Workplace violence: a social harm perspective

A call for Criminology to use a social harm approach to the workplace, as evidence of violence at work grows

Anthony LloydAnthony Lloyd is Reader in Criminology and Sociology at Teesside University. His research focuses on labour markets and work within an ultra-realist harm framework. His latest book, The Harms of Work (Bristol University Press) is out in paperback in October.

 

According to recent figures from the NHS staff survey and research by Unison, violence against NHS staff continues to rise.  Official figures indicate that nearly 15% of staff surveyed had been subjected to physical violence from patients, patients’ relatives or the public while numerous incidents continue to go unreported.  Although many assaults are clinical in nature and therefore take place in mental health settings, the Health Service Journal/Unison report found violent incidents growing in other settings.  Around one-third of staff reported an assault in the previous twelve months and the report draws a correlation between high levels of violence and NHS trusts with large financial deficits and poor performance on elective waiting times.  Could it reasonably be extrapolated, then, that services stretched to the limit generate frustration and dissatisfaction increasingly manifesting in violent outbursts against staff?

The reports of increasing violence against NHS workers follows growing evidence that school teachers face rising levels of physical and verbal abuse from pupils and parents.  Research conducted by NASUWT suggests that one in four teachers experience physical violence from pupils on a weekly basis, including being shoved, barged, hit, punched and kicked.  Almost half of the 5,000 teachers surveyed reported being verbally threatened by pupils. In 2016/17, nearly 750 pupils were permanently excluded for violence against an adult whilst almost 27,000 were given fixed period exclusions for a physical assault on an adult.

Police officers, prison staff and, increasingly, fire fighters are routinely assaulted in the line of work.  In 2017-18, one in five police officers were assaulted in the line of duty with 8,500 prison officers assaulted in the same period.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 694,000 incidents of violence were recorded in UK workplaces in 2017-18 alone with 374,000 adults experiencing violence at work in that period, 41% of which reported injuries.

These reports and research show that workplace violence is prevalent across a range of occupations with employees often facing threats, intimidation and assault during the course of their work.  Criminology has a track record of investigating violent workplaces (Gill et al, 2002; Martin et al, 2012; Schindeler, 2013).  It is crucial that criminology continue to investigate violence in all arenas, including the workplace.  However, it is also vital to heed Slavoj Žižek’s (2008) warning that physical or subjective violence often masks or distracts from more pervasive and invidious acts of ‘systemic violence’ which underpin neoliberal political economy.  A focus on ‘spectacular’ violence should not detract from the wider violence inflicted upon individuals, communities and institutions through the normal functioning of capitalism.

In my work on service economy employees (Lloyd, 2018a; 2018b; 2019), I observed and interviewed call centre workers, retail employees, hospitality workers, couriers, bar staff and fast-food workers.  While physical violence was not observed and very rarely reported by contacts, verbal abuse from customers was endemic and routine while bullying, harassment and abuse from co-workers and supervisors was frequently reported.  However, the picture that emerged was also one of short-term or zero-hour contracts, minimum wage work, targets and performance management, inflexible work rotas, pressure, stress, instability and the sort of workplace precarity regularly cited within the sociology of work literature (Standing, 2011).

Analysing this research from a social harm perspective opens up the normal functioning of labour markets to a critique that highlights numerous problematic practices and, importantly, absences.

The social harm literature continues to struggle with the fundamental question of ‘harm from what?’ (Pemberton, 2016; Yar, 2012; Hillyard and Tombs, 2004; Raymen, 2019).  What harm occurs when employment contracts increasingly favour the employer over the employee?  What harm is inflicted on individuals and communities through austerity measures?  What harm do we suffer through climate change?  The debate around harm’s ontological grounding continues but my contribution, from an ultra-realist perspective (Hall and Winlow, 2015), suggests that harm can be the absence of positive rights that allow individual and collective flourishing.

Following critical realism, ultra-realist criminology posits the probabilistic causal tendencies of absences (Hall and Winlow, 2015).  For example, the absence of a welfare state would undoubtedly engender harmful consequences for individuals and families.  In this case, the absence of stability was evident through the presence of zero-hour contracts, on-demand work, short-term contracts, ‘flexible’ work arrangements that mostly favoured management, low pay, and often inflexible shifts.  The absence of protection was evident through the presence of unpaid ‘work trials’, failure to pay the National Minimum Wage, regular evidence of physical and mental health problems.  The absence of ethical responsibility for the other was evident in the presence of management bullying, colleague harassment, customer abuse and the ‘special liberty’ (Hall, 2012) or sense of competitive entitlement to act in one’s own interests regardless of consequence or damage to co-workers and employees.  The willingness to harm others is intimately connected to competitive individualism.  Within this theoretical framework, absences have consequences and systemic violence damages far worse than subjective violence.

If we return to the earlier examples of hospital and school violence and consider systemic violence, we see wider harms at work.  The same NHS staff survey that reported significant levels of violence also confirmed that 3 in 5 staff work additional unpaid hours, almost 40% reported feeling unwell due to work-related stress, 56% admitted working while not feeling well enough to perform their duties, 45% felt managers did not ask their opinions, 30% considered leaving their organisation.  One-third suggested they could not provide the level of care for patients that they aspired to, 20% reported bullying and harassment from colleagues and over 40% could not say they looked forward to going to work.

These figures indicate significant issues beyond the threat of physical violence.  Like all public sector organisations, the NHS has been subject to austerity, staff shortages, to the implementation of neoliberal managerialism, particularly the directive for efficiency, productivity and value for money, and to outsourcing and privatisation (Pollock, 2004; Davis et al, 2015).  The staff survey results indicate an absence of protection, stability and ethical responsibility for the other that requires further investigation but seems to suggest that positive rights or flourishing are lacking in a sector that demands more with less, stretches services to breaking point and ramps up dissatisfaction, from both employees and service users.  It is within this context that violent outbursts exist.

The workplace must continue as a site of criminological investigation but should also approach such research from a social harm perspective (Scott, 2017).  Widening the angle of vision to incorporate systemic violence as well as brutal outbursts of physical violence allows us to see the myriad harms of work that contextualise subjective assaults on doctors, nurses and teachers.  Many of our workplaces impede flourishing and well-being, both through subjective violence against the person and the systemic violence of neoliberal ideology.  As neoliberal capitalism continues to erode working conditions, conditions of employment and the social relations between employer, employee and consumer, the absences that emerge generate multiple harms, perpetrated by and against the individual.  It is incumbent upon Criminology to see the whole picture.

 

References

Davis, J., Lister, J. and Wrigley, D. (2015) NHS For Sale: Myths, Lies and Deception, London: Merlin Press.

Gill, M., Fisher, B. And Bowie, V. (2002) Violence at Work: Causes, patterns and prevention, (Eds) Cullompton: Willan.

Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2015) Revitalizing Criminological Theory: Towards a New Ultra-Realism, London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (2012) Theorizing Crime and Deviance: A New Perspective, London: Sage.

Hillyard, P. and Tombs, S. (2004) ‘Beyond Criminology?’ in Hillyard, P., Pantazis, C., Tombs, S. and Gordon, D. (Eds) Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously, London: Pluto Press.

Lloyd, A. (2018a) The Harms of Work. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lloyd, A. (2018b) “Working for free: Illegal employment practices, ‘off the books’ work and the continuum of legality within the service economy’, Trends in Organised Crime. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-018-9351-x

Lloyd, A. (2019) “Harm at Work: Bullying and special liberty in the retail sector”, Critical Criminology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-019-09445-9

Martin, D., Mackenzie, N. and Healy, J. (2012) ‘Balancing risk and professional identity, secondary school teachers’ narratives of violence’, Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(4), 398-414.

Pemberton, S. (2016) Harmful Societies, Bristol: Policy Press.

Pollock, A.M. (2004) NHS Plc: The Privatisation of Our Health Care, London: Verso.

Raymen, T. (2019) ‘The Enigma of Social Harm and the Barrier of Liberalism: Why Zemiology Needs a Theory of the Good’, Justice, Power and Resistance, 3(1) 134-163.

Schindeler, E. (2013) ‘Workplace violence: Extending the boundaries of criminology’, Theoretical Criminology, 18(3), 371-385.

Scott, S. (2017) Labour Exploitation and Work-Based Harm, Bristol: Policy Press.

Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury.

Yar, M. (2012) ‘Critical criminology, critical theory and social harm’, in Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (Eds.) New Directions in Criminological Theory, London: Routledge.

Žižek, S. (2008) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, London: Profile Books.

 

Contact

Dr. Anthony Lloyd, Reader in Criminology, Teesside University

Email Anthony.Lloyd@tees.ac.uk

Twitter @lloyd_a1

Copyright free images courtesy of author and  Flickr

Systemic Elite Abuse: sexual violence against women in universities

If sexual abuse is reported how do the university, police, prosecutors and courts react; how is the accused treated and sanctioned; and, crucially, how is the victim treated?

M Punch

Dr. Maurice Punch, Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE, has worked in universities in the UK, USA and the Netherlands (where he lives): his areas of specialisation have been policing, corporate crime and research methods; he is currently writing on deviance in elite student societies and sexual violence against women in universities. His last book was What matters in policing? (with A. van Dijk & F. Hoogewoning: Policy Press: 2015).

There’s disturbing evidence of an ‘epidemic’ in universities in the UK, USA and Australia which should redirect our gaze to ‘crime in the colleges’.  I refer to Systemic Elite Abuse regarding the sexual harassment and abuse of women students. My focus is mainly student-student and male-female as women are disproportionally victimized. Universities are elite institutions in educational systems including prestigious establishments; women students can be victimized by an offender perhaps with high status in the university community; and the offences can have a systemic character. Indeed, there’s ample evidence with great concern in UK, Australian and US universities. Sexual harassment of women students is said to be “at epidemic levels” in UK universities (The Guardian): and “more than half of university students in Australia were sexually harassed at least once in 2016”. The Australian Human Rights Commission reported on this with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner stating:

“It is confronting to learn that sexual assault and sexual harassment are a common part of these students’ experiences in their academic, their social and their residential life —- Sadly, the impacts of these experiences have devastating impacts and it can be life-changing, affecting health, studies and future careers’” BBC News

In response the ‘Universities UK’ organization has proposed useful guidelines in this area (Changing the culture); US President Obama launched a Task force on college sexual assault; and the AAU mounted a survey in 2015. Some 150,000 students took part in this survey from 27 institutions with around a quarter of “female, college seniors” reporting  “unwanted sexual contact – anything from touching to rape – carried out by incapacitation, usually due to alcohol or drugs, or by force”. Two ‘Ivy League’ universities were high offenders in the survey. I’ll mention a particular US case illustrating incapacitation and force: but first I’ll outline some focal points.

Some material focuses on ‘harassment’ as when in Sydney male students broke into women’s bedrooms and trashed them or barged into female showers. But lists were produced of women considered “bait” for sexual advances who were then pursued which forms potential criminal activity. And if abuse is reported how do the university, police, prosecutors and courts react; how is the accused treated and sanctioned; and, crucially, how is the victim treated?  Particularly in the USA but also elsewhere the university often reacts poorly and / or defensively; the criminal justice agencies are inadequate or reluctant to pursue cases; and if it reaches court the accused gets off lightly but the female victim is systematically discredited. Sometimes the university uses its legal muscle to reach a settlement, to deny liability and to impose non-disclosure: the victim never gets to court to give her account or see the offender prosecuted.

Yet some cases are serious sexual assault or rape, including group rape, and are indisputably criminal. It is a major injustice if such cases are not pursued or the offender gets off lightly while the victim is not taken seriously and is undermined in court. In some US cases involving college athletes as offenders there was clear institutional and judicial bias. One such case attracted intense publicity for the powerful victim statement which went viral (with her approval: The Guardian). At Stanford University during a fraternity party a male student – and star swimmer – took a highly intoxicated woman, not a student, outside and aggressively sexually assaulted her: he was interrupted and caught by passing students. He contested the case with the trial drawing much attention. Firstly, there was the mild sentence passed by the judge (six months with three years’ probation): he served half of the sentence. Secondly, and crucially, this blatantly downplayed  the victim’s suffering. Indeed, she made a court statement which powerfully conveyed the long-term deleterious consequences for women of sexual abuse – irrespective of a trial`s outcome – while the abuser proceeds with his life and career. She graphically details the aggressive nature of the assault; the profound and lasting effect on her; and especially her resentment at him insinuating consent. In court she was subjected to:

“narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy —— After a physical assault I was assaulted with questions designed to attack me, to say see, her facts don’t line up, she’s out of her mind, she’s practically an alcoholic, she probably wanted to hook up” The Guardian.

She especially stresses that being a top athlete at a leading university should never lead to leniency and how fast someone can swim “does not lessen the impact of what happened to me” The Guardian.

The universal factor here is the dramaturgy not only in university sexual offences trials but in most such trials. In campus cases the offender is presented as the ideal student with a bright career ahead and the female victim has to be denigrated. The status of the offender, and the university, are in effect employed to minimize the offence and sentence while the female victim may have to leave the university and remains scarred for life.

This topic does make for gloomy reading: are there, then, any positive developments? In recent years there’s been increasing attention to the matter; several high-profile prosecutions have attracted stiff sanctions; and diverse universities – also medical and judicial agencies – have made provision for prevention and for treating victims. These include:

  • New York State passed a 2015 law requiring, “all universities and colleges in the state to adopt ‘yes means yes’ affirmative consent policies and guarantee the rights of sexual assault survivors”. Police launched an initiative with a dual mission, “reduce sexual violence on campuses and get more victims to file police reports” (Mother Jones: 2018)
  • Sydney University has a confidential, single point of access call-centre and an on-line module on “consent, respect, good communication and positive intervention” (University of Sydney)
  • Cambridge University has been working, “with students, staff, victims and specialist organizations for the past two years to try to improve things. This work has culminated in the campaign Breaking the Silence – Cambridge speaks out against sexual misconduct, launched in October 2017. Spearheaded by the Vice-Chancellor, it raises awareness of the University`s zero-tolerance approach to sexual conduct”. Students can access a ‘University Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser’ and attend bystander training and consent workshops.

Clearly many initiatives are new and piece-meal but they do raise awareness, establish facilities and, above all, treat victims in a caring manner. A key factor is the explicit stance of the university.

Universities are primarily for scholarship, research and teaching. But nowadays many strongly support diversity, absence of discrimination, gender equality, protection of the environment, free speech and oppose any form of discriminatory conduct. In particular drunkenness, violence, abusive behaviour – especially against women, minorities, staff or visitors – are matters of deep concern. Given the contemporary debate within academia about sexual and other forms of harassment and discrimination, it simply must be that the university endeavours to ensure an environment where everyone can study in peace, everyone is safe and there’s no discrimination; and where a persistent effort is made to tackle sexual abuse. The tenor here is that offences committed within the university community and its remit should be taken most seriously under an explicit code of conduct and be backed with serious sanctions from the university itself.  For it surely cannot be that marauding males can abuse women students with impunity.  And that some universities, police and courts, treat serious sexual offences against female students poorly or weakly and with the offender treated lightly while the victim faces prolonged trauma.

The university should adopt a firm approach on such conduct backed by suspensions, expulsions and possible prosecutions within a strategy to change the culture on sexual harassment and abuse. The key is to mobilize students, academic and support staff along with a multi-agency coalition with external partners, to create a supportive environment for all to study and work in without harassment and without sexual abuse of women.

 

Contact

Maurice Punch, Senior Visiting Fellow, Mannheim Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Email: m.punch@lse.ac.uk

Images: courtesy of the author and WikiMedia Commons CC-BY-3.0

 

Thinking about Knife Crime Beyond Dangerous Myths and Comfortable Untruths

Knife crime has recently become the staple of public discussion in the media, but remains frequently misunderstood through a series of dangerous myths and comfortable untruths that are unhelpful as they are misleading

Dr Lambros Fatsis, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Southampton and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is the 2018 BSC Blogger of the Year.

A weekday evening in front of the telly usually evokes images of idling on the sofa, engaged in bouts of momentary eye-rolling, head-shaking, and throat-clearing in response to breaking news. For criminologists and other social scientists, however, the situation is much worse. The tiniest falsehood attacks us like a mutating virus which instantly transforms us from spectators, who tune in to find out what is going on, into detectives who comb out truths that news anchors and their guests ignore, conceal, avoid or deny. Unsurprisingly, recent news stories about knife crime are one such example of media frenzy and a source of criminological nightmares. This is because what often passes as serious discussion on this issue often degenerates into a grotesque pantomime where “the right approach” is sought without due respect for the available evidence or regard to the communities that are worse affected. As a result, much of what non-criminologists are exposed to when knife crime becomes news is blunt sophistry at the expense of sharp-edged facts. Sensible, perceptive, and considered responses are hardly absent of course, but they are drowned out by the white noise of superficial, impulsive, knee-jerk punitive reactions that reinforce, instead of challenging, dangerous myths and comfortable untruths about the issue in question.

In the aftermath of the Jaden Moodie murder, the usual explanations (gang membership and “black-on-black” crime) reappeared for an inevitable encore, accompanied by their equally predictable solutions (more stop and search). The best illustration of such views can be found in the last twenty minutes of the recent Question Time  in the form of Melanie Phillips’ ill-informed spiel on the matter, with Rod Liddle’s Sunday Times op-ed being another contender. If such analyses and their recommendations were correct, it would all be well and good. But since they are not, a fierce rebuttal of these frequently recurring falsehoods is due especially since rogue demagoguery of this kind has achieved the status of common knowledge despite most, if not all, evidence to the contrary. The remainder of this blogpost, therefore, will tackle these issues head-on before concluding with an invitation to think about crime by enlisting our intellectual, moral, and civic conscience as active ingredients of any solution to the social problems that cause crime.

Gangs

Every time knife crime is debated, gangs quickly appear as the usual suspects that ought to be responsible for the violence that haunts city streets and citizens’ minds. In fact, this idea is so widespread, even among senior law enforcement officials, that the commentariat could be excused for falling prey to it. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, for example, recently declared a ‘relentless war on gangs’ as a fitting response to the “knife-crime epidemic”. Given the seriousness of the matter, the head of the Met could be excused for her rough and tough approach were it informed by evidence and not so gravely misguided.

However, recent data on gangs from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies show no concrete evidence of the link between knife crime and gang membership, as does the evidence from Stopwatch and Amnesty International on the Metropolitan Police Gangs Matrix database. To make matters worse, a recent investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office found the Matrix in breach of data protection laws ‘with the potential to cause damage and distress to the disproportionate number of young, black men on the Matrix’. This echoes criticisms voiced against the Matrix by criminologists like Becky Clarke who describe it as ‘racist’ as did the UN’s Special Rapporteur on racism who feared its disproportionate use as ‘the basis for surveillance operations against young men and boys who are predominantly black and are listed as potential future violent offenders, sometimes without any basis’.  A previous posting on this blog in 2018 by Keir Irwin-Rogers was also critical of the significant limitations in the empirical evidence base on gangs. Such evidence-less approaches to knife crime as the modus operandi of young Black gangsters simply expose the allure that “gang talk” has on the minds of police chiefs, while also demonstrating how easily young Black people “become” gang members when they are perceived, labelled and processed as such by criminal justice system institutions. This might explain why 78% of the people on the Met’s Gangs Matrix database are Black when the Met’s own data shows that only 27% of people accountable for serious youth violence are Black as criminologist Patrick Williams, dutifully reminds us on page 5 of the aforementioned Stopwatch report.

“Black on Black” Crime

Following gang membership, “Black on Black” crime often comes second in the causal pecking order of knife crime, the assumption here being that since most young Black men are the perpetrators and the victims of such crime there must be something criminogenic about “blackness” either as a biological or a cultural trait. Melanin levels excluded, there can be no other explanation for this like involvement in criminal activity because of levels of poverty and disadvantage. Yet according to a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report, Black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately locked into a position of disadvantage; a fact which might serve as a more reliable predictor of violent crime than skin colour or cultural pathology.

Against airy-fairy fantasies such as structural disadvantage, however, unqualified self-appointed pundits would have us believe that “blackness” is among the causes of knife crime much like “the evil eye” causes natural disasters or fiscal crises. There must, therefore, be something intrinsically “criminal” about Black people and their deficient ‘fatherless’ family arrangements which causes young people to stab each other. It couldn’t possibly be inequality or social exclusion that lead people to commit desperate and often unjust acts within a violent living environment marred by inequality and social exclusion. The only apparent solution must be to reduce or eliminate “blackness”, not remove the structural barriers that block Black Britons’ welfare.

Stop and Search

Having established that knife crime is what gangs of marauding Black youths do with as well as to each other, dispatching police officers to prowl the streets in search of suspects must be the most appropriate response. Otherwise known as stop and search, this police power enjoys the unequivocal support of police chiefs, the Home Office, and mainstream political parties. So much so that the Home Secretary leapt to his feet to ‘reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency’ in the deployment of “suspicionless” stop and search which was (thankfully) overturned by government ministers shortly after. Despite such skepticism about the use of “suspicionless” stop and search, authorised by section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, there was a 400% rise in the use of those powers in 2018. Reservations notwithstanding, the widespread use of stop and search to combat knife crime or gang violence remains unchallenged, despite all evidence to the contrary.

According to the latest evidence, this ostensibly indispensable police power is as ineffective and ill-judged as it is discriminatory and criminogenic even, due to its damaging effect on the public’s trust of the police (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed as LSE academic Michael Shiner and his colleagues (p.2) note, the ‘defensive rhetoric’ around stop and search as ‘a ‘vital tool’ in the fight against knife crime does not ‘stand-up to empirical scrutiny’. Contrary to ‘police narratives about stop and search’ which ‘revolve around knives, gangs, organised crime groups, drug supply, county lines and modern slavery’, the authors’ ‘analysis tells a different story – one of deprived, minority communities being over-policed and selectively criminalised’. Equally, despite Melanie Phillips’ belief that the police refrain from using stop and search for fear of being accused of racism, Shiner and his co-authors (p.8) found ‘no credible evidence’ to support such a claim. Yet stop and search always wins over facts, acquiring talismanic powers and totemic status by those who defend it, including police leaders whose professional practice should be informed by the available evidence not reflex responses.

Moving forward

Faced with a culture of denial about illegitimate police practices and the institutional racism that guides them, any step forward becomes an uphill struggle especially when evidence of it is regarded as treason. In Melanie Phillips’ mind for instance, it is not the conclusion that institutional racism exists that shocks, but the very suggestion that institutional racism exists. Whatever her confusing argument was Sub-chapter 6.45 and Chapter 46 of the Macpherson report, which she mentions, prove her wrong either way. The challenge is to recognise that (knife) crime is often the visible manifestation of deep-seated patterns of inequality and social exclusion. Policing our way out of social problems, therefore, seems misplaced when the emphasis should be on improving ‘dangerous places’, not hunt for ‘dangerous people’ as Eric Klinenberg argues in Chapter Two of his new book. Taking a stand against the conditions that produce knife crime, therefore, ought to be our civic and moral priority instead of pursuing scapegoats by rethinking knife crime and (re)acting towards it through a combination of a public health and social justice approach to public safety, defended by the Youth Violence Commission and London’s nascent Violence Reduction Unit in London.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the institution he works for.

Contact

Lambros Fatsis, University of Southampton

Twitter: @lfatsis

 

Copyright free image courtsey of Shutterstock