Workplace violence: How to reduce the risk of tragedy

Experts on workplace violence emphasize that prevention is a continuing effort rather than a single magic pill.

It’s a nightmare scenario that haunts every business owner: A troubled employee’s simmering anger finally boils over into an act of workplace violence. Too often the results are human injury, traumatized employees, and a damaged business reputation.

“A violent event leading to injuries and loss of life can be devastating to a business,” says Wayne Maxey, Executive Consultant for Workplace Guardians, a consulting firm in San Diego ( “Some organizations never recover because of the impact on their surviving employees and on their brand.”

Not to be overlooked, as well, is the financial cost when injured members of the public bring costly lawsuits. “While theories of negligence vary by state, very often employers can be sued for negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligent retention of employees,” says attorney Kathleen Bonczyk, founder of the Workplace Violence Prevention Institute, Orlando, Fla.

The resulting financial damages can be crippling for organizations lacking costly legal talent. “Small businesses are at higher risk of financial devastation because they possess limited resources to implement comprehensive preventive approaches,” says Felix P. Nater, president of Nater Associates, a security consulting firm operating out of New York City and Charlotte, N.C. “Yet they’re no better than large organizations at predicting when disgruntled employees will transition into violent action.”

Viable threats
Every employer must take steps to prepare for an unexpected act of workplace violence. Experts say that an effective policy starts with understanding the various manifestations of violence—including less extreme behaviors that too often grow into something worse.

“Most employers think of violence in terms of physical assault or homicide,” says Nater. “However, it can also take the form of threatening behavior, verbal abuse, intimidation, and harassment.”

Threatening behavior, says Nater, can mean the shaking of fists, confrontation with or threatening of a victim with objects, and blocking another person’s movement. Even non-physical actions can qualify: “Violence can take the form of words, gestures, intimidation and bullying, and inappropriate conduct such as swearing, insults and condescending language.” Many such acts, he says, can rise to the level of harassment, activity which attempts to “demean, embarrass, humiliate, annoy, or cause alarm.”

Any viable threat to cause bodily harm is an act of violence—and constitutes a crime under most state laws. Here are some examples in the form of statements made by one employee to another:

·         “I’m going to beat you up after work.”

·         “Employees who kill their supervisors have the right idea."

·         "I'm afraid I'm going to lose control, and I have guns.”

All such statements are serious matters. “You need to take action right away in response to any workplace threat,” says John M. White, president of Protection Management, a consulting firm in Canton, Ohio ( “If you ignore it, other employees will believe that making threats is okay. Then, eventually, someone may well carry out their threat.” All employees must realize that if they say it, it’s as bad as if they did it.

Grey areas
Some employee actions fall into the category of disruptive activity rather than workplace violence. Maybe Barbara tosses a pile of papers on the floor and begins to scream about how lousy the company is. The correct response to such an event is to counsel Barbara, come to a better understanding of the cause of her anger, and enlist her aid in improving the workplace environment. If Barbara were to knock a laptop off the desk in anger, on the other hand, she might be disciplined for destruction of company property.

Still other actions fall into a grey zone between harmless and harmful. What should you do, for example, when humor contains a violent element? Suppose Sam tells Andy in a joking tone of voice, “I’m going to knock your block off after work.”  In such cases, experts advise taking the individual aside and counseling that you realized they were joking, but that such behavior is still not acceptable.

More troubling are statements for which a humorous intent is unclear. Sam’s assertion in the previous paragraph, if uttered without sufficient humorous tone, might or might not be a serious threat. “Sometimes it can be hard to tell,” says White. “It all depends on tone of voice, the environment, and the body language. But the investigation process should try to come to a conclusion.”

In such cases White suggests starting to watch the employee’s behavior more closely. Does Sam have attendance problems? Is he violating other organizational polices? Has he health or financial problems? “Try to observe the employee without being too invasive.”

A final category of event is the statement that is obviously not a joke, but is so veiled as to call into question its violent intent. Suppose Alan tells his supervisor: “You had better not treat me like this.” His voice has a warning tone and his demeanor is dark, but is the statement a threat to commit violence or just a threat to quit and go work for a competitor? The answer’s elusive. The best response is to take Alan aside and counsel him on what caused him to make his statement and what he had in mind.

When in doubt, trust your gut and don’t over-analyze. If you feel afraid, there is something amiss.

Act early
Barbara’s outburst, described above, while perhaps innocent of violent intent, may also provide an early warning sign of more severe trouble down the road. Identifying such warning signs, and addressing them promptly, is the best way to obviate extreme behavior.

“Supervisors should be alert for employees who start to behave in strange ways, such as barricading themselves in their cubicles, or making statements such as their supervisors are poisoning their food,” says Maxey. Be alert for those employees who are constantly unable to get along with others, who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, who are quick to anger, or who respond in inappropriate and exaggerated ways when given minor directives. All can be early signs of greater issues down the road.

Employees should be trained to report any such behavior to supervisors who can start to more closely monitor the troubled worker. “The key is to catch a problem early on. When supervisors fail to address early warning signs, the employee’s problems can marinate over time and then get to the point where there is some kind of damaging outburst.”

Zero tolerance
Experts on workplace violence suggest that every employer establish a “zero tolerance” workplace violence policy that mandates termination for acts of violence, or threats of such acts. For less extreme behavior, an employer should mandate a system of progressive discipline that may include administrative leave and mandatory psychological evaluation and counseling.

A workplace policy should also address the subject of weapons. “No weapons should be allowed in the workplace or in the business parking lot,” says Bonczyk. “You would be surprised what people put in their purses and backpacks. Those things include knives and guns.”

A caveat is that some state laws allow authorized firearm owners to keep guns in the trunks of their cars.  Consult with an attorney to learn if your business is located in a so-called “guns in trunks” state.

Once you have written a workplace violence policy, make it available to all employees. Don’t just put the document on the shelf and forget it. “I can’t tell you how many places I go into and no one has read the policy in years,” says White.

Tread carefully
So your workplace violence policy is written, communicated and posted. How should you approach the employee whose behavior violates its terms? Privately and with sensitivity.

“Do not approach the troubled employee in public,” says Bonczyk. “That can be devastating and embarrassing, and can lead to still more aggressive acts.” Bonczyk advises pulling the person aside and holding a meeting behind closed doors. “Put away the cell phone and focus 100 percent on the employee.”

Start by putting the individual at ease, advises Bonczyk. “Break the ice and give the employee an opportunity to calm down by offering a glass of water or a cup of coffee, and by talking about common topics such as the weather or new movies.”

Once the individual seems calm and collected, move on to a description of the behavior you have witnessed. You might open with words such as these: “Josh, yesterday I noticed that you shouted at Sandra when she asked you to help with her presentation. You seemed very angry. What was going on which caused you to behave that way? And how can we help?”

“Focus on what you have seen,” says Bonczyk. Describe behaviors that you have actually witnessed rather than trying to interpret emotions or causes. Suggesting that the individual is troubled, or resentful, or envious of another employee’s success, will only cause the person to deny the charge and become more upset.

As your conversation proceeds, take steps to calm any emotional outbursts.  “If the employee starts to scream and to become aggressive, don’t try to interrupt or become aggressive yourself,” advises Bonczyk. “Instead, lower your own voice and try to defuse the situation by repeating your desire to understand and to help.”

The focus of the conversation should not be on placing blame for behavior, but on offering assistance to help the employee behave better. “Be sincere about your desire to assist the troubled employee,” says Bonczyk. “People can tell when you’re not.”

Once the employee explains what is troubling him, offer whatever assistance is appropriate, says Bonczyk. Suppose Josh says he is having money problems. Here is where you can suggest he speak with a local financial counselor with whom your organization has a relationship. In many cases you may suggest the person meet a representative from your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you have one. The employee whose behavior relates to something like the serious illness of a family member may be entitled to time off under provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Make a note on your calendar for a follow up meeting, perhaps ten days or two weeks later, or even sooner if the situation warrants it. Find out if the employee has made gains in solving his problem and if there is anything else your organization can do to help.

So what happens if, despite your best efforts, the employee makes no progress and the angry or antisocial behavior continues? “If the employee is resistant to change you will need to look at termination,” says Boncsyk. Before firing the individual, consult with your attorney to make sure you comply with all federal and state laws. “Put the employee on notice and document everything. Such documentation will be needed later if the employee sues for wrongful discharge.”

The act of firing a troubled employee can itself lead to an act of violence. It is prudent to take steps to reduce the risk of injury. “Have a member of law enforcement on hand if you feel the employee may become violent during the termination,” says Bonczyk.

Prevent tragedy
Taking quick action to deal with unsettling behavior is important. But so is doing whatever you can to obviate such situations. One of the most effective steps is exercising care when taking on new staff members. “Conduct adequate background screening when hiring a new worker,” says Bonczyk. “It is very difficult to coach or counsel a troubled individual once that person has joined your organization.”

Document your vetting activity, recording the steps you took to uncover any previous history of workplace violence. That will provide important evidence in defending your organization against lawsuits by injured parties. “Plaintiffs’ counsels will ask for personnel files to see if employers performed due diligence during the hiring process,” says Bonczyk.

Another effective preventive measure involves employee training. “All employees need to know how to recognize at-risk behaviors,” says Maxey. “Urge them to report what they observe to supervisors.”

Employees often hold back from reporting what they see because they think they might get someone in trouble unnecessarily, or that they might be retaliated against by the person being reported or even by the company. “It is important to communicate that you will support individuals who step forward,” says Maxey. “State explictly that an employee making a report in good faith will not be retaliated against. And establish multiple channels of reporting, including anonymously. That can encourage people to speak up.”

Multiple paths
Experts on workplace violence emphasize that prevention is a continuing effort rather than a single magic pill. “Employers must engage in an ongoing process involving multiple prevention strategies from hiring to retiring,” says Nater.

The key to a successful workplace policy is preparation. “Don’t assume that a violent incident is not going to happen at your workplace,” says Maxey. “Establish a workable policy, communicate it to all of the employees, and make sure everyone knows how to call and report what they see.”

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