A Workplace Violence Prevention Strategy

Date First Published on SafetySmart Compliance: February 21st, 2012
Topics: Workplace Violence |

Angry Violent WorkersBy Robert L. Siciliano

For many of us, working near people who are prone to violence is an everyday occurrence. All organizations must develop policies and contingency plans to deal with the threat of workplace violence. They must acknowledge that workplace violence can happen to them, anticipate problems before they occur and act to prevent them.

Unbalanced People Cause Disruptions

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older – close to 60 million people – suffer from an identifiable mental disorder. And while mass murder at work and elsewhere remains a rare event, worker-against-worker violence and on-the-job homicide happens all too often.

The numbers are gloomy, no matter who studies the matter:

  • OSHA reports that 2 million Americans are victims of workplace violence each year;
  • According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1.7 million workers in the U.S. are injured during workplace violence each year; and
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2005 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) shows that the years 1992 through 2004 saw an average of 807 workplace homicides annually.

While the most recent of these years, according to the CFOI, have seen a modest drop in incidents in the U.S., the problem is growing worldwide, as found by a United Nations’ International Labour Office study released last year.

Guidelines Restore Order and Prevent Violence

Officials cannot control the behavior of others. But they can incorporate guidelines to follow. They just need help. Faced with a range of threats, such as disgruntled employees, domestic violence, stalkers and, of course, robberies, rapes and assaults, American businesses and organizations are hiring consultants in record numbers to design programs that train employees and employers in how to predict and prevent violence on the job. The organization and security consultant can join forces to reduce the risk of violence by developing official policies that address “red flags.” These policies include:

  • Safety procedures;
  • Hiring and firing practices;
  • Threat management;
  • Crisis intervention; and
  • Supervisory training.

Understanding human behavior is a key ingredient in countering this violence, and management must learn this skill, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Bosses Have to Learn How to Confront Troubled Employees.” The article points to major corporations that have implemented programs that train managers in how to spot troubled, potentially violent workers and have instituted hotlines employees may use to report workplace violence.

A study by the Society for Human Resource Management finds that 68% of employers have a formal workplace violence policy. A survey by the American Society of Industrial Security finds 25% of firms turning to employee training, 15% to zero-tolerance policies and 13% to limited building access in their attempts to prevent workplace violence.

Look for Warning Signs of Violence

Our understanding of violence and violent behavior has advanced. It is now possible to create psychological profiles to identify who in your organization is most likely to commit an act of violence. Employers need to be on the lookout for certain employee behaviors that serve as warning signs of violence. Red flags include:

  • Constantly making slighting references to others;
  • Never being happy with what is going on;
  • Exhibiting a need to constantly assert one’s supposed superiority or force one’s opinion on others;
  • A compulsive need to control others;
  • Feelings of paranoia and that others are “out to get” them;
  • Seeing “conspiracies” at all levels of society;
  • Consistent and persistent unreasonableness;
  • Arousal of uneasiness among co-workers just by their mere presence;
  • An obsession with firearms;
  • Fascination with the actions of the military, law enforcement and/or underground military groups;
  • Failure to take responsibility for mistakes and faults (it’s always somebody else’s fault);
  • Constant taking or threatening legal action against the company and others;
  • A tendency to blow things out of proportion;
  • Exhibiting hate and anger issues on and off the job;
  • Admiration or approval of hate incidents and violence such as shooting sprees, executions and acts of terrorism and domestic violence;
  • The constant uttering of threats (“he’ll get his” or “one of these days I’ll have my say”);
  • Lack of people skills combined with skill at performing tasks and paying attention to details;
  • Attitudes or acts of sexism and/or sexual harassment;
  • Problems with the law, even of a minor nature; and
  • A possible addiction to alcohol, prescription or illegal drugs.

The Triggers of Violence

Employees who show any one or combination of these behaviors may be a threat to engage in workplace violence. Hostile feelings can build up for weeks, months and even years. The trigger that finally sets them off is generally an emotional event that can happen at any time or in any form. For example, the person might experience humiliation as a result of being proven wrong, losing out on a promotion or pay raise or being rejected by a love interest or spouse.

The Impact of Downsizing

Organizations going through downsizing need to be especially alert. The stress generated by downsizing may be enough to make a potentially violent employee explode into actual violence.

Explanation: Fear or actual loss of a job can cause significant trauma to just about anyone. To some degree, we all equate our “selves” with our job titles. For example, we tend to introduce ourselves using both our name and job title: “Hi, I am Robert; I am a personal security consultant.”

Ultimately, though, most people are able to separate their identity from their jobs. Being a personal security consultant is what they do, but it is not who they are. But a mentally unbalanced person may be unable to separate self from job. If that person loses a job, he might feel like his life and soul are being taken away and react with disproportionate anger and violence.

Responding to Signs of Violence

It’s incumbent upon employers and their safety directors to understand the signs of violence, identify those who display them and anticipate problems before they erupt. Mentally disturbed and potentially violent people often lack a social safety net. So one thing managers can do to prevent violence is to encourage employees to maintain strong social networks at work. Peers have a way of anticipating disaster before it happens.

Ultimately, however, the organization might have to confront the problem head on and take steps to address the employee and his potentially violent behavior.

How to Deal with a Violent Person

When acts of aggression occur in the workplace, somebody has to confront the aggressor and try to defuse the situation. The person—presumably a manager–who does this can apply the principles of conflict resolution when dealing with the aggressor. University of California, Davis’ Division of Human Resources identifies some of the tactics the manager can try:

  • Responding quietly and calmly. Sudden movements or outbursts may provoke retaliation.
  • Asking questions. The aggressor may simply want attention, which he or she interprets as respect.
  • Consider offering an apology to create a sense of calm.
  • Summing up in the manager’s own words what he or she thinks the aggressor said. It might calm the aggressor and reassure him that he’s being listened to to hear the manager articulate his position.
  • Setting firm limits but in a calm and non-confrontational voice and manner.
  • Asking the aggressor to stop the behavior and calmly urging him to consider the consequences of his action, including the potential for official action by the organization and/or law enforcement.
  • Reiterating the above remarks if the aggressive behavior continues.
  • Asking the individual to leave the facility or grounds.

If these techniques fail to diffuse the situation, you’ll need to signal for instance and most likely need to get law enforcement involved.

Random Acts of Violence Hold their Own

It is estimated that 85% of all workplace assaults and 55% of all workplace murders happen in service industry worksites or retail trades. Those whose occupations find them handling money or engaging in person-to-person contact with the public should exercise caution. Random acts of violence continue to hold their own in these spheres, and physical assaults are common in health care and social service–type agencies.

Any company whose workforce’s duties fit the abovementioned descriptions can improve its security by incorporating or utilizing the following:

  • High-watt external premise lighting (paying special attention to visibility in high-risk areas)
  • Timed drop type safes and signs explaining that a “timed drop type safes in use”
  • Robbery response training
  • Violence in the workplace consultants
  • Silent alarms
  • Video cameras everywhere
  • Guards, badges, and checkpoints
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Crisis intervention training


The responsibility of containing the risk of workplace violence falls upon the employer. Ultimately, every organization needs a prediction–prevention plan that incorporates elements of anticipation and action. Proper hiring and firing practices are essential, too; employers must know what to look for when prescreening potential employees—and what signs to look for in long standing employees. Without taking proactive measures, the company risks huge losses in lawsuits, reputation, and, of course, human life.