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Fight back: What to do when fists start to fly

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in Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

Physical violence is dangerous, disruptive and can involve companies in expensive lawsuits if employees—particularly bystanders—are injured during a fight. Employers have every right to implement tough procedures, that may even lead to termination, for a first offense.

That’s often HR’s job. When a fight breaks out at work, first separate the combatants; then take these steps:

Get all the facts. After each participant has told his or her story, interview witnesses. What started the fight? Could confusion over job assignments and responsibilities have been a factor? Are there any racial or sexual overtones? Was it a spontaneous reaction in which guilt was equally apportioned or was one participant clearly the aggressor while the other acted in self-defense?

Don’t take sides. This is particularly hard when you like one of the employees better than the other. But favoritism sticks out like a sore thumb where discipline is concerned.

Don’t get pulled into the disagreement yourself. Employees usually remain keyed up after a fight, and may continue running their mouths until the anger wears off. Try to remain as calm as possible.

Focus on the objectives. In a confrontational situation, keep your eye on the goals you want to achieve: Finding out who did what to whom, and why. Dealing with conflict may bring out your own fight or flight survival responses. Control those emotions by pinpointing instead what you want to achieve as you work toward resolving the problem.

In particular, avoid the temptation to try to “get” the offending employee or punish the angry behavior. Find the real problem. A solution to that problem may also provide a starting point for dealing with recurring behavior problems.

Don’t wait for employees to work things out themselves. Small disagreements can be prevented from turning into physical confrontations if you get involved early.

Review past disciplinary practices. How have you punished other employees for the same offense? Do the circumstances justify a more or less severe penalty than others have received?

Follow up. Even if you got involved before the dispute turned physical, take nothing for granted. Separate the combatants during working hours if possible. Keep an eagle eye on them.

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