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Workplace violence: Recognizing the threats, reducing the danger

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in HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,People Management,Preventing Workplace Violence

by Matthew J. Kelley, Esq.

If you’ve ever visited YouTube.com, you may have clicked on videos showing an assortment of office meltdowns. Laptops get smashed, desks are overturned and staplers are thrown. While some of these are funny to watch, each one probably made you think, “Man, I hope nothing like that ever happens at our office.”

Sad to say, it could. It’s often up to HR to identify employees who pose a threat of violence in the workplace and have a plan in place to deal with it.

It's important to recognize the threats that are most likely to hit your workplace, how to recognize potentially violent employees and how to deal with these situations.

Some violence on decline

First, the good news: Although workplace assault statistics tend to fluctuate yearly, the most recent data (from 2006) show that the rate of workplace homicides is declining. Workplace homicides were down 25% between 2000 and 2006, and are down 61% since 1992. Still, 461 people were killed at work in 2006—461 people who left home for work in the morning not knowing it was for the last time.

The type of work employees do is the single biggest factor in determining whether they have an increased risk to becoming workplace violence victims. The most at risk: workers who have direct customer contact (such as taxi drivers and chauffeurs) or who have access to cash or other valuables (such as retail employees).

Thus, it’s no surprise that 78% of workplace homicides were committed by people unknown to the victim. The other 22% were evenly split among co-workers, former co-workers and customers or clients.

Recognizing possible violence

While there is no surefire formula for predicting exactly who will commit violence, some behavior is an early-warning sign.

People who go on to become violent often verbally treat co-workers in a dehumanizing manner, with name-calling, swearing and other abusive language. Someone who regularly refers to the boss as “that idiot upstairs” probably sees himself as better or more important than others.

In many documented cases of workplace violence, the perpetrator told others he or she intended to harm others. Often, the message is, “I am angry, and I don’t know how to express myself other than with violence.”

Whether veiled or direct, take all threats seriously.

One of the most obvious indicators of a potential for extremely violent behavior is displaying lesser acts of violence. Except in cases of self-defense, most adults will avoid physical confrontations. When an individual is willing to fight, it may be a sign that he or she does not feel comfortable expressing feelings and thoughts verbally and thus is prone to resort to violence. 

Lowering the potential for violence

The best way to keep individuals from perpetrating violence at work is to screen out those who have demonstrated inappropriate behavior in the past. It is essential to do your homework on prospective employees.

Training your supervisory staff is also an important part of the equation. When managers know the warning signs of a potentially violent employee, they are better able to determine which ones need help.

Considering how much money and time employers already invest in finding the best workers, it’s easy to justify spending a little more to offer training to managers on how to spot potentially violent applicants or employees.

What employers should do

Of course, sometimes employees act out violently and then later state that they didn’t realize their behavior was inappropriate. Don’t tolerate that.

You need to have a workplace violence policy that clearly defines the company’s expectations and the disciplinary actions you will take when employees violate the policy.

All companies need in-house violence prevention and intervention resources. Create a crisis management team (CMT) to track all acts of violence, threats of violence and intimidating behavior. It is the CMT’s responsibility to ensure that all incidents are addressed, that the offending employee is properly counseled and that corporate resources are made available to him or her.

This article is not meant to give you exhaustive training on how to stop every potentially violent workplace incident from turning into violent action. Hopefully, it will encourage you to take proactive steps to be prepared—by recognizing the warning signs and learning the basics of prevention.


Author: Matthew J. Kelley recently joined the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins as an associate attorney. His practice area is focused primarily in the area of employment defense. You can reach him at matthew.kelley@ogletreedeakins.com or (317) 916-2537.

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