Team Work – A case of Square D

Teams are becoming increasingly pervasive among modern organizations. They are being used for an endless variety of purposes. For example, at Square D, an electrical equipment manufacturer, teams are employed in areas ranging from manufacturing to international research and development financing. As new challenges emerge, companies are turning to team management approaches to overcome them.

Sadly, the challenge Square D recently confronted was one of work related violence. According to field experts the number of violent work related altercations is on the rise. A 1994 American Management Association (AMA) survey revealed that of the 589 companies polled more than half had experienced either threats or actual acts of violence during the past four years. A 1993 symposium on workplace violence indicated even more disturbing facts. Murder has become the third leading cause of death on the job and the No. 1 cause of death for working women’s commented Postmaster General Marvin Runyon at the symposium. Some 750 people were murdered on the last job last year, and experts estimate that more than 110,000 acts of workplace violence occur annually. In fact 10 percent of the men and 40 percent of the women killed on the job in the United States are murdered. And, in 1992, workplace violence cost American businesses $4.23 billion.

At Square D, the problem pf workplace violence arose when John Ebeling, vice president of purchasing for the company, was stabbed to death in his Schaumburg, Illinois apartment. The man accused of killing him was Neal Allen, manager of international corporate purchasing. Ebelling was his supervisor.

According to police records, the stabbing was classified as workplace violence because the dispute apparently originated over paperwork. It was a dispute over paperwork and who was supposed to be responsible for it, said Sgt Ron Dutner of the Schaumberg Police Department. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what the involvement was with the paperwork, what the intensity was that was involved. Allen, the accused claimed that Ebeling had attacked him and he had been forced to kill him in self-defense. The defendant said the victim produced a knife, said Schaumburg Police Detective Michael Egan. His statement was he stabbed the victim numerous times.

Of the firms in the AMA study that had experienced violence, 54 percent had no risk management programs in place at the time of the incident. At Square D, managers had actually sought help from an outside agency prior to Ebeling’s murder. In December 1993, the company contacted Joseph Kinney, a consultant and executive director of the National Safe Workplace institute in Chicago. They talked to me about problems they were having said Kinney. They talked abut a workplace on violence reduction and prevention. Unfortunately that workplace never took place.

In light of such cases as the one experienced by Square D, many companies are beginning to increase the use of psychological testing of employees as well as more intensive personal screening. Companies are paying more attention to it, they are beginning to take precautions said Francine Scott urban affairs director at the Chicago land Chamber of Commerce. Ira Lipman, president of Guardsmark Inc., one of the largest security firms in the country, pointed out that there are some simple measures businesses can take to reduce the risk of workplace violence such as rigorous screening of job applicants.

Lipman also recommends that companies form threat management teams. A threat management team typically consists of a counselor an attorney and a security officer. The team can serve as a forum for employees to report threats or actual acts of workplace violence. Moreover, the counselors and attorneys can provide either advice or merely a source of relief by allowing employees to vent their anger. These teams are invaluable in assessing the seriousness of potential conflicts as well as in reducing tension between employees. In all cases studied, rarely was there a case where there weren’t recognizable threats. Sometimes co-workers knew there were problems, but they didn’t know to report them to, said Dr Dennis Johnson. Johnson studied 125 cases of job related violence between 1989 and 1993 the cases involved 390 deaths. Employers must create an atmosphere where workers are encouraged to report threats, Johnson explained. Too often employers have ignored threats and violence has occurred frequently with fatal results.

Many companies unfortunately wait until job related violence has actually occurred before they institute precautionary measures such as the threat management team. There are uncanny parallels to the violence issue and the whole sexual harassment issue, Kinney observed. Ten years ago, most corporations did not a sexual harassment policy and to the extent it exited, people were embarrassed to talk about it. The same is true of verbal abuse and even physical assault. Now people are talking about this more.