Four steps every executive should know about preventing workplace violence

Do you worry about potential violence in your workplace? You’re not alone. For many employees, it’s a growing concern regardless of where they live or work. For employers, it has become a serious reality of today’s professional life.

Workplace violence is the act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening behavior occurring at the work site. It can take many forms, ranging from verbal abuse to homicide, and involve not only employees but customers, contractors and visitors. The growing probability of violence in the workplace is challenging for executives to manage. The burden often falls to human resource and corporate security specialists, who may or may not be equipped to deal with the issue.

During 2015-16, workplace violence became the leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates nearly 2 million American workers have been victims of workplace violence each year.2

Workplace violence is an uncomfortable topic, but it’s one that cannot be ignored. While frequency has risen recently, workplace violence has been an employer concern for years, with high-profile cases occurring in 1998, 2000, and 2002.3 Not only have the numbers risen, but also has the level of brazenness. What’s more, the explosion of social media in recent years has also created an outlet for perpetrators to brag about their actions publicly.4

As experts in the risk mitigation field, with extensive backgrounds in law enforcement and human behavior assessment, we understand this serious and growing trend. If you’re concerned about workplace violence in your company, with domestic staff, or on your community group or board, having a plan in place can make a tremendous difference in feeling that you, your families, and your employees are safer when it comes to this growing issue.


It’s essential to have a plan


We estimate that as many as 7 in 10 workplaces lack a formal program or policy for addressing violence issues. The FBI’s 2016 Workplace Violence report highlights the possible economic impact of not having such procedures in place.

“Employers have a legal and ethical obligation to promote a work environment free from threats and violence and, in addition, can face economic loss as the result of violence in the form of lost work time, damaged employee morale and productivity, increased workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, and possible lawsuits and liability costs.”

At Torchstone, we know the impact a formal program can make for businesses, no matter the industry or the size of the employer. Our workplace violence workshop program has been utilized by corporations, high net worth families, hospitals, police, military and veterans’ organizations, schools, and community groups, to name just a few.

In our training, we address techniques for surviving a crisis scenario. We also counsel companies on avoiding crisis situations, through proactive planning and identifying pre-incident behavioral indicators. Our goal is to provide the tools needed to make sensible, appropriate decisions when faced with a workplace violence concern. We achieve the best outcomes when we address the issue from two equally critical angles; the strategic perspective of the company and its executives, and the tactical needs of each employee.

Based on our experience, four core pillars are critical for every organization to embrace to reduce the likelihood of workplace violence. We encourage their company-wide circulation and adoption.


1. Educate employees about prevention steps before an incident 


You can have all the policies in the world, but if they are not supported by training, and if you are not encouraging your people to participate in pre-event planning (as opposed to post-event reaction), you face increased risk. Without screening and preparation, it’s difficult for people facing workplace violence to know what to do, as they haven’t had those experiences in life—they’ve only seen them on TV or in movies.


2. Designate a senior manager to be a supportive contact for employees


When an employee is dealing with an issue, even one that appears to be personal rather than work-related, it has potential to affect the company by nature of the amount of time the person spends there. Domestic violence is one such issue. Potential perpetrators can threaten to come to the workplace…and do, sometimes with tragic results.

As an employer, making support from senior management available to employees, and then encouraging them to use such support, can make employees feel you truly care. Sensing the company cares about them can make employees more comfortable bringing personal issues forward. This is critical, because the danger to the company is not only to the employee facing an issue. All employees are at risk when an employee doesn’t feel they will be supported if they come forward with an issue involving violence or the threat of violence.


3. Observe red flags as the first step to deescalating inappropriate behavior


Targeted violence at the workplace is not random. Sometimes, a person is facing chronic issues that grind him or her down. Other times, he or she may face a crushing event that can impact his or her routine and/or disrupt his or her sense of self. A major loss such as a break-up, death, or loss of a job can have this impact. If the person has a lack of coping skills or resources, acute or chronic mental or medical health issues, feels alone and without support, and/or has other personality factors linked with violence, they may start to move down a pathway of violence.

In the workplace, we look for certain potential red flags, such as:

  • personal grievances against the company, its employees, or its leadership
  • an increase in tardiness or absence, where the employee doesn’t seem to care
  • a decline in work performance
  • the experience of possible triggers, such as being demoted, passed up for a promotion, or terminated

If there is not a specific red flag, but something that you can’t put your finger on seems “off,” trust your instincts. At times, we pick-up subtle changes that cause concern that we can’t put into words.


4. Watch for disturbing signals, which can occur months or weeks before an episode 


While red flags may differ for each individual, the following are some general signals to watch for:

  • a contextually inappropriate recent or sudden fascination with weapons, especially coupled with a fascination with previous attackers or previous attacks; collecting weapons, or weapons training
  • identifying with perpetrators of previous attacks
  • making threats
  • changes in appearance, hygiene, or mood like high levels of depression or anxiety
  • psychotic episodes with paranoid thinking or hearing voices ordering violent acts
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • isolation
  • increase in black-and-white, rigid thinking
  • increasing sense of entitlement
  • lack of empathy
  • relational red flags, such as stalking, harassing, or romantic obsessions in the workplace; domestic violence at home that could spill over to the workplace; or recent relational losses

These examples reinforce another important reason of having a “go-to” executive always available, so employees who identify these red flags at work or in their personal lives can share them and feel supported.

Active violence is usually a planned event. Even so, there is no formula for how and when it happens. Employees can mull over a violent act for a long or short period of time. That’s why corporate dedication to a workplace violence program is essential. Executives on the management level need to give appropriate urgency to vigilant tracking and follow-up after issues or red flags are identified.

Unfortunately, workplace violence can occur at any time and the likelihood it will become a concern in any workplace is growing. These steps can help you to create a culture of awareness and responsiveness. By being informed and keeping vigilant, and equipping your employees to do the same, you can be better prepared to stop a potentially devastating issue before it has a chance to occur.

Law enforcement veteran Michael Georgoulis and psychologist Malique Carr, PH.D (CA PSY 25110) lead the on-site workplace violence training program developed by TorchStone, a risk mitigation firm with decades of cumulative security and risk-mitigation experience.