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Behavior, Environment Can Be Signals of Potential Workplace Violence

The challenge for employers and their workers, of course, is determining how best to weight identification of warning signs against the limitless variations of context and severity that are inherent to real-life applications.

September 17, 2012
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While there is no standardized profile that fits every person who has perpetrated a violent workplace act — or the conditions that precipitated their actions — law enforcement agencies, labor regulators and other workplace safety and security experts have developed a robust vocabulary of common warning signs and predictive circumstances.

The challenge for employers and their workers, of course, is determining how best to weigh identification of those warning signs against the limitless variations of context and severity that are inherent to real-life applications.

"That's not an easy thing to understand, because it's never really going to be a black-and-white line," said Tracy Knippenburg Gillis, New York-based global reputational risk and crisis management practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

"It doesn't even need to be an employee that commits the act. It can come from an external source such as a customer or a client, or it could be a completely random act," she said.

Examples of observable workplace behavior that tend to predict a violent event include increasing belligerence, fascination with weapons and angry outbursts, according to the FBI.

Additionally, experts said, certain employee groups historically have shown a higher probability of committing a violent act.

"Generally, you're talking about people with drug and alcohol problems, people who have experienced some sort of recent loss or separation, or were recently demoted, disciplined or fired at work," said Kevin Wilkes, a Pittsburgh-based vice president and security practice leader at Willis North America Inc. "On the flip side, you also need to be aware of people who have been victimized by workplace bullying or experienced some other type of denial of respect on the job."

Some incidents, such as those perpetrated by customers or visitors, cannot be predicted by much more than a few minutes, experts said. But those minutes often prove invaluable in minimizing the damage of an impending violent event.

"An individual's body language is a good indicator of their mental or emotional state and can be predictive of a violent incident," said Sean Ahrens, Aon Global Risk Consulting's Chicago-based security consulting practice leader. "If someone is standing with their arms folded tight, you know that person might be feeling defensive or threatened. If someone is pacing back and forth, that's another good sign of heightened anxiety or agitation."

Employers also should consider characteristics of the workplace itself when looking for predictive indicators, experts said, as a toxic work environment combined with an individual who is already exhibiting some of the warning signs of a violent tendency can be a recipe for disaster.

Some common examples of workplace conditions that could potentially inflate the likelihood of a violent incident include extraordinarily rigid or paramilitary-like cultures, a high degree of competitiveness among co-workers, recent downsizing, and significant reductions in employee resources, benefits or compensation.

Matt Dunning writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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