by Dennis A. Davis, Ph.D., Ogletree Deakins, Director of Client Training
As more information about the perpetrators becomes available, we are hearing about several, all too familiar, warning signs of the men believed to be responsible for the recent shootings in Orlando, Florida and Killeen, Texas. This is a very appropriate time to refresh our memories about the types of behavior that should be cause for concern in the workplace.
There were 768 violence-related deaths in the workplace in 2008. That number includes 517 homicides and 251 suicides. The number of homicides decreased from 2007; however, the number of suicides increased by 28 percent over 2007.
Despite these shocking numbers, many employers choose complacency. They put their assets and employees at risk by gambling that “nothing will happen here.” This thinking is perpetuated by the following faulty beliefs.
Violence is random and unpredictable; therefore, nothing this company does will protect us from something that we can’t see, can’t hear, and can’t prepare for.
While there is no “sure bet” formula for predicting exactly who will become violent, there are some early warning signs that research has shown to have a high correlation to violence.
- Dehumanizing/Objectifying. Often, people who become violent verbally treat others as less than human. This can be seen in swearing, name-calling and the use of other abusive language. Such behavior can be an indicator that the individual sees himself as better or more important than others. Example: An employee regularly refers to his boss as “the idiot upstairs.”
- Threatening/Intimidating. In many documented cases of workplace violence, the perpetrator told co-workers of his intent to harm others. Threats, both veiled and direct, must be taken seriously. Hand gestures in which the individual points a finger as though it is a gun are meant to convey a message. Often, the message is, “I’m angry/frustrated/resentful and I know of no way to express myself other than with violence.” This type of behavior can suggest low frustration tolerance, lack of maturity and rage. Example: “If I don’t get that promotion, someone is going to pay.”
- Physical Altercations. Getting into shoving matches, throwing a punch at someone, or even inviting someone to fight can be a sign of escalated violence to come. Except in the case of self-defense, the average adult will avoid physical confrontations. As we grow from childhood to adulthood, we are supposed to develop verbal skills to resolve conflicts. Additionally, we are supposed to care about ourselves to such an extent that the risk of injury (in a fight) is unacceptable.
When an individual is willing to fight, it may be a sign that he does not feel comfortable expressing his feelings verbally and thus is more likely to resort to violence. This behavior may also suggest that the individual does not care about his own health and safety.
- Verbal/Behavioral Expressions of Suicidal Ideation. Recent incidents of workplace violence have been perpetrated by individuals who have expressed little or no desire to live. Some of these expressions have been verbalized by their lack of “future orientation.” Example: “What am I doing for the holidays? I don’t even know if I will be around then.”
Sometimes the expressions are behavioral (giving prized possessions to others or saying goodbye). At other times, the behavior appears as extreme risk taking (engaging in acts that have a high degree of personal danger).
Even if a manager knows that an employee is “potentially violent,” there is nothing that can be done to prevent the inevitable violence.
When the potential for violence is identified early, there is a high success rate for intervention. Some practical steps for managers include:
- Preemployment Screening. The best way to keep an individual from perpetrating violence in the workplace is to screen in the most well-adjusted employees and screen out those who have demonstrated inappropriate behaviors in the past. One way to do this is through background investigations. Additionally, thorough reference checks are a good way to recruit only individuals who can safely function in the work environment.
- Training. When managers are familiar with the warning signs, they are better able to determine which employees need help.
- Policy Development. There are times when employees act out and later state that they did not know their behavior was inappropriate. Organizations must have workplace violence policies that clearly define the company’s expectations and the disciplinary actions that will be taken when these policies are violated.
- Crisis Management Team. All companies need in-house violence prevention and intervention resources. A crisis management team (CMT) should track all acts of violence, threats of violence, and intimidating behaviors. The CMT also should ensure that all incidents are addressed, that the offending employee is counseled, and that corporate resources are available.
We must keep in mind that creating a safe work environment is a shared responsibility. Establishing standards of conduct and ensuring adherence to that policy is the responsibility of upper-level management. When there is zero tolerance of violence in the workplace, we all benefit.
Note: This article was published in the November/December 2009 issue of The Employment Law Authority.