Real Talk: Could Your Coworker Be Violent?

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Ever read of a shooting at a workplace, and coworkers said things like, “I never saw this coming." Learn how to to spot the warning signs.

Ever read of a shooting at a workplace, and coworkers of the deranged gunman said things like, “I never saw this coming,” or, “He’s the last person I’d ever think would snap”?

According to Occupation Safety & Health Administration, nearly two million American workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. 

In an article on CNN.com it was reported in a single week in Alabama, a fired man walked into UPS where he'd worked and, shot two people dead, and then himself. In Oklahoma, after being laid off, a man headed to his food processing plant, decapitates the first person he sees, then attacks someone else. In Illinois, a man walks into his air traffic control center, starts a fire, then cuts his own throat.

It's not a fun topic, but workplace violence is a reality in the world we live in. Though shootings and the like are the extreme, workplace violence can take different forms. As per the Occupation Safety & Health Administration, "workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide."  

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Stopping Occurences of Violence

There will always be a lot of angry people out there. And angry people go to work. And they also get fired. Some time ago, I was on CNBC to discuss the Navy Yard shootings and to offer tips on how to stop these tragic incidents. But I can only offer tips—not guarantees. Especially since sometimes, we just have no idea whom the next person to snap will be.

I’ve been asked why modern-day technology can’t figure out a way to foresee workplace shooting rampages. This is science fiction at this point. Let’s face it: How can there be a way to decode the electrical energy inside a mad person’s brain and predict what behaviors are looming?

And it’s not an issue of gun control. Though a person with a gun will be able to kill a lot more people by spraying bullets into a room full of people than if he went chasing after them with a steak knife, a lot of violence on the job also involves knives and other weapons.

What about metal detectors? It’s just not feasible that every workplace, from Walmart to McDonald's to elementary schools can be equipped with metal detectors. And even if they were, a determined madman can still wait in the parking lot for employees to file out at lunch time. He’s less likely to kill 10 people this way or at least his specific targets, but metal detectors won’t stop him from trying.

Creating a Workplace Violence Prevention Program

With all that said, we can’t ignore this issue, either. The OHSA says that "one of the best protections employers can offer their workers is to establish a zero-tolerance policy toward workplace violence. This policy should cover all workers, patients, clients, visitors, contractors, and anyone else who may come in contact with company personnel."

OHSA also recommends a comprehensive and well-documented Workplace Violence Prevention Program. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees shares that an employer’s workplace violence policy should include the following principles:

  • Workplace violence is an occupational safety and health hazard.
  • Employees should be educated about the conditions that increase the risk of violence, and how violence can be prevented, as well as have training and practice drills on procedures to be used in the event of a violent incident.
  • Facility layout, work procedures, staffing, communication equipment and other work practices should be designed so that workers are not put — or put themselves — at risk of violence.
  • Employees who have contact with the public should be trained in defusing potentially violent situations and how to protect themselves.
  • Potentially violent clients or patients should be managed appropriately and the staff made aware of their identities.
  • Back-up support should be available for employees who request it.
  • Employees should be encouraged to report all incidents or near-misses of workplace violence, including threats.
    All incidents or near-misses of workplace violence should be investigated, preferably by the joint labor/management safety and health committee.
  • Management should provide legal assistance to employees if they want to press charges against the assailant.
  • Management must apply rules consistently and fairly.

 

Spotting the Warning Signs

Companies should make sure their employees are familiar with the traits of someone potentially capable of being violent at work. Some of these traits are:

  • Fixated on being in control of others. The difference between someone who’s just an a-hole bully and someone who really has some psychopathology going on is that, for instance, the latter may boast of his knife or gun collection; he may have many books on weapons or “how to kill people”; and may have a preoccupation with war, bombings, etc.
  • This person is never wrong. Whatever happens to him is always someone else’s fault. Nobody wants to invite this person to their summer barbecue.
  • Paranoid delusions, i.e., believes someone is out to get them by tapping their phone, reading their emails or worse.
  • Suspicious statements. May make statements such as, “One of these days she’ll be sorry,” or, “It’s only a matter of time before I do something that makes the news.” 
  • They threaten to take legal action. This doesn't always indicate danger, but if someone is agitated enough to spend time and money on legal action, they could go even further.
  • Being recently fired (particularly for aggressive behavior) can make such a person dangerously revengeful.

This doesn’t mean that the “usually quiet” coworker is off the hook. Sometimes workplace violence is committed by a ticking time bomb personality type. However, in most cases, the person who does something that makes the news already stands out in a creepy way.

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Encouraging Employees to Speak Up

Employees should be encouraged to report anything that seems suspicious. But many people will keep their lips sealed tightly—and there are several reasons for this. One is that they were taught, from childhood, never to create waves, to just go along with the flow.

How many adults, when kids, were warned that they should never “snitch” on someone? This message leaves a mark for many people well into their adulthood, and they’re just too intimidated to speak up to their superiors. 

People want to preserve their reputation at the workplace; they fear that reporting strange behavior will make them look bad. They may also be afraid because the suspicious person threatened them. Another reason for keeping silent is to avoid hurting the other worker’s feelings. But if someone creeps you out, why would you be worried about hurting their feelings—other than fearing retaliation?

Though the vast majority of workplace violence is committed by men, this doesn’t mean that women are always in the clear. There are many cases in which a woman became violent at the workplace, though their mode is usually not that of spraying people with bullets or running loose with a big knife.

Conclusion

It would be much easier to assume that your workplace is not the type where this sort of thing could happen, but one can only hope. It is better to be prepared and aware, and if you see something that concerns you, sharing those fears should not be of consequence. Though most instances of workplace violence don't end in long-term damage outside of a bruised ego, they are detrimental to morale, culture and your employee's feelings of safety. 

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