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Training Helps Front-Line Staff
Deal With Increasing Workplace Violence
February 14, 2000

A mother, angry that her son must share a room with a student of another race, hurls abuse at a resident assistant. A father, furious that his daughter is forbidden to enroll in classes because she has not paid her bill, threatens to "knock heads together" in the Bursar's Office. A staff person who received a parking ticket assaults the officer who issued it.

These and similar scenarios are occurring with increasing frequency on campus, says Virginia Miller, assistant vice chancellor for human resources. To help University employees both keep such situations from occurring and deal with them when they do arise, the Department of Human Resources is offering regular training sessions, with suggested tips and strategies for handling difficult interactions.

"Our societal constraints are so broken down that people think the only way they can get the service they want is by being aggressive and demanding," says Miller. "There's much less patience, and the resort to violent activity happens at a much earlier point in the conversation than in the past." A few of the aggressors may be mentally ill, she says, but the majority are just "ordinary people with short fuses."

Miller says the surge in violence is relatively recent: "I've done employee discipline for 25 years, but in the past four years alone, I've had to call in public safety to be on the other side of the wall on three occasions when I've issued letters of dismissal."

The rise in workplace violence is not unique to UConn, but is reported across the state and nationwide, says Miller. In 1998, after a number of employees were shot by a co-worker at the Connecticut State Lottery, Gov. John G. Rowland issued a revised policy on violence in the workplace.

Now, says Miller, there is no longer any tolerance for threats of violence. "If someone says, 'I'm so angry I could kill that guy,' we're obliged by the Governor's mandate to follow up," she says.

Miller recommends the training for anyone at the University who regularly deals with "clients" - anyone from parents, students, faculty and staff, to vendors, job applicants or visitors to athletic or cultural events.

In response to a report of either threatened or actual violence, the

University can launch both an administrative investigation and a probe by the Department of Public Safety. Even if no criminal activity is found, the University can still take administrative action, Miller says.

The training the human resources department provides includes sessions on when and how to call the police, how to recognize when a person is under a lot of stress, specific suggestions for words and techniques to defuse a situation, and how to recognize verbal and non-verbal cues in interactions with people of different cultures.

The department also suggests that front-line staff in units that regularly interact with clients have ready access to additional staff or a supervisor, and that supervisors should prepare staff for high-volume periods by discussing how to handle difficult circumstances before the need arises.

"We want to increase people's confidence and ability in handling difficult interactions," Miller says.

Most important, she says, is to try to prevent violent situations before they arise. Sometimes this can be done by acknowledging a client's problems.

Miller recalls volunteering as a Husky Hauler during moving-in day last fall. It was a particularly hot day and tempers were running high. "The parking lots were jammed, cars were overheated, and people needed the bathroom, on top of all the usual freshman separation issues," she says. "When I greeted people, I tried to calm them down by showing that I recognized what they were going through."

The fundamental issue, says Miller, is good customer service. "The risk of workplace violence has made us very aware of how we serve our customers," she says. "We want planning and attention to good customer service to be enhanced, so that problems that could arise from poor customer service don't."

Miller says the training will continue to be offered each semester, and additional information will be supplied in the human resources department's electronic newsletter. Questions about workplace violence may be directed to Miller:

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu