Plan For and Recognize the Signs of Workplace Violence

Workplace violence isn’t necessarily physical; harassment, threats, and disruptive intimidation fall under this category as well. Essentially, any threatening and/or aggressive behaviors displayed while at work is considered violent behavior, whether physical contact is involved or not. Workplace violence is a very relevant concern, as the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics recognizes homicide as the fourth leading cause of workplace fatalities.

The best we can do is to be vigilant of potential early warning signs, and to make the topic known and understood on the work site.

stressed out employee

Keep an Eye Out

Watching for red flags will allow you to tackle the seeds of violence before they bloom. Because there is no surefire way to know when or how an act of violence will occur, training yourself to recognize associated behaviors will go a long way in shutting them down.

The most common sources of workplace violence are:

Coworkers: We often see sour workplace relationships develop into poisonous altercations when left without remedy. Competition, cliques at work, unsavory perceptions of how one is being treated or rewarded compared to another – there are endless ways that people who spend eight hours a day, five days a week at the same location could find to become aggressive towards one another.

Strangers: Criminals who enter the establishment from the outside with no particular vendetta against an individual or the company. Their goals are often to leave with money or merchandise.

Clients and Customers: A customer who is predisposed to violence may become unmanageable when frustrated.

Personal Relationships: An employee who has a tumultuous relationship outside of work may lead to that person entering the workplace and making threats or demands, or engaging in violent behaviors.

Responding passively is critical. In the event that a criminal enters the establishment demanding cooperation, do not resist. Usually anxious and nervous, criminals may respond instinctively with violence if they see any potential for retaliation. It is vital that you remain calm, compliant, and agreeable. Give them exactly what they want without delay – your life is worth more than what is in the cash register.

In a situation involving an unruly customer or client, remember that their aggression isn’t directed at you. They are simply upset about not getting what they want. By not taking it personally, you can respond calmly and remind them that you want to help them as much as you are able. Appealing to a person’s need to be understood is a good way to begin in diffusing a potentially threatening situation. Never respond with sarcasm or passive aggression.

When it comes to coworkers, watch for developing signs over time and take precautions in advance. Some indicators and situations that are often associated with impending violence are:

  • Depression or mood swings
  • Increased tardiness or absenteeism
  • Sudden decrease in job performance or motivation
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Financial instability
  • Unpleasant relationships with supervisors or other coworkers
  • Acting out against company policies or guidelines
  • Responding poorly to constructive criticism
  • Psychological imbalance such as paranoia or talking to oneself
  • Aggressively and/or sexually harassing another worker
  • Poor relationships outside of work, such as domestic abuse or divorce
  • Any suggestion, made in jest or otherwise, related to violence or weaponry at work
  • A criminal background

The most effective way to be vigilant is to simply be alert for unusual responses to stressors and for sudden changes in behavior or demeanor. If you witness any of these indicators, or any that may be related, find the problem immediately.

Plan Ahead

Don’t wait until a violent incident arises to tackle the subject at work. The most powerful prevention is implementing a no-tolerance policy at work. This should be written, distributed to all employees, and discussed verbally so that each member of the company is aware that all acts of violence will face immediate investigation and response. Invite all employees to become involved in anti-violence programs, whether engaging in open discussions and further training, or assembling threat evaluation and response teams to whom worrisome behaviors can be reported for investigation.

  • Training and written programs should cover all aspects of workplace violence from company guidelines and policies, to recognizing indicators, to response. Some examples are:
  • The scope (in its entirety) of work behaviors falling under the category of violence, and the related consequences.
  • How to recognize impending violence and to whom to report it.
  • Where to find and how to operate emergency alarms. Post emergency contact numbers in visible, accessible locations around the work site.
  • How and where to access de-stressing resources, such as counseling.

Being safe at work means more than proper equipment use and cleaning up slip hazards. Humans are emotionally-driven creatures with unpredictable behaviors and can easily be an unexpected source of injury or fatality on the job. Take advanced precautions and address these potential threats in order to clock out each day unscathed.

About the Author: Jay Acker write and blogs for, provider of safety training kits and a variety of safety training materials. They make videos, posters, training kits and other items for safety training.