By: Dan B.
When one thinks of workplace violence, images of an insane shooter often come to mind. This is actually pretty rare as far as workplace violence goes and technically workplace violence includes any sort of physical or verbal assault. Of course, having said that, I go to work every day to a building with bullet holes in the wall…
The most common, but perhaps most error-prone, method of predicting workplace violence (of any kind) is known as profiling. This involves a list of “typical” characteristics that are supposed to represent indicators of violent behaviors. Although I’ll include such a list in this article, as a manager or co-worker, you should realize that there is a lot more that goes into making a true threat assessment than checking off items on a list. In particular, when assessing the behaviors of an individual, your assessment must be made from objective facts and observable behavior, not inferred traits. Likewise, any information about the behavior of an individual should be collected from more than one source (And this is why it is so important for coworkers and managers to come forward with their concerns. Although this may feel like tattling – you are probably not the only one who has a concern and the more people that share their factual observations of an individual’s behavior, the more accurate the threat assessment is likely to be). In the ideal world, assessment information is gathered not only from the workplace environment, but outside of that as well.
A threat assessment is based upon the belief that targeted violence is not a spontaneous event, and that there is a difference between making a threat and being a threat. For instance, a substantive verbal threat would be a threat that includes things such as specific plausible details, repetition of the threat over time or to multiple individuals, communicating the threat as a plan and physical evidence of intent to carry out the threat such as a weapon or a written list of victims.
A list of characteristic behaviors that may indicate potential for violent behavior is below. Notice that some of these are more subjective than others, and that none of them are any sort of crystal ball guarantee that someone will commit violence.
· Acting out on violent impulses, yelling, threatening, stomping, etc.
· Chronically angry.
· Not taking responsibility for their own behavior.
· Assumes the worst in others.
· Controlling and inflexible.
· Self centered.
· Fixation on an idea (including violence or weapons) or individual.
· Identifies with others who commit violence.
· Mixed messages – says one thing but acts differently.
· Suddenly acts out of character.
· Uses drugs and/or alcohol.
· Attendance problems.
· Deterioration of work performance.
· Refusal to cooperate with authorities.
· Unwanted sexual comments.
· Sees self as being victimized.
· Attempts to recruit others to their personal grievance cause.
· Coworkers are afraid of them.
· There have recently been news stories about other major acts of
violence. (This is a characteristic of the environment, not the
· They monitor the behavior of other workers closely.
· Verbal threats.
People may commit violence in the workplace to avenge a perceived wrong, bring attention to a (personal) problem, end personal pain (be killed), or achieve notoriety (which is why recent published incidents of violence can be a contributing factor to consider). People most likely to commit violence tend to be people in pain, people in rebellion, or people with a weak ego. Ultimately though, rather than trying to judge the other person, to predict whether someone really poses a threat, you must try to see the world through their perspective. Ask yourself: Do they feel justified in using violence? Do they see alternatives to using violence? Do they believe the consequences of using violence will be favorable? Do they have the means to use violence?
In terms of preventing workplace violence, there really is a substantial amount that can be done. There are three elements that come together to create violence in the workplace. These are: the employee, the stimulus, and management’s response to the employee’s behavior. Both the stimulus (the stated cause of the behavior) and the behavior itself should be addressed, but as separate issues if possible. If an employee is exhibiting several of the characteristics listed above, management should intervene before the situation escalates. Make it clear to the employee that such behavior is unacceptable. Then, attempt to find a mutually satisfactory solution to the stimulus that initiated the behavior. If no solution can be found, an employee may need to be placed on leave, or terminated. Often, professional counseling can be an effective method to prevent further escalation. There are a variety of legal and documentation issues that must be addressed in these situations, which the companies’ HR management should be familiar with.