Safety News


A very real, clear and present danger lurks just beyond the consciousness of people who work together eight to ten hours a day, five to seven days a week. It is the potential for violence to occur in your workplace.

Increasingly, the Human Resources function is both the target of these threats of workplace violence and the organization's first line of defense for the prevention of workplace violence.

What causes workplace violence? Are violent actions more likely to occur at work? What actions or changes tell an organization that an individual has the potential to commit a violent act at work? This article about workplace violence answers these questions for the health and safety of your employees.

The Facts About Workplace Violence

Homicide is the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. Nearly 1,000 workers are murdered and 1.5 million are assaulted in the workplace each year.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), in additional information about workplace violence, there were 709 workplace homicides in 1998. These accounted for 12 percent of the total 6,026 fatal work injuries in the United States. Of these 709 workplace homicide victims in 1998, 80 percent were shot and nine percent were stabbed.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 2 million assaults and threats of violence against Americans at work occur annually. The most common type of workplace crime was assault with an average of 1.5 million a year.

There were 396,000 aggravated assaults, 51,000 rapes and sexual assaults, 84,000 robberies, and 1,000 homicides reported. These figures likely fall short of the actual number of violent acts occurring in workplaces as not all acts of workplace violence are reported.

Workplaces Prone to Workplace Violence

The news media tend to sensationalize acts of workplace violence that involve coworkers. In sensationalizing incidents of workplace violence, they remove the emphasis from the most important targets for workplace safety programs. In fact, the most common motive for job-related homicide is robbery, accounting for 85 percent of workplace violence deaths.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), provides information that illustrates anyone can become the victim of a workplace assault, but the risks are greater for workplace violence in certain industries and occupations. The taxicab industry has the highest risk, nearly 60 times the national average for potential workplace violence.

Other occupations at greatest risk include police, detectives, sheriffs, gas station workers, and security guards. In the NCVS study, retail sales workers were the most numerous victims, with 330,000 being attacked each year.

They were followed by police, with 234,200 officers victimized. Disputes among coworkers and with customers and clients accounted for about one-tenth of the total incidences of workplace violence annually.

Thus, while this article emphasizes violence between coworkers, no responsible safety process in the workplace can ignore the fact that violence is more likely to come from outside the immediate workplace.

However, you can recognize the potential for workplace violence.

Larry Porte, a former Secret Service agent and the former Manager of the Threat Response and Asset Protection Division of Kerby Bailey and Associates, says that workplace violence is a process that does not occur in a vacuum. "Violence is the product of an interaction among three factors:
  • the individual who takes violent action;

  • the stimulus or triggering conditions that lead the person to see violence as a ‘way out’; and

  • a setting that facilitates or permits the violence, a setting in which there is a lack of intervention."
Porte says that perpetrators of violent acts usually have one of these motives. The person responsible for the workplace violence wants to:

  • "achieve notoriety or fame;
  • bring attention to a personal problem;
  • avenge a perceived wrong; or
  • end personal pain, to be killed."

He feels that attacks "are the products of understandable and often discernible processes of thinking and behavior."

Dr. Lynne McClure, a nationally-recognized expert in managing high-risk employee behaviors before they escalate to workplace violence, defines these discernible processes in a most understandable manner. She says there are eight categories of warning signs that signal the potential for workplace violence to occur.

Supervisors, managers, coworkers, and Human Resources professionals need to know these signals of potential workplace violence. They are easy to miss and they are not always predictive of violent actions.

Following an incidence of violent workplace behavior, however, coworkers often realize they saw signs and changes in a coworker’s behavior prior to the event and didn’t take action. In fact, training in recognizing signs of potential workplace violence in coworker behavior is one of the key opportunities organizations have for the prevention of workplace violence.

Behaviors That May Predict Workplace Violence

In her book, Risky Business: Managing Employee Violence in the Workplace (compare prices), McClure describes eight categories of high-risk behaviors that indicate the need for management intervention. She says these high-risk behaviors are everyday behaviors that occur in certain patterns - they occur long before threats or actual workplace violence.

The eight categories of workplace violence are:

  • Actor behaviors: The employee acts out his or her anger with such actions as yelling, shouting, slamming doors, and so on.

  • Fragmentor behaviors: The employee takes no responsibility for his actions and sees no connection between what he does and the consequences or results of his actions. As an example, he blames others for his mistakes.

  • Me-First behaviors: The employee does what she wants, regardless of the negative effects on others. As an example, the employee takes a break during a last minute rush to get product to a customer, while all other employees are working hard.

  • Mixed-Messenger behaviors: The employee talks positively but behaves negatively. As an example, the employee acts in a passive-aggressive manner saying he is a team player, but refuses to share information.

  • Wooden-Stick behaviors: The employee is rigid, inflexible, and controlling. She won't try new technology, wants to be in charge, or purposefully withholds information.

  • Escape-Artist behaviors: The employee deals with stress by lying and/or taking part in addictive behaviors such as drugs or gambling.

  • Shocker behaviors: The employee suddenly acts in ways that are out of character and/or inherently extreme. For instance, a usually reliable individual fails to show up or call in sick for work. A person exhibits a new attendance pattern.

  • Stranger behaviors: The employee is remote, has poor social skills, becomes fixated on an idea and/or an individual.

On the next page, read more about recognizing the potential for workplace violence.

Dr. Lynne McClure is a nationally-recognized expert in managing high-risk employee behaviors before they escalate to workplace violence. She offered the eight categories of behavior that an employer must be aware of to prevent workplace violence earlier in this article.

According to McClure, "When the manager, supervisor or HR person sees these behavior patterns, she must document, talk to the employee, discuss the behaviors in terms of their negative effect on work, and require training, counseling, or both.

"The manager, supervisor or HR person must then continue to monitor the employee's behavior. The goal is to either get the employee to change his behavior, via skills acquisition and/or dealing with problems, or leave the workplace by choice or company decision."

Haig Neville in Dealing With Workplace Violence, highlights several additional issues. "A New York Times study of 100 rampage murders … found that most of the killers 'spiraled down a long, slow slide, mentally and emotionally.' According to the study, most killers gave multiple signs that they were in trouble.

With this in mind, employers should be alert to some of the predictors of violent behavior. These include employees who: use intimidation, talk about weaponry, exhibit paranoid or anti-social behavior, feel they’re not being heard by the company, express extreme desperation, have a history of violence, are loners who don’t fit in with the group."

In an interview with Eric Snyder, past President and CEO of TCM, Inc., McClure said that at least three of these warnings were missed prior to the murder of seven employees at Edgewater Technology in Wakefield, Massachusetts. (The act that inspired the multiple murders, including the murder of two HR staff members, was the requirement of the IRS that the company garnishee Michael McDermott’s wages.)

McClure says that we now know that the employee was under psychiatric care and taking medication. Prior to the killings, however, he displayed fragmentor behavior; he saw it as the company's responsibility to protect him from the IRS. He displayed shocker behavior in which his actions were extreme and out of character.

The week prior to the murders, “McDermott had an angry outburst at work, which was both extreme and out of character for him.” Finally, McDermott exhibited shocker behavior; he "appears to have been remote, and he became fixated on the IRS and the company's role of protecting him from the IRS."

The Workplace Violence Research Institute estimated costs of workplace violence to U.S. businesses at $36 billion per year. Neville says, "Costs include medical and psychiatric care, lost business and productivity, repairs and clean up, higher insurance rates, increased security costs, and worst of all, the loss of valued employees.

In addition, business owners are increasingly being held liable for not making their premises safe for employees and customers. Potential areas of workplace violence-related litigation that should concern employers include civil actions for negligent hiring, workers compensation claims, third-party claims for damages, invasion of privacy actions, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violation charges.

Workplace violence can happen here. Workplace violence can happen to you or someone you love. If you are knowledgeable and watchful about workplace violence and its signs in employees, however, you can anticipate and take actions that may prevent its occurrence.

  • Know your employees; know when employee behavior is out of the ordinary.
  • Train supervisors and other coworkers that reporting unusual behavior to Human Resources is expected and positive.
  • Stop the spiral that can result in violence; give the potentially violent person somewhere to turn for help.

Remember, workplace violence can happen to you or someone you love.