Examination of Workplace Violence: Recognize and Diffuse

At first, I assume the phone call I am receiving is to schedule employee training. It is soon apparent, however, that the caller is in somewhat of a panic. “We fired this guy and now he is threatening his former boss,” says the lady on the other end of the line. “Can you help us?”

This lady isn’t interested in discussing their workplace violence policies and procedures. Nor does she have an interest in comparing calendars to pick a date for employee training. What she is feeling is a profound fear that this former coworker will return to her workplace and wreak havoc on the employees.

How did it get to this point? Was there any hint of a problem with this employee? “Oh yes,” she says. “He’s always been a problem.” She answers yes to questions about alcohol abuse, personal problems, fascination with weapons, bullying, and most every red flag one could raise.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual situation. When I conduct workplace violence prevention and response training, I try to observe the crowd. Normally when I am listing pre-incident indicators and warning signs of potential violence, I will observe members of the audience giving each other looks and mouthing the words, “That sounds just like Bill in accounting (substitute any name and department).” Most of us who have spent any time in the workforce have come across someone that we would describe as “unstable.” You know the type. “If anyone is going to lose it, it will probably be _______ (again substitute a name of your choosing).

So what is one to do with this knowledge that you are working around a powder keg every day? Do you let it continue and hope it goes away? Pray that you will be absent on the day he blows?

The best we can do is do our homework. Conduct the background check. Ask the questions. Be observant. Train employees to recognize behaviors of concern. Have a clear, absolute reporting system, and follow up on all complaints. In interviewing those who have been involved in tragic incidents of workplace violence, the message is the same. “We have now implemented policies that include better training, better reporting, and better response to concerns.” Does this always have to be a post-incident occurrence? Can’t we learn from what others have experienced and take a proactive and more preventive stance?

In another occasion, I was presenting in front of a group of around 100 employees of a utility company. Upon completion of the training, the manager called me back to his office. “There was an employee in your training who meets every red flag you mentioned for violence.” The manager then proceeded to tell me that this employee had threatened to shoot other employees, had bragged about other violence he had committed, had an alcohol problem, and had recently experienced a divorce. This employee had been a problem for years, but no one wanted to deal with it. This man was holding this workplace hostage with his intimidation and bullying. And as long as he has that control, his reign will continue. The reality of the situation is that it must be dealt with head-on, swiftly, and consistently. Statistically, workplaces that allow this type of behavior are the most at risk for a violent incident. Zero tolerance and clearly defined regulations must be in place and must be followed.

The time to make the phone call is BEFORE the situation blows up.

Carol Dodgen, owner, Dodgen Security LLC, spoke at ASIS 2011 in Orlando.