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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 10 | Oct. 2, 2003

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 organization’s 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, it’s more likely that there will be violence or aggression in the workplace than if it’s in a low-crime neighbourhood,” says Robinson, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources.

“It doesn’t mean that management’s treatment of employees doesn’t 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 organization’s 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 don’t 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 going on?

“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 social problems.

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 aggression.

“We know that management’s 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 don’t leave their personal stuff at the door.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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