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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 himself.

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. Randolph:

"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 who exhibits:

AngerEveryone 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.

  1. Actor behaviors: Acting out on anger; actions as yelling, shouting, slamming doors, etc.

  2. Fragmentor behaviors: Not taking responsibility for their actions, blaming others for their mistakes, unable to see consequences for their actions.

  3. Me-First behaviors: Taking breaks during crunch-time when everyone else is working, putting their wants ahead of everything else, regardless of negative outcomes.

  4. Mixed-Messenger behaviors: Saying they are part of the company team, but not acting like it.

  5. Wooden-Stick behaviors: Unwilling to try new technology, withholds information, wants to be in charge, is rigid and controlling

  6. Escape-Artist behaviors: Lying to relieve stress, practicing addictive behaviors like taking drugs and gambling.

  7. Shocker behaviors: Acting out of character or too intensely for the occasion, not showing up for work when previously they were reliable.

  8. 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 subtle.

"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 danger signal.

  • Report the incident to management, no matter how small it may seem.

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 too.

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 fruition.

Recommended Reading

The Emotionally Hazardous Work Environment: Is it Worth the Price You Pay?

Online, Phone, U.S. Mail or In-Person: Where is Your Credit Card and Personal Identify Safest?

20% of High School and College Students Victims of Being Stalked


Workplace Violence Can Happen Here

American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN)

Prevent Workplace Violence

Fortune Magazine February 21, 2005

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