McGowan Workplace Violence

In May 2019, a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach government office left 11 employees and a contractor dead.

In the wake of the tragedy, friends and colleagues of the shooter realized that there had been warning signs, red flags, alarming behaviors, and threats of workplace violence in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

This is not unusual, as most perpetrators of workplace violence display warning signs in the weeks and months leading up to an incident of workplace violence.

While a specific motive in the June Virginia Beach shooting has not been identified, many incidents of workplace violence are preceded by reversals of fortune in the shooter’s personal or professional lives.

In the case of the Virginia Beach incident, the shooter had suddenly and unexpectedly resigned from his job, and his neighbors confirmed that he had been staying up many nights leading up to the shooting.

To prepare for and prevent workplace violence, it’s important to understand that workplace violence is more than just a physical assault. It is a widespread problem that involves any act in which a person is abused, threatened, or assaulted in his or her place of employment. Workplace violence can include swearing, verbal abuse, pranks, arguments, property damage, vandalism, and sabotage.

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Warning Signs

It can be difficult to predict when a person is going to be violent, but behaviors and physical signs can serve as a warning. Workplace violence rarely occurs at random or out of the blue.

Most incidents of violence are preceded by physical signs or a change in behavior. Perpetrators of workplace violence typically display some concerning behavior in the days and months leading up to a workplace violence event.

In a study conducted by the FBI of 160 violent attacks that occurred between 2000 and 2013, nearly half occurred at a business. Some of these attacks were perpetrated by non-employees, while others involved current or former employees or other people who had relationships with employees of the company.

Workplace violence often begins with small incidents that involve negative remarks or inappropriate behavior.

When it comes to mass shootings, the reasons people cite for killing co-workers involve disagreements on the job, feeling mistreated by bosses or colleagues, and anger in the aftermath of court proceedings.

Every situation is unique, and professional judgment or outside assistance may be necessary to determine whether and what type of intervention may be required.

Nonetheless, some tried and true strategies can help to reduce incidents of escalating workplace violence. When co-workers and management teams learn to recognize and report early warning signs of workplace violence, the chances of predicting and preventing workplace violence increase.

It is easier to stop small incidents of workplace violence and prevent them from escalating than it is to deal with the aftermath of a major crisis.

Management and human resource professionals should take note of:

  • Changes in behavior patterns (e.g., someone who is normally friendly and outgoing becomes disengaged), the frequency and intensity of behaviors becomes disruptive to the work environment, and whether the person is exhibiting multiple symptoms or just a few
  • Crying, sulking, or temper tantrums
  • Excessive absenteeism or lateness
  • Pushing limits of acceptable conduct or disregarding the health and safety of others
  • Disrespect for authority
  • Increasing mistakes or errors
  • Refusal to acknowledge problems with job performance
  • Poor handling of criticism and/or blaming others for mistakes
  • Social isolation
  • Holding grudges

Physical signs of impending workplace violence may include:

  • Sweating
  • Flushed or pale face
  • Pacing
  • Trembling
  • Loud talking
  • Clenched jaws
  • Violations of other people’s personal space

Experts have identified three levels of warning signs that precede incidents of workplace violence:

Intimidation: An employee may show a lack of respect towards others and become uncooperative and/or verbally abusive, blame others for mistakes, complain, or make unreasonable demands.

Incidents of intimidation should be reported, and if the co-worker exhibiting signs of intimidation is an immediate supervisor, employees should go to HR and the next level of management. Reports of workplace intimidation should remain anonymous, if possible.

Escalation of Situation: Employees who argue with customers refuse to obey company policies and procedures, verbalize wishes to hurt co-works, and who direct or indirect threats, or who stalk co-workers. Employees and managers should remove themselves and others from the area, document the behavior, and immediately report it. Depending on the nature of the threat, it might be wise to call 9-1-1.

Further Escalation: Threats of suicide, physical fights with co-workers, concealing a weapon, and displays of extreme rage. This is an emergency. Call 9-1-1.

Always Identify and Report Workplace Violence Incidents

As workplaces have been frequent targets for shootings and other incidents of violence, employers are increasingly turning to employees to monitor their peers.

OSHA reports that 2 million Americans experience violence at work, yet many cases go unreported.

Employers should work to create a culture that is vigilant about identifying and reporting workplace incidents and should implement a workplace violence program that involves management and HR professionals.

McGowan Program Administrators offers Active Shooter / Workplace Violence insurance programs to help organizations manage the risk of violence in the workplace, and make sure they are prepared if violence does strike. We also encourage companies to develop programs to help identify troubled individuals and intervene to prevent incidents of workplace violence.