Workplace Violence: How to Identify the Warning Signs

An unnamed company manager held his people accountable for performance, and zeroed in on one associate who did not possess certain qualifications required by a certain date. The manager added extra training time to an already heavy workload the member had. Arguing ensued and before anyone knew it, someone lost their temper. Fists flew and bustling occurred, before the antagonizing employee was physically removed from the premises by co-workers. Both members involved in the outbreak were tried and sentenced to pay fines. All of this took place during normal working hours, when business was occurring, and it’s all a true story (names withheld to protect the not-so-innocent).

This is an example of workplace violence and it is only the tip of the iceberg in what is possible. Besides outright bullying, name-calling, and physical aggression, we must also deal with active shooter scenarios. In America alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics[1], 16,890 workers in the private industry experienced trauma from nonfatal workplace violence in 2016. These incidents resulted in 21% of those workers being required 31 or more days away from work to recover, and 19% involved three to five days away from work. 500 U.S. workers were workplace homicide victims in 2016.

Violence in the workplace is something to take very seriously. Not only can it obliterate businesses with all of the negative news coverage and loss of service capability, but actual lives of those working in the company (and those in protective services trying to help) can be destroyed, either through fines, loss of work, or death. The news is full of the grimmest workplace violence incidents, but violence in the workplace casts a wide net. Verbal and emotional abuse that seeks to humiliate, be vindictive or offensive, or simply create “top dog” control can be a major catalyst for later violence, whether planned or initiated in the moment. Personal relationships can sometimes degrade into violent encounters as well, such as with rape or the assault described at the beginning.

There are so many variables associated with workplace violence that it is imperative to be able to understand the signs and types, in order to pre-empt violent encounters. Most of those can be placed into these categories:

  • Homicide
  • Attempted Homicide
  • Physical Aggression
  • Verbal Threats
  • Destruction of Company Property
  • Sexual Assault
  • Terrorism

These categories originate from criminals/strangers, customers/clients, employees/co-workers, and personal relations. Once it is understood what kind of workplace violence is possible, conscious effort by associates, supervisors, and management alike must be made to identify warning signs. A company can (and should) have robust policy in place to direct everyone on actions needed to avert or respond to workplace violence, but all the guides in the world won’t do anything if warning signs can’t be read first. Here is a list of the best red flags to watch out for, if at all possible to determine:

  • Incapability of working well with others.
  • Diagnosed, mental illness (this should go without saying).
  • Confrontational behavior.
  • Vindictive speech.
  • Recent Layoff.
  • Emotional despair.
  • Interactions or interest in extremist groups outside of work.
  • Social isolation.
  • Lack of concern for safety of others.
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse.
  • Heated relationship triangle with co-workers or management.
  • Recorded history of violence (another one that goes without saying).
  • Direct physical signs such as clenched fits, flush face, pacing, screaming, cursing, rapid breathing, sneering, and entering personal space.

If any of these things happen in your workplace, these are warning signs that violence could occur either at a pre-planned time later down the road, or perhaps even on the spot. It’s important to be familiar with all protocols for workplace violence that your company has established and report any sightings of potential distress to a supervisor or security personnel. It is equally important that your entire workforce is aware of these steps.

Even if an assessment is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. You are responsible for your company and all the people who are working in it at the time of the incident, no matter what level you are working at. Having guidelines in place and routine training (such as active shooter drills) that re-enforce those guidelines are the best thing you can do. This includes making sure everyone understands the warning signs and what they should do next.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/violence/fastfacts.html

18th Nov 2019 Business Training Media

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