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When Violence Occurs at the Workplace

By Nancy Brook
Career and WorkLife Consultant
President of Authentic Living at Work

What is it like for you today to walk into your workplace? Do you still have an inclination to duck when you hear a plane pass by? What is it like to look into the eyes of co-workers who lost relatives or friends in the tragedy? And, how do you approach a company client who may have lost a good portion of the company staff in the attack?

As we come to terms with this tragedy, we know that the physical safety we took for granted in our workspaces no longer exists. Some believe we lived with an illusion of safety because none of us had experienced direct violence of this nature. All of us now know the trauma of our world violently turned upside down. Our resilience will take us back to work, to our co-workers, to our desire to contribute in some way to keeping our country on solid ground. But now we walk through security systems we never dreamed of. We have had the privilege of living without the need for strict security. We now share the burden of terror with other citizens of the world.

Our individual response to the shock will be different. One common response to expect is a "cumulative trauma" bred from the other incidents of violence and trauma we've heard about over the last few years like the Oklahoma Federal Building or the first bombing of the World Trade Center, or a quiet and isolated individual who opened fire at his office complex killing many. It's difficult to push away the media images that live in the recesses of our mind reminding us that violence can happen when we least expect it. We're quick to note that the incidents of violence above occurred in workplaces.

The workplace will feel different to each of us after this tragedy. Consider the following:

  • We may be surprised by our own behavior at work.
  • The way in which we respond to little things may seem over-reactive.
  • Our feelings will be varied and change quickly.
  • We will feel emotionally and physically exhausted and need more sleep.
  • Irritability may surface that is out of character to our nature.
  • We may no longer accept rude or insulting behavior from others.
  • New feelings and thoughts about the future may scare us or motivate us.
  • Expect to frequently check in with family and friends.
  • A renewal in spirituality may motivate how we are at work.
  • It will take time to heal and move on.

This tragic moment in our history has coincided with a new global world market where our work community is beyond national boundaries. Over 80 countries were represented in the loss of life at the towers. We now share globally in the pain of that loss personally and at work. For maybe the first time, we are personalizing strangers. Notice how tender we are with each other. When did we last know this type of community at work? Our work connections with our global community have been magnified as in no other time.

We work in job settings and systems ripe with opportunity for important culture shifts. Managers have an important role to play in harnessing interest in productivity and operationally regaining momentum. Beginning with the company CEO, it is a time to pay exquisite attention to personal feelings and the feelings of others. The job descriptions that separate the job force have no jurisdiction over the heart. We crave answers and ways to manage the surreal moments we live in. Every employee must attend to acting in a new way at work:

  • Reach out more at work because we all need it.
  • Notice if someone is withdrawn and assist that person in getting help.
  • Expect a lack of focus and pare big projects down to manageable sized tasks
  • Realize that no one feels like working and would rather volunteer their time elsewhere.
  • Managers must select projects that energize and draw on people's strengths.
  • Even if you are shy and not one of the extroverts of the world, do not isolate yourself.
  • Notice if you are doing "frantic" work late into the night to avoid your feelings.
  • Go back to the everyday tasks of work. Do not skip meetings or situations where many people meet to discuss work goals.
  • Notice a tendency to rely on your preferred "self medication" like workaholism, perfectionism, procrastination, and self-sabotage as a way to avoid feelings.
  • In a customer service role, be patient as people are emotionally exhausted.
  • Do not allow fear to drive your actions and decisions at work.
  • Designate a white board near your workspace for others to write messages.
  • Frequently visit the activities that rejuvenate you.
  • Now more than ever, applaud and value small successes.
  • Join with others after work to plan for leisure activities.
  • Become more aware of how your behavior affects others and practice reaching out in a helpful and respectful way.
  • Don't put off a "renewal" day to stimulate connection, inspiration, and motivation for everyone in the company.
  • Be cognizant of the fact that we all heal in different ways.

Can we translate this national and international unity to the world of work? Our ability to notice the opportunities for a "work community" can significantly change the spirit of our life at work. We must capture this rich moment and hold on to the human bond we feel. Embrace it at work. Replace the image of the workplace as a hostile environment with an imprint of a living work community. Our energy is best spent on acknowledging the pain and moving forward in the spirit of shared goals and collaboration.

© 2001



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