Deterring Workplace Violence


Your workday begins like any other day — organizing your desk, answering the phone and greeting visitors as they sign in; you know, the typical routine. On this day, however, Bob, an ex-employee, walks in demanding to see Fred and Jan, his old managers. After a 30-second exchange between you and this man, he pulls out a gun and points it in your face. Stunned and numb, you follow every one of his demands. As people hysterically run for their lives, Bob finds Fred and Jan in their offices, and in a paranoid and psychotic instant he opens fire and kills the managers and himself.

Sound like a scene from a Hollywood movie? Unfortunately, this is the “breaking story” we see and hear much too often on the evening news. Violence in the workplace is a reality happening everywhere. The problem is no longer isolated to late night convenience stores. Hospitals, accounting firms, governmental agencies, corporate headquarters and more are all affected. For many, the workplace presents high stress and daily volatile events.

In the past decade, workplace violence has increased more than 300 percent. In fact, statistics show that:

  • Violence at work accounts for approximately 15 percent of all violent acts experienced annually in the United States.
  • Homicide is the leading cause of workplace death for women.
  • Last year, two million Americans were victims of a physical assault while on their jobs.
  • Approximately 16 million workers will be harassed at their place of employment.
  • One in four people will be affected by workplace violence.

To answer the question, “Why is there a dramatic increase of workplace violence,” one needs to look at our society. Haven’t we become more violent over the years? College campus massacres, husbands murdering wives, employees shooting employees, etc. We are besieged with violence on a daily basis. From the daily newspaper to the nightly news, we have become conditioned and desensitized to violence. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, if the workplace is a microcosm of society, there will be an increase of violence in the workplace.

Furthermore, with downsizing, layoffs and mergers, employees are working more hours with fewer resources. Stress levels are at an all-time high among American workers. As stress levels continue to climb, these workers become lightening rods ready to explode. These people are walking a psychological tightrope, and when they fall, they fall hard, and often resort to violence.

We can no longer take solace in the fact that employees can feel secure at the workplace. Like violence in society, we may never eradicate such behavior, but we can take steps to deter the violence and aggression found in the workplace.

The Profile
Since workplace violence is a predominately new social problem, psychologists have been hard at work trying to understand the dynamics of an attacker. It is important to differentiate nonlethal and lethal acts of violence. Simply stated, non-lethal acts of violence tend to happen impulsively. An employee who is angry with another and destroys some furniture would be an example of non-lethal violence. Unlike the non-lethal person, the attacker who commits murder in the workplace is not impulsive. In fact, he is quite selective and deliberate. The final act is one of a long chain of events.

The Warning Signs
Upon closer examination, these people present visible behavioral warning signs. Unfortunately, many employees and managers tend to deny and minimize these signs. In one study, 87 percent of managers who were interviewed after a murder stated they “let things go unattended too long.” They went on to explain that fear drove their denial — fear of confrontation and/ or retaliation.

A manager of a Fortune 500 company tells of a time he walked through his department and overheard one of the employees mutter, “maybe I should just blow some people away.” Unsure of what to do with what he heard, he decided to make a report to security after two sleepless nights. Fortunately, he made the right decision. Upon their investigation, security officers found floor plans of the company’s headquarters, several weapons and a list of executives to be killed.

Having an awareness of the common warning signs may prevent a terrible tragedy:

  • Any verbal threat of violence
  • Any physical action — intimidation, flashing a weapon, stalking, etc.
  • Consistently angry and frustrated — usually associated with entitlement issues such as not receiving a promotion, being demoted, etc.
  • Obsessive characteristics — obsessed with a co-worker (often times romantically), a famous person or an individual with high status

What Can You Do?
Certainly, one cannot control another person’s behavior or eliminate workplace violence. However, if one recognizes some of the warning signs or a troubled person seeks assistance, the following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Always take threats seriously. Like a person who threatens suicide, it may be a cry for help.
  • Find ways to assist the person by:
    • Listening empathetically
    • Giving the phone number to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)-Work and Family Representatives
    • Referring a community mental health agency, etc.
    • Recommending a stress management program
  • Be sure to follow-up. Call the person to find out how they are doing.

What the Organization Can Do
As organizations strive to improve themselves, the issue of violence can no longer be avoided. Companies need to be more proactive in dealing with workplace violence. The typical worker often times spends more time at their job than they do with their own families. An employer has a responsibility to create a workplace that is safe and healthy for employees.

In addition to the human tragedy that results from violence in the workplace, there is a great financial loss to the organization. In terms of lost wages, lawsuits and missed workdays, these crimes cost employers and workers more than $55 million annually.

The following are items organizations should consider and implement to help create a safer environment.

  1. 1. Create a Threat Management Team that carries out the policy regarding violence in the workplace. This multidisciplinary team consists of personnel from human resources, security, medical, safety, legal, EAP and other employees. Additionally, appropriate response procedures need to be developed. This would include an anonymous hot line, a plan for who contacts police, etc.
  2. 2. Develop a consistent style of management and philosophy to be driven throughout the organization.
  3. 3. Security systems need to be assessed and security training provided for all employees.
  4. 4. Training managers and employees in such areas as identifying the warning signs, advanced communication skills, etc.
  5. 5. Create a network of support for the identified employee:
    • Materials from EAP, mental health services, etc. should be readily available.
    • Increase workers’ training around awareness of psychological risk factors and coping strategies.
    • For smaller companies where on-site programs are not feasible, a liaison should be established with local mental health or social service agencies.

In a society where violence is part of the everyday culture, the workplace appears a bit safer than the streets. However, violence is an unfortunate reality of our times and has far reaching consequences for both employees and the organization. Companies need to be more proactive in dealing with workplace violence and prepare employees for the inconceivable. Although violence in the workplace cannot be eliminated, employers can provide a safer environment by offering workplace violence training and implementing preventative policies and procedures.