UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 10 | Oct.
Violent Neighbourhoods can Lead to Violent Workplaces
Research proves the connection
By Erica Smishek
The risk of an employee going postal may have
more to do with an organizations postal code than with
how people are treated inside the workplace.
In one of the first studies to empirically examine observed
severe workplace aggression, a team of researchers including
Sandra Robinson of the Sauder School of Business at UBC discovered
that violent crime rates in a community have a significant
influence on workplace aggression.
If an organization exists in a high-crime neighbourhood,
its more likely that there will be violence or aggression
in the workplace than if its in a low-crime neighbourhood,
says Robinson, a professor of organizational behaviour and
It doesnt mean that managements treatment
of employees doesnt matter. This is not to get bad management
off the hook -- but to point out that the external environment
has an impact too.
Robinson and Sauder colleague Martin Schulz joined researchers
from the University of Western Ontario, Tulane University
in New Orleans and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in
New Jersey to study workplace aggression in a large American
public service organization. (The study does not reveal the
organization and neither will Robinson).
The sample consisted of 250 independent plants spread across
the United States. Plants had an average of 680 employees
each, including plant workers, clerical and secretarial employees,
equipment maintenance employees and supervisors.
The research team examined FBI statistics of official violent
crime rates -- number of murders, non-negligent manslaughters,
forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults -- for the
communities in which each plant was located. They also analyzed
an employee attitude survey and reviewed the organizations
official reports of workplace aggression incidents (physical
assaults, credible threats and other severe incidents of workplace
aggression such as throwing dangerous objects at another employee
or property damage).
Robinson says the most interesting finding from the study,
published in June in the Academy of Management Journal, is
that the level of violence in the community surrounding an
organization predicted workplace aggression, indicating a
spillover effect. The procedural justice climate
-- employees shared perceptions of how they are treated
in the workplace -- did not have an impact.
We dont know yet why community violence has an
impact, she says. Is it because the employees
are often hired from these surrounding communities? By living
in these communities have employees learned aggressive behaviour?
Is it copycat behaviour? Is there some form of desensitization
The study raises more questions than it answers. It
was very eye-opening.
She says the notion that workplace aggression is a partial
outgrowth of community-level violence has practical implications
for organizations, from where and how they hire employees
through rigorous company policies and unit-wide training to
deal with violence to supporting community efforts to curb
All could translate into significant savings in personal
and organizational costs.
Robinson, who has spent a number of years researching the
darker, dysfunctional side of the employee / employer relationship,
contract violations and workplace deviance, says more research
is needed to explore the multiple factors determining employee
We know that managements treatment of employees
does matter, she says. It can make for more productive
employees and it can make for better workplaces.
But other things influence employee behaviour in the
workplace. We need to be aware of the environment that employees
are coming from and consider what people bring from the outside
to their work. People dont leave their personal stuff
at the door.