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Violence in the Workplace Back to Course Index


Violence in the Workplace



Workplace violence is an epidemic. As noted in Alert and Alive:  Defusing Anger and Violence in the Workplace by Dr. Daniel Paulk, 1/6 of all violent crimes in the U.S. occur at work.  That is more than one million crimes per year.


It is pervasive; violence has struck every industry and every area of the country in both small and large companies.


It is estimated that the financial cost is $35 billion a year spent on medical, lost time, litigation, and turnover; the emotional cost is even higher.  Employees no longer feel safe.  It affects employee morale, productivity, and health.


When someone mentions workplace violence, what comes to mind? imgres-6


A deranged, ex-military man, dressed in fatigues, shooting everyone he comes upon?  That is the picture painted by the media, but that event is extremely rare.


Workplace violence is any physical assault, threatening behavior, or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting.  Harassment and non-fatal violence are far more prevalent in today’s work environment.  These behaviors, although not as violent, have the potential for escalation.  Early intervention and conflict resolution are essential to prevent this escalation from non-fatal to life-threatening tragedies.


Harassment and non-fatal violence include the employee who gets into a loud shouting match with his or her supervisor, cursing and name-calling, as well as the injured worker who blames his circumstances on his co-workers or supervisor and says, You will pay for this!  Most have heard of the ex who stalks his estranged wife or husband in the company parking lot or the person who gets passed over for promotion and sabotages some company equipment to get even.  It is never a pleasant environment working with an intimidating individual who glares at co-workers.


How prevalent are these behaviors?


Two million Americans were victims of physical attack, another 6 million were threatened, and 16 million were harassed.


Many incidents of workplace hostility and threats of violence can be directed back to ineffective or deficient conflict resolution skills. 


The position that you are in can play an important role in identifying those at risk for threatening behavior.


Troubling behavior takes many forms in the workplace, varying in terms of boldness and expressed through verbal and/or non-verbal means.






Threatening Statements:WPV4

One of the most common behaviors is threatening statements.


This includes verbal threats such as I will put my boss in his grave for passing me over for promotion; Veiled threats such as My boss will get what’s coming, or indirect threats such as If that company doesn’t promote me this time it will be the last mistake they make. 


Threatening Actions:

This includes such behaviors as bringing weapons on company property or associating with or alluding to hate groups where violence is used against others.


imgres-9Intimidating or Harassing Behavior: 

This includes:

  • body language that is meant to worry others such as glaring
  • using a tone of voice that sounds threatening
  • stalking behavior


Barbara worked in a psychiatric hospital at the beginning of her career.  She was just out of her graduate program.  She worked a 3-11 shift every evening and then 8-2 every other weekend…she would do just about anything they wanted her to do.  She wanted…no actually she needed the experience desperately.  Her supervisor relied on intimidation as a means of gaining respect.  On one particular afternoon, after they had changed the schedule each week for about three weeks in a row, she arrived at about 3:15.  Her shift started at 3:30.  When she walked into the office, her supervisor stood up with a scowl and said Barbara follow me.  They took a silent walk out of the office…through the hospital…out the back door…literally 3 minutes which doesn’t sound like a long time…but when you’re following a supervisor wondering what you could have possibly done that she had to take you out back to discuss it is a long time to pass.  Anyway, as soon as she started with what time are you supposed to be here today…Barbara answered, at 3:30 her supervisor paused and said oh.  The supervisor then turned around and walked back in without saying a word…The supervisor thought Barbara was supposed to have been there at 3:00.  The supervisor didn’t say anything to Barbara…but the intimidating behavior of walking through the hospital and out the back door to inevitably get screamed at was noted. 


Threatening Communication:

  • Sending or posting violent notes, articles (funeral ads)
  • Sending or planting a symbol truly frightening to an individual (picture of them with a red X through)
  • Sending threatening or provocative email.


Assaultive or Aggressive Behavior:


  • Hitting, shoving, kicking, biting, grabbingimgres-5
  • Destruction of property
  • Vandalism
  • Arson
  • Sabotaging equipment
  • Attempted murder or rape.


10 Behavioral Warning Signs


1.  The individual articulates the specifics of an attack.

2.  The individual repeats the treat even when asked to clarify.

3.  The repetition of the threat is accompanied by little or no emotion.

4.  The threat occurs at the end of a conversation as a sign-off.

5.  There appears to be no secondary gain for the threat; it is motivated by rage.

6.  Revenge or retaliation is the dominating theme.

7.  The individual seems willing to accept the consequences of threatening behavior.

8.  The individual expresses suicidal thoughts.

9.  The individual expresses desperation.

10. The individual perceives that verbal problem-solving is no longer





FBI profiling experts were somewhat baffled by the arrest of a Spokane, Washington man who is described as a generous and loving father.  Robert Y., a 47-year-old married Army veteran and factory worker with five children, appeared too old and too stable to fit the homicide experts’ profiles of serial killers who are typically 25-35-year-old loners unable to maintain personal relationships.


Authorities genetically linked the perpetrator to as many as 11 other killings since 1996.  But relatives have characterized him as a loving, caring and sensitive son, a fun-loving and giving brother, and an understanding, generous and dedicated father who enjoys playing ball, fishing, and camping with his kids.


Criminologists have observed that Robert’s stable family life was most unusual for a serial killer/ when a married killer is operating; they usually come from highly dysfunctional families.


The Spokane killings themselves also varied from the norm in that all of the victims were shot.  Most victims of serial killers are strangled, stabbed, or beaten to death.  Rarely do serial killers use firearms to kill?  Instead, they use them to intimidate and control their victims.


The purpose of this illustration is to show that there is a limitation to user profile data to predict violence. 


The common profile for the violent perpetrator includes a Caucasian male, mid-thirties to mid-forties, obsessed with guns, a loner, often paranoid, and disgruntled.  Profiles were established after examining the perpetrators of workplace violence and compiling characteristics representing common behavioral/personality denominators. 


The picture presents a strong connection through correlation, but it may have little to no predictive validity.  It helps to tie together factors as behavioral cues, but this does little to protect society from future attacks as the pieces fall apart for a more varied population of potential attackers.


According to the National Threat Assessment Center, workplace violence is rarely without precedence.  Invariable, it is the zenith of long-developing, identifiable problems, and conflicts.  This group studied school-shooting incidents and found that most of the attackers were on a path to violence.  Examining 37 incidents involving 41 perpetrators since 1999, the researchers found that incidents were not impulsive, rarely were there cases where a student just snapped.  Instead, the incidents were the results of an observable and understandable pattern of thinking and behavior.


This research further reported that more than half of the attackers planned their attack at least two days in advance.  More than three-quarters of them told someone of their plans, usually a peer, and usually more than one person. 


However, even though friends, peers, or siblings often knew of the individual’s plans, rarely was this information brought to the attention of an adult.


Although the survey of perpetrators showed an eclectic group, although all the shooters were boys or young men, they ranged in age from 11 to 21, and their family backgrounds ranged from intact families to foster families with a history of neglect.  Some perpetrators were excellent students; some were failing.  Some were popular; some were socially isolated.  Very few had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness; there was one common theme, DEPRESSION.  Over half of the young men had a history of feeling exceptionally depressed.  Before the violent incident, three-quarters of them had threatened to kill themselves, made a suicidal gesture, or tried to kill themselves.


More than 2/3rds felt persecuted or bullied by someone.  The motive for the shooting was to make a statement, frequently of revenge. 


A meaningful way of organizing the path to violence, whether it is a school shooting or workplace violence, is to look at it as a function of stages of anger escalation.


imgres-2Initial Anger Arousal

An event occurs that is perceived as unfair. The individual is passed over for promotion, injury caused by the unsafe conditions laid off, disability benefits denied, and any recurring stressors.


The individual often projects blame outwardly. my boss does not care about the hours I have put in on this job.” Autonomic nervous system arousal escalates behavior. The individual slams the phone down throws things across his desk and yells.


Anger arousal diminishes the ability to think rationally and logically.


Loss of Verbal Control

The behavior becomes focused on controlling someone or something.  The request escalates to a demand.

Arguments become disorganized, short, and simplistic.


It becomes easier to verbally abuse than it is to present a well-organized, persuasive argument. 


Reactions may become more insulting.  


Physical Aggression Phaseimages-1

The individual no longer sees a verbal solution.  A destructive solution is seen as the only means to an end. 


They see their behavior as justified, Just who do they think they are?  That company is going to pay for treating people like this”.


There is little autonomic nervous system arousal.  There is a lack of emotionality in their behavior.


Violence is a real possibility both directed at others and themselves.


An Interesting, if mundane illustration of these escalating phases of anger occurs every day on our highways.  Road Rage is hostile and often violent aggression in response to other drivers. Road rage embodies highly explosive anger, often triggered by trivial events that push seemingly rational people over the edge.  1500 people are killed or seriously injured each year by another driver who takes offense at being cut off, at others driving too slow or too fast, or who believes punishment is for someone who stalls or breaks down in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The problem is made worse by impulsive access to weapons.  Irrational drivers are only too quick to threaten with a baseball bat or to instantly shoot their victims. 


One reason to delineate the phases of the perpetrator response is to facilitate a better understanding of violence escalation, but another is to appreciate the many possible points of intervention that might exist to mitigate or defuse a situation.


What is critical in observing and identifying a potentially violent person is an often-sudden change in appearance or change in the individual’s ongoing behavior patterns.  The following checklist can help illustrate this.


Threatening Behavior Checklist


___ Makes or Articulates Provocative Communications


___ Weak or Deteriorating Relationships


___ Poor Support System


___ Poor Impulse Control


___ Poor Self Image or Low Self Esteem


___ Excessive/Obsessive Fascination with Weaponry and Killing


___ Shows Psychological Disturbance/Maladjustment


___ Change in Performance at Work


___ Over Dependence on the Job as the Major Life Anchor


Bill is a 28-year-old man who had been employed with ABC Construction Company for five years. Bill had worked hard over the years, beginning as a laborer and working his way up to assistant lead.  He and his supervisor had argued numerous times about his schedule. Bill was paid hourly and had been scheduled for 50-60 hours a week for the first four years of his employment, but due to a slowdown in jobs, he had only been scheduled for around 30 hours a week.  His supervisor told him he was lucky he hadn’t been laid off and to be happy with what they could give him.  His supervisor had written up Bill several times on the most recent occasion for arguing with the supervisor again over hours. While walking away, muttering maybe if you weren’t around, I would be the supervisor and Id get my 40 hours. 


Bill felt like he had given his all to this company.  After all, Susan, his girlfriend, had left him about eight months before because he was always working.  The only time he heard from her was when she called because he wasn’t keeping up with the child support for his son which he had missed the first four years of his life because of the long hours and now rarely got to see him because Susan was now married to someone who lived three hours away.   There was that one time when Bill just woke up one day, jumped in the car, and showed up at 7:30 in the morning to spend the day with his son…but in hindsight, that didn’t go over so well.


Oh well, Bill kind of thought in hindsight not much of his life had gone so well.  What had he accomplished?  He had a son that he never saw, child support payments he couldn’t make, and a job that was being denied him.  It wasn’t his fault though; it was his supervisor…he was threatened by him and was keeping him from getting ahead…keeping him from his son…from having the family he deserved. 


About three weeks after the last argument, the supervisor sent home half the crew at 3 in the afternoon.  Bill stayed to help finish the framing.  There was an accident, and Bill was injured.  Bill’s leg was broken in 3 places, and he would probably have a permanent limp.  He would certainly not regain the strength in the leg to work construction again.  Bill felt his whole life was over.  Six months of rehab…Bill lived alone in his house…not one visitor except those related to his care.  Seven months after the accident, Bill showed up at the supervisor’s office to settle things.


As mentioned before, many incidents of workplace violence could have been prevented with some type of intervention.  If the perpetrator can feel as though something or someone is listening to their concerns…if they have some type of control over the situation, there is often no longer a need for them to escalate.  If the situation has escalated, the individual needs a way to back out of the situation without losing. 



Workplace Violence Prevention Program Elements

  • Management commitment and employee involvement
  • Worksite analysis
  • Training and Education
  • Record keeping and evaluation of the program


Management Commitment and Employee Involvement

An effective program relies both on management and employee participation. Management commitment provides the motivating force to deal effectively with workplace violence, while employee involvement and feedback enable workers to develop and express their commitment to safety and health.

images-2Management must create and disseminate a clear policy of zero tolerance for workplace violence. It is also very important that employees feel free from reprisal for reporting incidents. Employees should promptly report any occurrences and suggest ways to reduce or eliminate risks.

Management is responsible for outlining a comprehensive plan for maintaining security in the workplace. This can be accomplished by assigning responsibility and authority for program elements to individuals with appropriate training and skills.

Employees should comply with the program and all safety measures, including prompt and accurate reporting of violent incidents.


Worksite Analysis

A threat assessment team or similar task force may assess the vulnerability to workplace violence and determine appropriate actions.

This task force can continue to monitor trends and analyze incidents as well as create screening surveys to help avoid future issues.


Training and Education

Any workplace should ensure that all staff is aware of potential security hazards and ways of protecting themselves.

Employees should understand that violence should be expected but can be avoided or mitigated through preparation.

The following are specific techniques to use to de-escalate a dangerous situation.

Smoothing Statement

One way you can allow a verbally threatening person to back down is to allow them to retract or explain what they meant. It sounds like you are upset, and I know we all say things we don’t mean; you don’t want to hurt John, do you…what can you think of that would make this situation easier for you?

The interesting effect of this kind of smoothing statement is that it allows the threatening person to back down by either denying or clarifying that harm is not intended, but just as importantly, it gives the threatening person an opportunity to re-commit to his intentions. 


Another technique used to defuse a situation is to reflect on what the threatening person has just said in her own words. Hey, hold on a minute; it sounds as if you’re threatening John; is that what you mean? Again, it gives the threatening person another opportunity to back down on his own. It also helps you to decipher just how serious they are.


Active Listening

Sometimes one of the best things you can do is listen to what your clients are saying.  images-5Violence often occurs because the perpetrator is attempting to make a statement.  When they feel no one is listening to them, they “up the ante.”  It is similar to suicide attempts; many people who attempt suicide don’t want to die; they just feel like no one is listening to them…no one believes them.

Conflict resolution is the key to reducing and preventing violence in the workplace, but without everyone on the job being aware of and following through on cues, conflict resolution will never happen.

Soothing statements, reflection, and active listening can help identify who needs conflict resolution. The warning signs should not be ignored.

Conflict resolution can take the form of an EAP consultation, informal counseling in the work setting, formal counseling, communication training, group therapy, or many other options. The important factor is early intervention.



A final important piece of a violence reduction program should include the establishment of a uniform violence reporting system and a regular review of reports. Improvement should be measured by lowering the frequency and severity of workplace violence.


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