Organizational Psychology: The Social Dimension of Work


In the summer of August 1986, a part-time postal worker with a troubled work history walked into the Edmond, Oklahoma, post office and shot and killed 15 people, including himself. From his action, the term “going postal” was coined, describing a troubled employee who engages in extreme violence.

Workplace violence is one aspect of workplace safety that I-O psychologists study. Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening, disruptive behavior that occurs at the workplace. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide (Occupational Safety & Health Administration, 2014).

There are different targets of workplace violence: a person could commit violence against coworkers, supervisors, or property. Warning signs often precede such actions: intimidating behavior, threats, sabotaging equipment, or radical changes in a coworker’s behavior. Often there is intimidation and then escalation that leads to even further escalation. It is important for employees to involve their immediate supervisor if they ever feel intimidated or unsafe.

Murder is the second leading cause of death in the workplace. It is also the primary cause of death for women in the workplace. Every year there are nearly two million workers who are physically assaulted or threatened with assault. Many are murdered in domestic violence situations by boyfriends or husbands who chose the woman’s workplace to commit their crimes.

There are many triggers for workplace violence. A significant trigger is the feeling of being treated unfairly, unjustly, or disrespectfully. In a research experiment, Greenberg (1993) examined the reactions of students who were given pay for a task. In one group, the students were given extensive explanations for the pay rate. In the second group, the students were given a curt uninformative explanation. The students were made to believe the supervisor would not know how much money the student withdrew for payment. The rate of stealing (taking more pay than they were told they deserved) was higher in the group who had been given the limited explanation. This is a demonstration of the importance of procedural justice in organizations. Procedural justice refers to the fairness of the processes by which outcomes are determined in conflicts with or among employees.

In another study by Greenberg & Barling (1999), they found a history of aggression and amount of alcohol consumed to be accurate predictors of workplace violence against a coworker. Aggression against a supervisor was predicted if a worker felt unfairly treated or untrusted. Job security and alcohol consumption predicted aggression against a subordinate. To understand and predict workplace violence, Greenberg & Barling (1999) emphasize the importance of considering the employee target of aggression or violence and characteristics of both the workplace characteristics and the aggressive or violent person.