Strictly Business

Thursday, Aug 30 2012 12:00 PM

ROBIN PAGGI: Manage conflict, avoid workplace violence

BY ROBIN PAGGI Contributing columnist

Jeffrey Johnson, laid off from his job as an apparel designer months ago, shot former co-worker Steven Ercolino in front of the Empire State building last Friday and both are dead as a result, police have said. While the investigation is still under way, there are lessons to be learned now from what those involved in the situation say they knew. A CNN story about the incident quoted Johnson's neighbor as saying, "He was the nicest guy. He must have snapped or something."

In their article "Workplace Violence: Myths and Mitigation" on the Stratfor Global Intelligence website, Fred Burton and Scott Stewart say, "Perhaps the first workplace violence myth that needs to be addressed is the idea that a man 'just snaps' and goes on a shooting rampage in his workplace" (they say it is far more common for men to commit workplace homicides). "In most cases the perpetrator intentionally targets a specific individual, usually a supervisor, human resources manager or co-worker, whom he believes is responsible for his plight."

Additionally, they write, "In most cases of workplace violence, the violent outburst is driven by factors that build up over a long period of time, rather than by sudden, traumatic events." This appears to be the case in this situation. In CNN's report, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is quoted as saying Johnson had a longstanding dispute with Ercolino "apparently centered on the fact that Ercolino was not selling -- at least in Johnson's opinion -- as much of his product...as he wanted him to." Additionally, after Johnson lost his job "as a result of downsizing," he continued to return to the company regularly, having "a confrontation with Ercolino virtually every time he went back," according to Kelly.

Why was their longstanding dispute not resolved? And, why was Johnson supposedly allowed back in the workplace when he continued to have additional confrontations with Ercolino? We might never know, and I am not trying to suggest that the employer and its agents in this case did not do everything possible to resolve this conflict. But I do know that most people are lousy at handling their own conflicts and employers and HR professionals must take the lead in resolving disputes at work when their employees are unable to do so.

In their book "Developing Management Skills," David Whetten and Kim Cameron advise those mediating conflicts to:

* Select the most appropriate setting for the meeting.

* Set ground rules (only one person talks at a time, etc.).

* Gather information on the participants' perceptions of the problem causing the conflict.

* Maintain a neutral position.

* Have the participants agree on the problem.

* Help the participants brainstorm possible solutions.

* Ensure the participants make a plan to resolve the conflict.

* Check back about a week later to ensure the conflict has been resolved.

In addition, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that about 22 percent of workplace homicides involve former employees (i.e. people who have been terminated or laid off), it is imperative that employers and HR professionals know how to handle terminations and layoffs in a way that inspires people to leave peacefully. An excellent article on the topic is "25 Ways to Prevent Workplace Violence During Terminations" by William S. Frank at www.careerlab.com/art_25prevent.htm.

Bob Delaney, former police officer and professional basketball referee, said, "The talent most lacking in corporate America is the ability to effectively manage conflict in the workplace."

Employers and HR professionals must develop that talent.

Robin Paggi is a Certified Human Resources Professional with KDG Human Resource Solutions, a division of the Klein, DeNatale, Goldner law firm. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.

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