In reality, of course, screening job candidates for the potential to commit an act of workplace violence is difficult, if not impossible. Still, employers can educate their supervisors and others in the organization to know when a worker is on the brink of a breakdown.
Armistead Whitney, CEO of the Atlanta-based business-continuity firm Preparis Inc., advises employers to keep an eye out for workers who:
- Are visibly upset over recent events or a personal crisis. “It could be the death of a loved one,” Whitney explains. “It could be that they’re going through a recent personal change like a divorce. It could be any type of personal crisis that the employer isn’t necessarily required to know about.”
- Are abusing drugs or alcohol. “Obviously, that could cause depression and mental instability,” Whitney says.
- Make threats or frequently hold grudges. “An example would be when someone says, ‘I can’t believe that manager passed me over for that promotion. I’m really upset. I could cause harm to that person.’”
- Express a deep fascination with weapons and violent media. “Having a lot of weapons is not necessarily a sign of workplace violence,” Whitney explains. “Having a lot of weapons and talking about them frequently – and maybe talking about how the weapons could be used to harm others – is a sign that there could be a potential issue.”
- Are known for stalking or making co-workers feel uncomfortable. “It could be a love-interest situation within the workplace, and that’s something that can bubble over [into violence].”
- Isolate themselves from others. “In and of itself, [being a loner] is not a big issue,” Whitney explains. “But if you combine someone who’s an over-the-top loner with someone who holds a grudge and has weapons and talks about them frequently, that’s a big sign.”
One of the key takeaways: Employees’ personal issues tend to bleed over into their work lives.
“Something that happens at work, in and of itself, might not trigger the event,” Whitney says. “It could be the culmination of someone’s personal travesties, and the work environment triggers [the employee] to do irrational things.”
Incivility (gossiping, texting in meetings, withholding information, ignoring or showing a general lack of respect for others) often is a precursor to violent behavior, professors M. Ann McFadyen and James Campbell Quick have found in their research on workplace violence.
“Research indicates that while not all acts of incivility lead to violent acts, all violent acts in the workplace were preceded by acts of incivility,” McFadyen says.