Engagement Killers #2: The Many Faces of Workplace Violence

 Long ago, (1976), and far away, (central New Jersey!), Josephine had finally had it with what was going on around her. Normally she was far from demonstrative, took most things in stride, and did her level best to put forward an image of herself as calm and pleasant. Not this afternoon.

For several months we had been in the process of moving the HR department from one end of the very large building to another. Right now I can’t exactly recall why and 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 very smoothly. At least that’s what I thought until that afternoon.

While the final stages of the move were taking place, we were also managing a new hiring initiative for our plant. We were considered a premier employer in the area and our need for fifteen new people had drawn responses from over two thousand applicants! Without the aid of digitized applications and everything else we take for granted these days, we had a major task just keeping track of everything. We had applications stacked everywhere and Josephine was responsible for the safe keeping of all of them.

Shortly after lunch on this particular day I heard a scream coming from her new work area about thirty feet outside my office and then a muffled crash. I quickly headed for my doorway and as I poked my head into the hallway I could see the source of the crashing noise. 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 has pushed her right on through calm and pleasant and on into hysterical. Who knew that was hidden just on the other side of her permanently (formerly) placid exterior?

I was told later by her co-worker that Josephine was working with the applications and she began talking to herself out loud, suddenly screamed and then proceeded to sweep the several thousand applications from their neat stacks and into what were now haphazard piles on the floor.

That was it; it was over as quickly as it began. 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 had died in her late forties from complications related to colon cancer.

I’d like to think that if I had another opportunity to revisit those circumstances I might have paid closer attention and noticed her stress level rising, maybe even have somehow saved Josephine from herself. At least I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that these days we are paying closer attention to each other in our places of work, especially now when stress levels are compounded by fear of job loss in so many places. I’d like to think so.

And then a friend sends me the picture you see here on the right. This is not a photo taken at  a meeting, this is a work space occupied by a group of people as you can see, for an extended period … months.

Here’s the note she sent with the picture, it is her workplace.

“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”

From the outside this company seems fine; their investors think everything is rosy. My friend has been there for a while and is looking for other opportunities. She says that it’s not too bad, trying to work in these surroundings. I think she has been there too long!

Normally I would now provide you with links to articles that document that workplace violence is on the rise…again this year. But there is little point. The quick research I have done easily revealed several sources citing studies beginning as far back as 2005 reporting annually since then that violence is on the rise in many places of work. Mostly these stories are about vandalism or what one worker did to another, basically stories about what happened after it was too late to make a difference. I didn’t find any story about the violence we do to ourselves by insisting that we put up with unworkability far too long. But then that wouldn’t be sensational.

  • Take a look around you. Do you see someone, anyone who looks like they might benefit from somebody 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.



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