It may not seem like it, but violence in the workplace is prevalent all over the United States. Perhaps it’s because many people think the definition of workplace violence is limited to physical altercations and deaths. In reality, workplace violence can include signs of aggressive behavior, like making threats against or physically shoving a coworker.
Knowing what is considered violence in the workplace is crucial, and if you ever suspect that a coworker may be showing signs of aggression or any behavior that is out of character, it’s best to reach out to a trustworthy authority, such as those in upper management positions or your Employment Assistance Program (EAP).
What Is Workplace Violence
Workplace violence is any sort of threatening behavior in the workplace that intimidates or abuses a coworker. There are approximately two million cases of non-fatal violence in the workplace and a little more than 5,000 that are fatal.
There are several warning signs that can potentially foretell workplace violence, but it’s important to understand that not all warning signs will necessarily lead to violence. Alternatively, someone who becomes violent may not show any of the early warning signs.
Most people are very familiar with their coworkers and have an idea of what is and isn’t normal for them. Using context to decipher if a particular behavior is temporary or the result of a deep-rooted and ongoing issue is a good practice. For example, if you’re very friendly with the person in the cubicle beside you, and they reveal they experienced a death in the family, you know that their isolation or extended absences from work are likely related to that and not one of the potential warning signs of a violent employee.
What Are the Warning Signs of Workplace Violence?
It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to the well-being and safety of the workplace. Identifying early warning signs of workplace violence can help resolve minor conflicts before they escalate.
A drastic — often negative — change in character can be a clue to an employee’s struggle, and addressing it sooner rather than later is the best way to prevent an escalation of workplace violence.
However, it’s important to remember that many of these changes can have simpler explanations and may never escalate into physical or verbal violence. Because workplace violence awareness and prevention isn’t a sure science, it’s always safer to err on the side of caution and check in on employees — especially when they act out of character.
Workplace violence indicators can vary from an individual’s actions to their overall attitude. Five of the most common warning signs of workplace violence are:
1. Tardiness or Absences
An early warning sign of violence in the workplace can be a break in routine. Employees who are generally always on time and rarely leave early or miss work may change that if an external factor is negatively impacting their life. This behavior will negatively affect the employee’s reputation and career, as well as impact the entire workplace.
Similarly, social isolation is another factor to consider. If an employee is constantly calling in sick or showing up to work late — or even finding reasons to leave early, with or without authorization — they most likely will also be isolating themselves from the social culture of the workplace. Someone who pulls away from harmless chitchat or from group lunches or office parties likely is dealing with something stressful. Or, if an employee seems to be pulling away from any close friends and family, it may be a cause for concern, as sudden isolation could be a symptom of a deeper issue.
Approaching the employee and asking about their well-being — in a non-judgemental or accusatory way — is a good way to reach out and offer empathy.
2. Changes in Work Habits or Performance
If an employee is showing up on time, but the work they are doing is less than par, it could be one of the early warning signs of violence in the workplace. A decline in the quality of work — including being unable to concentrate and making bad decisions — are likely indicators that something is amiss. It’s one of the early warning signs, so it’s best to resolve the issue before it escalates.
A change in productivity levels or energy levels may accompany performance at work, and stress is often the culprit for this. Far from harmless, stress can snowball into an overwhelming burden that can lead to signs of aggressive behavior and violence. It’s always best to encourage employees to indulge in stress-busting activities, so they are better able to tolerate what anything that comes their way.
3. Fascination With Weapons
While a passing curiosity about weapons may not warrant a second glance, an obsessive interest definitely does. One of the most obvious workplace violence indicators is a deep fascination with weapons. An employee researching and talking excitedly about weapons while at work is understandably a cause for alarm and should be reported straight away.
Similarly, someone who seems to be overly curious about incidents of workplace violence — either at the present workplace or globally — may be concerning. If an employee is asking about previous incidences of workplace violence, researching violent events in the workplace or even has their own history of workplace violence, it shouldn’t be ignored. Any sort of obsession can lead to a bad outcome, but an obsession with violence and tools of violence is more likely to escalate into something unsafe.
4. Negative Change in Attitude
Changes in attitude aren’t always clear and obvious, and it can be difficult to pinpoint whether it’s a temporary mood swing or something that runs much deeper. Any drastic change in attitude is concerning, but a negative change should be paid particular attention to.
Feeling hopeless, crying at work and being passive-aggressive are all potential warning signs of a violent employee. If drugs or alcohol are partially or fully responsible for the change in moods, it can be a clear warning sign of workplace violence.
Even changes in communication can signal a problem. Using inappropriate language or cursing at work, uttering threats or spreading rumors about coworkers are inappropriate and threatening behaviors in the workplace.
Sometimes threats are an employee’s way of pumping themselves up for eventual action, so they shouldn’t be brushed off. Threats — either written or verbal — have the potential to escalate, and laughing them off as inauthentic may end up doing more harm than good.
5. Unwillingness to Accept Responsibility
Ideally, an employee will apologize and work to fix their behavior when they are told it fails to follow professional guidelines. But one of the warning signs of workplace violence is an employee’s inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions.
This can take the form of constantly shifting the blame to anyone else, holding grudges — especially against professional superiors — having unreasonable demands and being unable to maturely handle criticism. Verbal or written threats may follow, particularly directed at anyone against whom there is a grudge.
Physical Warning Signs of Employee Violence
Specific actions often signal a problem with an employee and should be noted as potential warning signs of workplace violence — they include:
- Clenched jaws or fists
- Trembling or shaking
- Unnatural sweating
- Scowling or sneering
- Avoiding eye contact
- Using curse words or crude language
- Talking too loudly
- Shallow breathing
- Invading personal coworkers’ personal space
- Restlessness or repetitive movements
As many of the potential warning signs of workplace violence, these physical signs can often be the sign of something less sinister. Again, context is everything.
How to Prevent Workplace Violence
As with most things in the world, prevention is often much simpler than the cure — and that’s the case when it comes to handling workplace violence. Putting tactics in place to help identify early warning signs of workplace violence will allow everyone to work together to prevent it. In addition, many of these practices also help ensure employees have a workplace that is safe and open, which inevitably boosts overall morale. To prevent workplace violence, you’ll need to:
1. Educate Employees
There are many training courses and modules that employers can use to help create a workplace that is empathic and honest. Knowledge and education can encourage employees to be more accepting of differences while also informing them on how to identify early warning signs of workplace violence.
Educational sessions don’t need to be dull and boring. There are many fun and innovative ways to engage employees and incentivize them to carry on with extra-curricular workshops. Certain training may be better if mandatory — such as education on mental health, lessons on sexual harassment and meetings about racism. Making mandatory the courses that refresh employees’ knowledge on how to be empathic and more accepting of others shows employees they are part of a company that prioritizes safety and decency.
Similar training can be applied to remind employees of emergency plans and emergency contacts, as well — either separately or as part of workplace violence awareness and prevention.
2. Show Employees They Are Valued
Salary increases and bonuses aren’t the only way to show employees they are valued and appreciated. Creating a safe environment with strong core beliefs and constant and clear communication are just some of the ways to show employees they are valued and appreciated.
Effective lines of communication are especially important, so employees feel safe expressing issues and avoiding the chance to let stress fester or overwhelm them. Some of the best ways to ensure a workplace that encourages communication and openness are:
- Encourage open-mindedness: This will help employees feel free to communicate any concerns and boost morale altogether.
- Utilize EAPs: Employee Assistance Programs are designed to help curate an open, safe workplace — so why not use them? They’ll allow employees to talk confidentially with professionals about anything, regardless of whether’s related to work.
- Get involved: If you’re a human resources professional or safety manager, it’s particularly important to monitor your staff and teams and be on top of any conflicts that arise. Alleviating conflicts while they’re still minor will prevent them from escalating and going out of control.
The more employees feel they are appreciated and that their concerns and feelings are taken seriously, the better it will be for everyone in the workplace.
Reaching out and asking after the well-being of an employee is another way to show they are valued. It’s also a way to show employees they aren’t nameless worker bees in a giant hive and that they are noticed and cared for. Sometimes a bad day is just a bad day, and having it acknowledged is enough.
3. Instill a Clear Workplace Violence Policy
Make sure all employees understand that workplace violence — in any form — will not have a positive outcome. Make sure your policy on workplace violence is one of zero-tolerance, and encourage employees to report any warning signs.
Having an open environment of clear and constant communication will help employees confidently voice their concerns, including any they may have about their colleagues. Make it a company-wide policy that really put in the effort to stand by it.
Another part of making employees feel valued is to show them that their employers stand by their word and have employees’ best interests at heart. Having a zero-tolerance policy for anything that may endanger employees is one of the best ways to do this.
Make it clear that workplace violence is not tolerated and make clear the consequences. Most importantly, stand by your policy. Employees need to know that their employers mean what they say, especially when it comes to the safety and well-being of people in the workplace.
4. Hire Security for Peace of Mind
Employing professional security guards for your workplace is another way to prevent workplace violence. These professionals will be able to provide peace of mind by physically being onsite, and they are also trained in first aid, including CPR.
Personal bodyguards are especially useful in cases where there may be a single employee who is at risk. They’re also a good option for employees who may be feeling threatened or vulnerable at work, due to a coworker who has shown potential warning signs of employee violence.
Get a Free Consultation With Tx2 Security
At Tx2 Security, we can provide you with a workplace security consultation to make sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent violence in the workplace. We can help your and your company get started with a workplace security plan and show you how to prevent and detect potential threats.