Most workplace violence at agencies committed by federal employees

Friday - 9/28/2012, 6:29pm EDT

Current and former federal employees account for more than half of the workplace violence in their agencies, according to a new analysis of Merit System Protection Board data.

Of the federal employees who reported observing workplace violence, 54 percent identified current and ex-employees as the perpetrators. MSPB pulled the finding from its 2010 Merit Principles Survey.

"Workplace violence can result in a number of direct costs to organizations and can affect employee productivity and morale, which violates the merit system principle of the efficient and effective use of the federal workforce," said MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. "A second merit system principle, that federal employees maintain high standards of integrity and conduct, is violated when federal employees exhibit violent behavior in the workplace."

Researchers included a number of behaviors in their definition of workplace violence: assault, threats of assault, harassment, intimidation and bullying.

The study focused on violence observed over a two-year period.

In all, nearly one in eight — 13 percent — federal employees said they observed or experienced workplace violence, researchers said. One in four incidents caused either physical injury or property damage. But perpetrators who were current or former federal employees were the least likely to hurt someone or cause damage.

Other perpetrators included criminals, people receiving services from agencies and individuals with personal ties to an employee.

MSPB leaders decided to conduct the study, after a 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis found higher rates in state and local government when compared with private industry.

"Thirty-two percent of state government establishments and 15 percent of local government establishments reported experiencing violent incidents," MSPB researchers said. "Since federal organizations share many characteristics with state and local government organizations, MSPB conducted this study to determine the prevalence of violence in the federal workplace and to recommend ways that federal agencies can prevent such violence."

Preventing insider violence

Agencies should hone their efforts to prevent workplace violence from insiders and former employees, MSPB said.

This includes, providing violence-prevention training to employees, researchers said. "Supervisors should also receive training in conflict resolution, accessing internal and external resources to deal with workplace violence, and the consistent and effective application of employee discipline."

In addition, the authors recommended strengthening efforts to reduce stress levels among employees, including by "monitoring human resources programs to ensure that they are operating as intended and are not unduly adding to the level of stress in the workplace."

For example, the report cited unfairly or inadequately administered performance-evaluation systems as one area that could lead to "volatile situations, especially in workplaces that are already stressful."

Other efforts should include:

  • Fostering healthy organizational cultures that do not tolerate aggressive or violent behaviors

  • Completing appropriate pre-employment background checks

  • Resolving serious workplace conflicts before they escalate into violence.
Keeping employees safe from outsiders

While most of MSPB's recommendations focused on preventing violence by current and former employees, study authors also said agencies should review and, if necessary, revise their screening policies for anyone who needs access to federal facilities.

"These populations include contractors and vendors who routinely enter the workplace but who cannot always be physically escorted or easily segregated from employees," the report said.

MSPB based its recommendations for protecting against external threats on a wide body of research and standards set by a number of federal organizations, including the Interagency Security Committee and the Government Accountability Office.

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