5 Warning Signs of Workplace Violence

What leads up to workplace violence almost always starts small. While it is possible for an employee to be “fine” one day and then come in the next with a firearm, such an incident is extremely rare. Escalation to violence is typically a process. So usually there are warning signs of workplace violence (and often many of them) before an individual actually commits a violent act.  Here are 5 suggested warning signs to keep in mind when concerned about a coworkers behavior.

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A Negative Change in Behavior:
The earliest indicator of a potentially violent individual is a significant, negative change in their usual behavior. For instance, if a coworker is typically friendly and easy-going, then either slowly or suddenly becomes rigid and withdrawn, something has clearly happened to cause this shift. It could be anything from a change in medication, a sudden “falling out” with a fellow employee, or a difficult/upsetting incident in their personal life. This shift in behavior may only be temporary, and it very well may not lead anywhere close to the individual becoming aggressive or violent in their workplace. Yet it is always better to be overcautious in such a situation, because it is just as possible that a negative change could escalate into something dangerous.

Increased Level of Passive Aggressive Actions:
Most people will begin aggression on a very small scale. Complaining to fellow co-workers, starting rumors about those in positions of authority, or even posting a stream of negativity aimed at their workplace on internet sites are such examples. These are some of the earliest warning signs of aggression escalating into an actual act of violence, yet they are a type that is rarely confronted or investigated further. Co-workers might notice these acts as unusual or concerning, but will remain silent because it is “not their business.” It seems too invasive into a person’s private life to bring up their social networking habits to their employer. Unfortunately, tolerating acts of passive aggressive behavior leaves the door open for that behavior to grow in severity.

Sense of Hopelessness:
Another red flag is when employees or clients become vocal about their sense of hopelessness or powerlessness. When they move past blame into a sense of doomed circumstances; that “this will never get any better” or that “they just can’t take it anymore.” This may be about a situation in their workplace, or some external circumstance in their personal life. When people feel powerless in a seemingly hopeless situation, the rules of social conduct do not hold the same weight. Gaining that power back—feeling safe and secure again—becomes immeasurably more important than the safety and well-being of others around them.

Unreasonable Demands:
It is uncommon for an individual to become violent without feeling justified in their actions. What instigates a violent action is when someone feels they are in a circumstance where they have to use violence in order to achieve their goal. One way to do this is to make outrageous or unreasonable demands. For example, if an employee wants to have a meeting with their boss, but is told the boss is out of town, they might make a demand to see the boss “right now.” Obviously this is impossible, yet it gives the individual a circumstance where they can feel justified in acting violently because their expectation is not met.

Verbal Threats:
It is far more common than people think for an individual to give off warning signs of workplace violence before they commit a violent act. This is usually through verbal threats. If an employee plans to harm a fellow co-worker or an employer, for example, they might drop one or multiple hints. Usually it is on a more vague scale, such as using phrases like “Just you wait” or “You better watch your back.” Because of this ambiguity, others will often dismiss the threats as empty.  Verbal threats are known to be a very powerful psychological tool for reaching a point of violence. They serve two main purposes:

1)    The individual is bringing their mental plan into the physical world. Verbalizing that they will be violent is a bridge to actually committing the act; a form of “psyching themselves up.”

2)    The individual is subconsciously looking for help. They want to be stopped before they actually commit a violent action, so they warn others in hopes that someone will recognize the danger and stop them.

Warning Signs of Workplace Violence – Final Thoughts:

In the end, it is always better to err on the side of caution with any of these warning signs of workplace violence. It can feel awkward or invasive to go to Human Resources with seemingly minor concerns about a coworker or employee, but far too often these “minor” incidents are actually just predecessors to actual violence.