Protecting yourself effectively against violence at work begins with ‘arming yourself’ with knowledge and understanding.
Unfortunately, for the most part:
- You can’t rely on the HSE to ensure that your employer maintains safe working conditions.
- Most employers don’t make safety improvements unless the circumstances mean they absolutely have to, (typically only after a serious injury incident has happened.)
- Most managers, it would seem, prefer to let employees face the risks and suffer harm rather than risk invoking their CEO’s wrath by requesting extra expenditure on safety measures for the staff – even when the need to do so is obvious.
- Most Safety Reps are comfortable in their jobs and won’t want to ‘rock the boat’ by insisting on safety improvements that are being demanded by just one employee, even if the demand is fully justified.
- Many employees prefer to face extremes of personal danger rather than contest the adequacy of safety arrangements with their manager.
You must take responsibility for your own safety and well-being at work.
Prioritise your ’emotional security’
We’re all different but, we all share a basic need to feel safe and secure in order to stay healthy and well. The extent to which we feel the need to be secure varies between individuals – and so does what makes us feel safe and unsafe.
Some people cope better than others in certain kinds of situations and some people get alarmed quicker and some worry more than others.
You will know whether or not you are the kind of person who stays unaffected by verbal abuse and remains calm and composed in threatening situations. Maybe you positively thrive on the responsibility of handling them and, if you do, that’s great. If you’re not, you need to focus on fulfilling ‘your need to feel safe’ – otherwise your enjoyment of your job, the quality of your work performance and ultimately your health will suffer.
Don’t underestimate it. Upset and worry caused by violence at work leads to unhappiness at work and at home. It can put a real strain on family and friend relationships – and stress is a killer!
Put the risks of serious assault into perspective
Every violent incident has the potential to result in very serious injury and even death; and this and the fact that violence can happen anywhere at any time is a major concern for a lot of people. But, the indisputable fact is, the vast majority of workplace assaults do not result in very serious injury, let alone death and, in many cases, the high level of anxiety being endured may be unwarranted. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the risk of assault seriously, but it should help you get a better perspective of the risks and give you reason to worry less.
Probably the greatest danger to health lies in allowing anxieties, tension and stress to build up from unresolved ‘in house’ conflicts.
Know your rights (and the rights of others)
Employees who don’t know their rights are likely to be treated as if they haven’t got any – and mercilessly exploited. Knowing your rights will also give you a grounding in other people’s rights and help you to make appropriate judgements in difficult situations.
Be clear about expectations of you
Know your organisation’s Policies, Organisational Structure, Procedures, Staff Code of Conduct and Rules & Regulations back to front and inside out.
Know what to report and when and how and who to report to.
You should know what constitutes a reportable Violent Incident for your organisation’s purposes and where to go to fill out a report and who to make it to. You also need to know who to report ‘safety concerns’ to and what the procedure is if you are dissatisfied with the response you get.
Everyone (your employer, colleagues, the public – and the courts) expects you to be up to the job and to without delay inform your employer of anything affecting your ability to carry out your role safely and effectively.
Nobody expects you to have to tolerate mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, intimidation or assault
You are expected to draw attention to shortcomings in safety arrangements – especially where the situation represents a danger to others.
No-one can legitimately expect you to keep working in unsafe circumstances.
Everybody expects you to withdraw if you suspect a danger exists that you can’t handle!
The courts, employment tribunals and insurance companies expect you to always behave as an ‘ordinary cautious person’ would and not to ever put yourself at any unnecessary risk – and may criticise and penalise you if you do.
Know how and when to call for back up from colleagues, security and/or the police.
Be acutely aware of just how early you need to call for back up for it to be useful to you – and keep in mind what help the assistance will be. (Don’t overstretch!)
Know the history of violent incidents at your workplace
If your workplace has suffered from violent incidents in the past find out where they happened, why they happened and who was involved – so that, as far as possible, a repetition can be avoided.
Be aware of the danger areas of your workplace
‘Not so safe’ areas exist in all workplaces. Some areas may present an increased risk of physical violence happening because of the number of people congregated there and the nature and quality of processes being carried out. Other areas may, increase vulnerability to serious assault in the event of an attack (but, not necessarily an increased risk of occurrence) because of the absence of people nearby and able to help. For example: Shared staff and public toilets; badly lit stair wells, the car park, areas not covered by CCTV etc. .
Find out where the ‘Danger Areas’ are in your workplace and, as far as possible, try to limit the time you spend there.
Know who the dangerous people are!
Whilst, everyone you interact with at work is a potential perpetrator of workplace violence, some people are more likely to behave violently than others. You need to know who these people are so you can take appropriate precautionary measures when you are going to be with them.
The Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 require employers to (in good time) inform and consult with employees on matters relating to their health and safety. The regulations also make it a statutory obligation that employers inform employees of all the risks to their health from hazards known to affect the workplace and also any increase in the level of risk of harm to their health.
A history of violent behaviour is a robust predictor of future violence – so you have a ‘right’ to be told if the information is known (or should be known) to your organisation.
Know the characteristics – and sensitivities – of your clients, your colleagues and your boss!
Appreciating ‘difficulties’ being experienced by your clients can help you to understand why they might behave badly and help you to keep a caring attitude to them.
Personal knowledge of another person’s character, abilities, traits and sensitivities can also help you to avoid doing something that is likely to provoke a negative response from them.
Having good relations with a person may not prevent them assaulting you – but it helps! And, knowing how a person usually behaves can help you to detect changes which indicate agitation and give an opportunity to prevent escalation.
Do your own personal ‘Risk Assessment’ of your duties
Try to picture yourself in different parts of your workplace and ask yourself:
- What would you do if someone becomes abusive and threatening towards you?
- How would you react if somebody becomes physically violent to you – or someone else?
- Who would help you?
- In “real time” terms how far away is Police / Security assistance?
- Can you rely on other employees helping meanwhile?
- To what extent?
- How likely are such incidents to happen?
- Could the risks be reduced?
If the exercise raises (or confirms) concerns, inform your line manager/safety representative without delay.
Ask for advice – and be ready to suggest suitable safety improvements.
If you have serious concerns that still remain after reporting to your line manager/safety representative, put the report in writing to make it official.
Adopt a ‘positive care’ attitude
Approaching your work with the fixed intention of helping people to resolve difficulties, being prepared to be patient, receptive and understanding and expecting a hostile response, is a good step towards exerting control during incidents where people have become angry/upset and potentially violent.
This is because a person’s attitude is reflected subconsciously in their body language, manner and behaviour.
If the message you’re giving out is that you ‘care’ it is likely to be responded to in a positive way.
Keep a ‘positive care’ attitude
Keeping a positive care attitude towards some of the people you have to deal with can be challenging and it may help to consider them in a different way. Try to see people who have lost control of their emotions and composure as representing a danger to themselves and others and, as such, requiring care and support.
Resolve to avoid becoming aggressive
Becoming aggressive in response to an angry person threatening you is understandable (after all nature’s bottom line is fight or flight). But, it will (at a subconscious level) be transmitted to and interpreted by the other party as a threat – with the likely effect of upping the ante and increasing the likelihood of an attack.
Be a ‘Peacemaker’
Certain individuals seem to possess an innate ability to ‘talk people down’ from becoming violent and are far more likely to achieve a peaceable result than their colleagues.
An examination of the qualities of these individuals would show them to be: Friendly and approachable; understanding; calm, controlled and unhurried; knowledgeable about workplace procedures; experienced and respectful of the rights of others.
Learning and copying the skills that these people have shown to work can improve your own ability to deal with hostile individuals and achieve peaceful resolutions.
Make your goal ‘Peaceful Solutions’
It is in everyone’s interests that conflict and confrontations are resolved in a peaceful way. The direct advantages to you of concluding interactions without ‘physical violence’ occurring include:
- Avoiding the risk of sustaining injury – and * infection and infestation.
- Avoiding the risk of causing injury to the other person (N.B. The risk of complaints, allegations of assault and unlawful detention are also significantly reduced.
- Reducing the likelihood of reprisals.
First impressions count
Creating the right first impression is essential (especially in jobs involving brief interactions with members of the public).
A clean, tidy appearance and an alert confident manner presents an image of competence that can help to dissuade people against resorting to violence. So are looking and being fit.
Certain kinds of behaviour can ‘Trigger’ aggression and assaults.
This is especially true where the behaviour causes the other person to feel:
- They are being ignored, made fun of, publicly humiliated, treated in a disrespectful or condescending manner
- That they have been singled out, wrongly accused, victimised or bullied – racial/ethnic prejudices
- They are being unnecessarily ‘ordered or bossed about’
- Distressed about the withdrawal of, or being deprived of, a service or facility they feel is essential to which they feel entitled
- Frustrated, angry, upset and emotional through grief, anxiety, waiting for a service/appointment and being treated with indifference, to a point where ‘words fail them’ and they cease to be able to express themselves clearly, or to fully understand what is being said to them
- Dissatisfied with a service that has been provided, and are being ‘fobbed off’ or jollied along’ by insensitive, disinterested staff
If someone is already wound up:
- Don’t make sustained eye to eye contact. (It is a very aggressive signal in confrontations)
- Don’t corner them/block their escape route
- Don’t approach too close
- Don’t get drawn into arguments.
- Don’t talk over or talk down to them (avoid saying “You’re being stupid, Don’t be silly, etc”
- Don’t give the impression that you are not bothered about what they have to say (Avoid saying “I don’t care …”)
- Don’t be over apologetic
- Don’t be sarcastic
- Don’t use any sudden, quick movements
- Don’t point/wag your finger at them
- Don’t criticise the person (remember it’s their behaviour that is at fault.)
- Don’t shake your head (i.e. expressing “NO YOU’RE WRONG”) while the other person is explaining.
- Don’t sigh and roll your eyes upwards and look away!
- Don’t allow your attention to be distracted away for a second!
Avoiding these “Trigger” behaviours can help to prevent situations deteriorating into physical violence.
If you find that you have become the focus of a person’s anger, or you are becoming angry yourself, distance yourself immediately.
Keep your distance from the other person and always keep your escape route open. Do not let yourself become cornered/ hemmed in to a situation.
Avoid standing directly in front of them (always stand to one side).
Avoid using any sudden movements.
Don’t use any words, gestures or other behaviour that could be interpreted as patronising, overbearing, insulting, aggressive or expressing a loss of interest
Avoid denying the problem that is the cause of the other person’s anger. Offer practical solutions instead.
As far as possible, avoid misunderstandings. Make sure you know what the person needs and why they may be upset, frustrated emotional or feel threatened.
Never criticise the other person directly.
Don’t put your hands in your pockets or fold your arms or cross your legs in a way which might restrict their immediate use
Don’t look away at any time – even for a fraction of a second. (Most attacks are launched when the victim isn’t looking. Remaining alert and focused on the threat at all times can really help to inhibit an attack from starting.)
Getting what you want all of the time and being assertive are not quite the same thing. Assertiveness is about speaking up, saying no when that is appropriate, taking responsibility to ask for what you want and being comfortable that what you are asking for is reasonable in the circumstances.
It involves listening to and giving consideration to the other person’s point of view, and it requires patience and a good understanding of workplace practices and procedures.
Begin any requests, only after gaining the other persons attention.
Always pre-amble any instructions or requests with a brief explanation.
Try and make your reasoning clearly understood – this may be the most difficult task.
Make your explanation and add: ”So, would you please…. So, I’d prefer you to….. So, I’m going to ask you now to…..”
In the context of managing an angry and aggressive person, being assertive can also mean compromising on original ‘ideal’ goals, if this is required in order to achieve the best ‘available and workable’ solution to the immediate problem.
Being assertive can also mean choosing to leave a situation – and doing so. The primary consideration will always be safety.
‘Sticking to you guns’ and persisting with your request is fine until it becomes clear that the other person is not minded to agree with anything you say. Then it may become wiser to accept this rather than to continue to try to convert their point of view. Knowing this, it is wise to set a ‘fall back’ position beforehand, to turn to if the other person shows that they are not going to agree to your request in full. For most workers this will mean calling for and passing responsibility for dealing with the angry person, to a more senior member of staff.
What will you do?
Some assaults are extremely difficult to predict, but experience shows that physical violence generally follows some form of interaction between the participants. Usually this will include an exchange of words.
Assaults are much more likely where ultimatums are issued. For example, exercising authority, or withdrawing/withholding a service.
Certain types of behaviour are also usual in the prelude to physical violence. The most likely stages are listed below.
The person is:
- Agitated / frustrated, loud speech, finger pointing, drawing in breath sharply, sighing audibly, rolling their eyes upwards, restless pacing or fidgeting, table tapping, sweating, unable to remain still, oversensitive to suggestions, speech and thought processes disjointed, inability to concentrate.
- Abusive, swearing, making fists, issuing threats, staring eyes, adopting fighting stances, challenges to fight, face begins to pale
- Excitable shouting turns to menacing slow controlled tones, followed by silence, breathing deepens, head tilts forward slightly. The person may also look away momentarily – and may try to signal to associates.
- They suddenly appear to rise up as they begin the rush to attack.
If a person you are dealing with displays one, some, or all of the behaviours described, it does not necessarily mean that an attack is certain. But, you should consider them as ‘Danger Signs’ and take appropriate action!
Keep a safe distance away
If you get too close to someone who is feeling threatened or is angry and aggressive, before you have given them time to calm down, collect themselves and to agree to your proposals for resolution, it may be ‘the trigger’ for an assault. Distance is safety.
Everybody is different and the way a person may behave towards or respond to you can never be predicted with 100% certainty. Make a habit of always optimising your personal safety and, if anything, err on the side of caution.
To avoid criticism any and all action you take should have the objective of maximising safety.
Think, before you act.
If, to take a particular course of action is likely to result in serious harm then YOU must weigh up the likely consequences with the need to take the action, justified against the likely consequences of not proceeding with it and the availability of other workable alternatives.
You are expected to choose the course of action which results in the least adverse outcome.
As in Fire Drill, and First Aid practice – always consider your own personal safety first.
Discuss any doubts you may have with your supervisor.
Managing a Conflict
Managing a conflict may be regarded as a FOUR STAGE PROCESS which continually reverts to Stage One in the event of a deterioration in the behaviour of the subject.
Stage One: Prevent Escalation
- From a safe distance – gain the person’s attention
- Ignore, distract or divert verbal abuse
- Move slowly, give the person space
- Don’t corner them / block their exit
- Don’t stand in front of them, stand off to one side
- Introduce yourself and explain the reason for your presence
- Face towards them
- Talk softly and calmly in simple and clear terms; if appropriate invite an explanation
- Avoid criticising the person’s reasoning or behaviour
- Listen patiently and attentively without interrupting
Stage Two: Acquire facts
- Acknowledge the persons emotions (but don’t try to deal with the cause of the person’s anger or emotional state)
- Acknowledge failings where they exist, especially if they are the cause of the tension
- Use appropriate praise for positive behaviour
Stage Three: Confirm understanding
- Demonstrate that you understand the circumstances by intermittently paraphrasing what the person has said
- Invite confirmation that your understanding is correct
- Avoid workplace jargon, explain in simple terms what you are able to do
- If the situation merits referral to a supervisor do it
Stage Four: Suggest solutions and resolve
- If possible, try to break complex issues into small components
- If the problem or any part of it can be remedied quickly do it
- Encourage reasoning
- Decide on a suitable procedure to solve the remaining difficulties
- Be realistic, fair and honest
- Advise in an assertive manner what action you intend to take. Your explanation should always be polite, calm, clear and firm
Leaving a situation
If a person begins to become aggressive, you need to decide whether to withdraw or, to remain and help them regain their composure. It will normally be best to withdraw to safety. This will allow the person time to ‘cool off’, whilst you inform others (colleagues/supervisor/security/police) of the difficulty being experienced and summon back up.
Make a suitable excuse and leave the scene. If you don’t feel safe going back to the angry person – don’t do it! But, do tell others of the situation.
When to withdraw
Fortitude varies from person to person and so does ability to cope with other people’s violent behaviour. Where some people would feel unsafe and vulnerable others may not. This means uncertainty about when refusing to do a job task may be the ‘right thing’ for an employee to do.
Helpfully, S44.1.(d) Employment Rights Act 1996 provides a clear definition of the circumstances in which employees are expected to withdraw:
“… circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which they could not reasonably have been expected to avert.”
S44 also makes it clear that the legal expectation of employees is that they should stay away from work altogether if that is what is required to remain safe and not return to work until the danger has gone.
How will an employee’s actions will be judged?
S44.1.(d) Employment Rights Act 1996 confirms that the action taken by employees to protect themselves will be judged:
” …. by reference to all the circumstances including, in particular, his (the employee) knowledge and the facilities and advice available to him at the time.”
In other words, it is very much up to the employee to decide when it would be best to withdraw.
Sometimes running away will be the best thing to do!
If you ever feel that running away from threatening circumstances is the safest thing for you to do, then do it immediately and, as soon as you can call for back-up and the Police. There is no shame in running away from something you wouldn’t be able to cope with. It is a perfectly understandable, natural thing to do. It is common sense in the face of overwhelming odds, to leave and to regroup before re engaging.
Remember, no-one expects you to behave like a hero and the law expects you to behave as an “ordinary cautious person” would.
Responding to a Physical Attack
It would be unrealistic to try to encompass every single aspect of successfully defending against an attack, since every situation will be different. However, the information below may be helpful to consider.
Anger motivated attacks
The vast majority of anger motivated assaults do not result in very serious injury. Mostly, they amount to pushes, grips and grabs, a flurry of blows, with perhaps some kicking/ hair pulling. In most cases, assaults tend to stop as quickly as they started. Very few are sustained.
Avoiding a continuance is more likely to minimise the severity of the outcome. So, in the event of a physical assault that is motivated by anger, the best advice may be to, as far as reasonably practicable:
- Protect defensively and distance from the attacker. Avoid prolonging/ aggravating the assault by fighting back.
- Keep moving away from the danger until safe.
Where the attack is ‘Theft Motivated’
Complying with ‘demands’ which are accompanied by threats, particularly where weapons are involved, will be more likely to minimise the severity of the violence used. Property can be replaced.
Sexually motivated attack by a stranger
British Crime figures show that where the victims of these kinds of attack have, from the outset, made every effort to frustrate the offence and to get away, they have been more successful in minimising the amount of harm suffered – leading to the “bash and dash” advice from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO)
The figures also show that where victims of sexually motivated attacks are abducted to a second (prepared) location, the danger of sustaining very serious injury is significantly increased.
Everyone has a right to defend themselves
Lord Morris in Palmer v. R