of engagement dwindle. I quickly understood they overwhelmingly saw the concept as irrelevant–even though veteran nurses in previous cohorts had mentioned problems with bullying coming from those with the most seniority down to the “newbies.” I imagined this group pictured somebody chasing them with a dagger, or at least only seeing workplace violence as something overtly dramatic and physical—something that could never really happen to them.

Upon reflection, I thought of all of those industries in which violence and abuse are normalized. When I worked in higher education, I used to ask the culinary students if it bothered them that the chefs cursed at them and slammed dishes. Much to my dismay, they told me they liked it (because they thought such actions legitimized their membership in the industry). How could I have been surprised? Such “rites of passage” in many industries are reinforced in popular culture, think: The Devil Wears Prada and Hell’s Kitchen. I shudder to think how many people are subjected to worse in industries with less cultural capital and little to no representation to a wide audience for further scrutiny. 

The truth is workplace violence can be quite subtle and can stem from just one person. Things like favoritism, an oversharing supervisor, pressure to perform uncompensated efforts, capricious-and-ever changing expectations and even arbitrary policy changes all can be forms of workplace violence. Could you be a victim of workplace violence? Does your workplace culture normalize—or even foster such things? 

Think about your current/former workplaces. Have you ever felt anxiety-maybe even dread–before going to work? If so, what are/were the root causes of it? Could it be something like being socially iced out because you stood up for yourself/others?  Or maybe you are frequently subjected to hearing something that you are pretty sure is bigoted language to which nobody else seems to mind? Your feelings could likely be a result of workplace violence–even though your first instinct might be that your experience is too subtle, too insignificant to meet the definition.  Speak up!  Find out! Most organizations have workplace violence policies.

Next month, we will focus on ways to make  workplaces safer—and as violence-free as possible.


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