Know When to Act to Prevent Workplace Violence

Tragic events such as the recent Florida school shooting repeat themselves far too often in America, but there is something about this event that stands out as unique:  People saw it coming and even reported their apprehensions to law enforcement, but no action was taken.  The fact that so few were surprised to hear Cruz identified as the shooter makes this event exceptionally tragic.  Keep reading to help know when to act to prevent workplace violence.

The idea that people just “snap” and start killing people is a myth.  After the Virginia Tech massacre in which Cho Seung-hui killed thirty-two, his classmates said, “He just ‘snapped.”  No.  He didn’t just “snap.”   But that’s the sound-bite that makes its way into eyewitness accounts in media coverage of such acts of violence, on campuses or in workplaces. In fact, Cho’s behavior leading up to the massacre grew daily more disturbing through acts of intimidation and violence-themed writing. Cho received verbal warnings from campus police regarding stalking complaints.

It is not possible to pre-identify those who commit violence on a personality profile or employment screening.  However, when an employee exhibits certain patterns of changes in behavior, attention is justified.

What should get your attention?
Supervisors are usually in the best position to observe employee behavior, and should be trained to recognize indicators of stress.  Stress doesn’t always predict violence, but by observing patterns, frequency and intensity of  behaviors, as well as the number of different behaviors, supervisors may be able to identify when trouble could be on the horizon.

Job performance indicators
These behaviors should be evaluated:  increases in absenteeism or lateness, growing disregard for the safety of others or a decrease in work quality.  If the worker refuses to acknowledge the problem, or seems distracted or unable to focus, it warrants your attention.

An increase in the frequency of sick days and the length of absences should be noted.  A sudden weight change or lapses in personal hygiene may be indicators of significant stress.

Inappropriate emotion
This might include outbursts of crying or screaming, or passive-aggressive behaviors like sulking.  

When workers blame others for their mistakes, persistently complain about being treated unfairly, or talk endlessly about the same problems without solving them, these are signs of stress.

Changes in social behavior
You should take note of increased conflict with other workers, and/or withdrawing from workers they had previously associated with.

Expressions of desperation
Statements like these: “I don’t know what I’m going to do!”  “I don’t  think  I can  stand  this  much  more.”  “Somebody  has to do something!”  Any talk of suicide is a red-flag behavior that cannot be ignored.  It can be a very short distance between doing violence to oneself and doing violence  to others.

Substance abuse
An escalating pattern in which the employee is visibly hung over on the job, or begins arriving at work under the influence of intoxicating substances is a danger sign.  At-risk employees and substance abuse is a dangerous combination.

Romantic obsession at the workplace
While romantic involvements in the workplace are fairly common, unreciprocated romantic obsessions are another matter.  A rebuff from the object of the employee’s obsession can be a powerful trigger event for violence.

Statements indicating identification with perpetrators of violence
When news stories include incidents of violence, they may make comments to the effect: “Sometimes I think I know how they feel.”  “I guess there’s a limit to how much you can take.” “We’re probably not getting the whole story.”  “I guess they figured they had nothing to lose.  I know what that’s like.”

What can you do?
If these behaviors are observed, but thus far no threats have been expressed and no threatening behavior has been reported, this simple approach is often very effective: 

  1. Establish concern for the employee.
  2. Observe behaviors without judgment.
  3. Express empathy.
  4. Invite to dialogue.
  5. Collaborate on a solution.

Connecting in this way with an at-risk employee opens the door to two positive outcomes.

First, you earn the influence to prompt the employee to seek help.  If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program you can encourage him or her to seek help there.

Secondly, sometimes an empathetic inquiry is all that is needed to open up dialogue to address grievances and correct problems.  This will also make the employee more open to suggestion that, in the absence of an Employee Assistance Program, he or she seek help from an outside source.

Preventing workplace violence is about breaking the chains of events that lead up to it.  Early and effective engagement, even it seems uncomfortable, can preserve the safety of your entire workplace.

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About the Author:
Gary Sheely is a Tactical Confrontation Specialist focusing on workplace violence issues.  He’s published three books, including his latest one, “Safe at Work:  How Smart Supervisors Reduce the Risk of Workplace violence.”  He conducts training workshops and has been a keynote speaker across the United States.  He can be reached at

Read a related blog post:  6 Risky Misconceptions about Workplace Violence

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