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Practical Preparedness for Workplace Violence, Part 1: Warning Signs

April 9, 2013
Watch for these warning signs to protect your business from workplace violence.

In an April 9 workplace violence seminar hosted by Allied Barton Security Services in Cleveland, Brent O’Bryan, SPHR, offered an overview of workplace violence categories and potential warning signs.

O’Bryan, vice president of learning and development at Allied Barton, explained to a full room of seminar attendees that 2 million Americans are affected by workplace violence each year, and 458 fatalities from workplace violence occurred in 2011. Even so, most workplaces do not maintain formal workplace violence policies – according to a 2010 survey, O’Bryan said, 70 percent of responding companies lacked workplace violence programs.

In addition to the threat of injury or death, workplace violence can take a toll on the workplace through increased absenteeism and turnover, high stress levels, decreased productivity, damaged morale, increased workers’ comp claims, costs related to post-incident counseling and more.

To help the seminar attendees better understand this occupational hazard, O’Bryan outlined four categories of workplace violence:

  1. Criminal intent. The most common form of workplace violence, criminal intent occurs when a perpetrator who has no connection to the organization attempts a criminal act, such as a robbery.
  2. Customer/client/patient. This type of violence is common in hospitals, nursing homes or social service agencies. Again, it is perpetrated by an outsider (a patient, client or customer) to the organization.
  3. Worker on worker. This type of violence occurs among employees within the same organization.
  4. Domestic violence. Domestic violence can creep into the work setting when an employee’s partner or ex-partner enters the workplace to cause harm.

Of these categories, O’Bryan stressed that the last two – worker on worker and domestic violence – offer the best opportunities for employers to identify potential warning signs.

Warning Signs

The concept of someone simply “snapping” and committing a violent act with no warning is a fallacy. Instead, the perpetrator may progress through a continuum that ranges from unusual behavior to acting out, verbal assault, harassment, threatening behavior and physical assault before a deadly encounter occurs.

“No issue begins at a violent encounter,” O’Bryan said. He offered the following warning signs that could indicate a worker is experiencing difficulties that could eventually lead to a violent encounter:

  • The employee is stressed.
  • The employee believes nothing is his fault.
  • The employee experiences a sudden and detrimental change in appearance.
  • The employee has strained work relationships.
  • The previously safety-conscious employee begins disregarding safety at work.
  • The employee has a fascination with weapons.
  • The employee is struggling with substance abuse.
  • The employee suffers from sudden mood swings.
  • The employee is more frequently absent from work.

While none of these warning signs may be a strong indicator for potential workplace violence on its own, employers should be aware of changes or concerning behavior in their work force.

“We’re creatures of habit. The easiest way to spot warning signs is when someone steps out of that habit,” O’Bryan said. “Inconsistency – that more than anything is a red flag for workplace violence."

This is an installment in a special series on workplace violence prevention. Access all parts here:

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