Being Perceptive to Workplace Violence

In the summer of 2010, a driver accused of stealing beer from the Connecticut beer distributor he worked for, killed eight workers before turning the weapon on himself. According to one union official, the worker ran through the warehouse with the gun and “all hell broke loose.”

Earlier in 2010, eight employees were shot, three of them critically, at a St. Louis manufacturing facility. In this case as well, the gunman committed suicide after taking the lives of co-workers.

Violence in the workplace is a threat that most executives take seriously but few actually plan for. It is a risk however, that cannot be ignored. Aside from the ethical obligation of providing a safe and secure work environment for employees, there is also a legal responsibility as well. As some companies have already learned, failing to do so can result in serious injury or fatality, damaging media publicity, employee morale issues and costly litigation.

It is important to understand that a relatively small percentage of workplace violence is spontaneous. The preponderance of the time, there are warning signals. Although subtle, they are oftentimes present and recognizing them can mean the difference between being caught by surprise or preempting violence from occurring in your company.

Media reports indicated that in the case of the Connecticut beer distributor, the driver’s actions might have been prompted by racial harassment. Whether or not this allegation had merit is in question. However, in matters of workplace homicides, it’s the perception of the individual that matters. If an employee’s sense of reality is that they have been wronged in some excessive or ongoing manner, whether it’s actually true becomes irrelevant from a risk perspective.

Extreme workplace violence takes place more frequently than most realize. These incidents are not confined to commercial establishments either, as evidenced by the shootings of six employees at the University of Alabama’s Huntsville campus in February 2010, or the shootings at the U.S. Army’s Ft. Hood in Texas where 13 died.

An ABC news article quoted Dr. Paul Ragan, senior consulting psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s department of psychiatry, who stated, “Suicides and violence can increase in economic hard times. If anybody talks about an experience where they’ve been humiliated and they have feelings about it, it needs to be taken seriously. The workplace is often a source of disappointment, and is the unfortunate recipient of the person’s rage.”

Be Aware of Symptomatic Behavior

Here are some red flags that frequently precipitate violent acts. Providing this insight to managers and supervisors can enhance their awareness and perception, two important factors to preventing extreme job-related violence.

• Employees making threats or being threatened – Threats should never be downplayed or casually dismissed. While 99 out of 100 threats may not lead to violence, it is the one case you overlook that can cause irrevocable harm.

• Employees who anticipate a layoff or who are suddenly terminated – The anguish of losing a job can trigger an array of strong emotions, from anxiety to rage. Also, keep in mind that some employees do not wear their emotions on their sleeve. Consequently, it’s not always easy to anticipate their delayed reaction to job loss.

• Employees with serious problems at home – Oftentimes, domestic issues spill over into the workplace. Confrontations can range from assault to homicide.

• Employees using medication or illegal drugs – Mind-altering substances can exacerbate an individual’s state of mind, sometimes causing behavior completely out of character.

• Employees who display signs of paranoia – Be aware of employees who feel that they are being targeted for unjust criticism or ridicule by superiors or co-workers. While they may appear outwardly passive, they may eventually retaliate and seek revenge. Also, keep in mind that certain drugs, such as cocaine, can dramatically increase an individual’s level of paranoia.

• Employees showing a fascination for weapons – Obviously, the most significant problems involve violent acts committed with handguns and assault weapons.