How to Detect Potentially Violent People in the Workplace
Here's a scary thought: More than 23 percent of workers report feeling
"angry all the time" at work, according to a Yale/Gallup study.
With numbers like these, it's no wonder public violence is becoming more
and more common in the United States.
Earlier this month, a gunman walked into a Wisconsin church and shot
and killed seven people before turning the gun on himself. Then a teenager
walked into his Red Lake, Minnesota school and killed nine people, then
Often, these tragic massacres occur in places where the perpetrator is
familiar; church, school or work. And in the case of the workplace, there
are some very discernable patterns to watch for, and steps to take to
eliminate potential violence before it becomes real violence.
You can spot the warning signs of workplace violence if you know
where to look (and some of the signs, like personal hardships, anxiety
or depression, are surprising).
But while the patterns and warning signs are there, a study by the American
Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN), found that most
people aren't aware of what to watch for. Said AAOHN President Susan A.
"AAOHN's study found that nearly 20 percent of the entire workforce
claimed they have experienced an episode of workplace violence first-hand,
yet the majority still do not know what to look for when it comes to
determining potential offender characteristics. These findings alone
define a significant need for companies to commit to and implement workplace
violence education and prevention programs. Without employee education,
a company will be far less able to diffuse a potential violent situation
before it arises."
So don't be left in the dark. Here are the most common warning signs
that future offenders tend to exhibit:
- Changes in mood
- Personal hardships
- Mental health issues (depression, extreme anxiety)
- Negative behavior (untrustworthy, lying, bad attitude)
- Verbal threats
- A past history of violence
- Attempts to intimidate others
- Paranoid or anti-social behavior
- A history of drug or substance abuse
What's more is that while most employees aren't able to predict workplace
violence before it occurs, they are able to identify changes they saw
in their violent co-worker after a crime occurred.
Watching out for such signs prior to the episode is becoming a necessity
not only for supervisors and human resource workers but also for every
employee. Dr. Lynne McClure, a well-known expert in managing high-risk
employee behaviors before they become violent massacres, says there are
eight major categories that signal a potential for violence. They occur
in certain patterns before any actual violence. Watch out for an employee
gets angry sometimes, but a coworker who continually acts out on
their anger by yelling, slamming doors and so on, may be starting
on the path to violence.
Actor behaviors: Acting out on anger; actions as yelling,
shouting, slamming doors, etc.
Fragmentor behaviors: Not taking responsibility for their
actions, blaming others for their mistakes, unable to see consequences
for their actions.
Me-First behaviors: Taking breaks during crunch-time when
everyone else is working, putting their wants ahead of everything
else, regardless of negative outcomes.
Mixed-Messenger behaviors: Saying they are part of the company
team, but not acting like it.
Wooden-Stick behaviors: Unwilling to try new technology,
withholds information, wants to be in charge, is rigid and controlling
Escape-Artist behaviors: Lying to relieve stress, practicing
addictive behaviors like taking drugs and gambling.
Shocker behaviors: Acting out of character or too intensely
for the occasion, not showing up for work when previously they were
Stranger behaviors: Fixating on an idea or person, becoming
isolated, social skills become poor.
People who exhibit these behaviors may be on the verge of committing
a violent act. Says Larry Porte, a former Secret Service agent, such attacks
"are the products of understandable and often discernible processes
of thinking and behavior." So it's up to you and your co-workers
to keep an eye out for these warning signs.
A potentially violent person could exhibit many warnings or be much more
"There is not one absolute factor that predisposes an individual
to workplace violence. Managers and employees should be familiar with
each potential warning sign, but look at a totality of factors including
the work environment, the employee's home-life and his or her behavior
as a whole," said Eugene A. Rugala, supervisory special agent for
the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
What to Do if You Think a Co-Worker is a Threat
If you are confronted by a violent coworker, staying calm and speaking
in a relaxed, non-confrontational way is of utmost importance.
Let's say you notice that your co-worker in the next cubicle is exhibiting
some or all of the warning signs. What do you do?
Says Dr. McClure, "When the manager, supervisor or HR person sees
these behavior patterns, she must document, talk to the employee, discuss
the behaviors in terms of their negative effect on work, and require training,
counseling, or both. The manager, supervisor or HR person must then continue
to monitor the employee's behavior. The goal is to either get the employee
to change his behavior, via skills acquisition and/or dealing with problems,
or leave the workplace by choice or company decision."
In the event that you're confronted with an angry
or violent coworker, you should:
Call 911 or a supervisor (use your judgment depending on the situation).
If your company has a set response plan, follow it (if they don't,
contact human resources and suggest they get one).
Respond calmly. If you get angry, chances are that your co-worker
will get angrier too. This means speaking in a soothing, relaxed voice
and not using confrontational body language.
Be respectful to the employee.
Alert other co-workers of the potential danger using an agreed-upon
Report the incident to management, no matter how small it may
Though workplace violence is a chilling topic, keep in mind what Haig
Neville wrote in Dealing With Workplace Violence, "A New York Times
study of 100 rampage murders ... found that most of the killers 'spiraled
down a long, slow slide, mentally and emotionally.'"
In other words, there were multiple warning signs that the offender was
in trouble and on the brink of committing a violent act long before it
occurred. Keep your eyes open for the signs, and don't be afraid to report
incidents or suspicious behaviors-even if seemingly small-to management
or human resources. And, educate those around you of the warning signs
If every employee is aware and on the lookout for workplace violence
warning signs, there's a much greater chance that it will never come to
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Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN)
Magazine February 21, 2005