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The Road to Rage

Incidents of workplace violence accounted for 15 percent of all work-related fatal occupational injuries in 2002, and according to the Department of Labor, violent acts continue to rank among the top three causes of workplace fatalities for all workers.

To reduce the number of incidents, companies must develop programs to detect early signs of impending violence so that preemptive measures can be taken before a problem gets out of control. Preventive programs are based on the premise that people don’t typically “snap” and become violent; rather, violence occurs on a continuum, often beginning with minor harassing behavior and becoming increasingly threatening to the point of violence.

The challenge is to know which changes in behavior and increased levels of aggressiveness are worth noting and to train supervisors and coworkers to identify the warning signs that may indicate when an employee’s behavior is moving up the continuum toward violence. An effective threat assessment team and a strong policy are also important components of an effective program.

Threats. Three types of threats occur: direct, conditional, and veiled. They can be made verbally or through gestures, actions, or both.

Direct. Direct threats, such as an employee saying or writing “I’m going to kill you,” are the easiest to recognize; they create the sense of an immediately dangerous situation. Direct threats do not always lead to violence, and it is not always possible to know which situation represents a genuine risk of violence. However, it is prudent to err on the side of giving attention to every threatening situation and treating it as an imminent danger.

Conditional. Like direct threats, conditional threats are fairly clear and present an imminent danger. However, they usually link the threat to some change of situation, such as, “If you don’t stop giving me warnings, I’m going to get even.” Once again, it’s best to err on the side of caution. These threats are best considered and dealt with as immediate threats to the safety of workers and the organization.

Veiled. Veiled threats are those that imply violence rather than state a threat explicitly. A veiled threat might be a reference to a supervisor’s family or a statement such as “I know where you live.” This can create a threatening situation in which a subject feels intimidated but there is no immediate danger of harm being inflicted.

Another common veiled threat is a statement like “I can’t take it anymore.” The threat implied by such a statement depends on the circumstances surrounding it. If it is said jokingly after a busy day, it may be taken as nonthreatening; however, if it is said menacingly at a time when it seems unprovoked, it may represent a step along the aggression continuum.

HARM Model

Supervisors and employees need to know what types of conduct relate to each level of aggressive or threatening behavior on an ascending scale. This continuum is known as the HARM model: harassment, aggression, rage, and mayhem. While there may be some gray area between each level, inappropriate behaviors fall generally into these categories.

Harassment. The first level of behavior on the violence continuum is harassment. This irritating behavior or action may or may not cause harm or discomfort to the target but it is nonetheless generally considered inappropriate conduct for the workplace. Examples of harassment include acting in a condescending way to a customer; slamming an office door; glaring at a colleague; playing frequent practical jokes, particularly on a single employee; or telling lies about a coworker.

Aggression. At the next level, aggressive hostile behaviors that cause harm to or discomfort for another person or for the company might include shouting at a customer, slamming a door in someone’s face, spreading damaging rumors about a coworker, or damaging someone’s personal belongings. All of these behaviors are inappropriate for the workplace.

Rage. The next stage along the continuum is rage. Rage is manifested through intense behaviors that often cause fear in other persons and which may result in physical and emotional harm to people or damage to property. Rage is also distinguished from aggression because it makes the inappropriate behavior physical and visible. Examples of rage can range from pushing a customer to sabotaging a coworker’s presentation or leaving “hate” statements on someone’s desk.

Mayhem. The final stage is mayhem, which is physical violence against people or the violent destruction of property. Activity in this category can range from slapping a customer or ransacking and destroying a facility to shooting a coworker to death.

Threat Assessment Teams

There are many early-warning signs of threatening or potentially violent behavior as it occurs along this continuum that can help indicate when a manager should intervene to avoid a later incident. Behavior that qualifies as an early warning might include a decrease in productivity or quality of work, unexplained absences or tardiness, or extreme changes in behavior or displays of emotion, resulting from personal life stresses such as family or financial problems.

Immediate supervisors are in the best position to detect these behavioral red flags. But once the supervisor reports a problem, it is advisable to have either an in-house threat assessment team or outside experts handle the case to ensure objectivity.

Many large organizations have a threat assessment team composed of a pool of talent from across the organization that typically includes security, human resources, the employee assistance program (EAP), and inside or outside counsel. The benefit of having this type of team is that typically no one person or department has all the critical information needed to accurately assess a situation; by working together, the team members are more likely to come to the right assessment. For example, a supervisor may notice unusual behavior and bring it to the team’s attention. Then, a medical or EAP representative might have pieces of background information that help put a problem in context. Smaller organizations may have teams that include in-house staff, such as HR, with outside consultants, such as an EAP provider.

These teams have three main functions. The first is to assess the validity of any suspicious case reported to the team and thereby to identify a perpetrator, victim, and threat situation; the second is to evaluate the risks of violence posed by that given individual at a given time by placing it on the HARM scale. This is done in part by breaking up the incident and the circumstances into smaller details.

The third objective of the team is to manage both the potentially violent individual and the risks that he or she presents to employees. The following example illustrates how a team can use policy to achieve the goal of risk management in a specific case.

An Angry Worker

Recently, the author was called in as a consultant to a financial services institution that was experiencing a problem with an employee, whom we’ll call Richard. Richard’s colleagues and supervisor felt that his behavior had changed and become what they termed “bizarre.” For example, he had begun to menace coworkers by staring and scowling at them for long periods of time, a distinct change from his normal behavior.

The effect of his changed behavior was to make his colleagues feel threatened. The company had a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy, which all employees signed when hired. Richard’s managers told him that his recent antisocial behavior violated the policy; he was put on paid administrative leave and asked to go to EAP for counseling. He was told that under the company’s policy, he could go for counseling in lieu of other action; that is, being terminated from his position. When the counseling period was complete, EAP would forward a report on his suitability to return to work so that his reinstatement could be considered.

They also called in the author’s company to perform a background check on Richard, which came up with nothing of any concern. Meanwhile, Richard went to EAP as promised. A few weeks later, the EAP provider contacted the financial institution and explained that counselors had interviewed Richard on several occasions, and that they had recommended that he go to anger-management training. They informed management that there was no reason why Richard could not return to the workplace.

The head of the financial company was not eager to take Richard back, fearing a return to his menacing behavior and concerned about Richard’s performance problems, which had not yet been addressed. The executive asked the author whether the company was compelled to reinstate Richard, given the EAP’s recommendation.

The author counseled against any immediate reinstatement, because the company had no new information to suggest that Richard’s behavior had changed and because his behavior was a clear warning sign of potential future violence according to the HARM continuum model. Moreover, the fact that EAP had recommended anger-management training suggested that Richard had unresolved issues that could possibly be work related. The only way to find out was to get more information. But how?

At this point, the author recommended getting a signed waiver from Richard and the EAP counselor, which would allow the company to find out more about the nature of Richard’s anger problem. Richard agreed to sign the waiver, and after more research and counseling, the company discovered that Richard’s behavior stemmed from some personal problems and was not work related. The anger-management training was actually stress management and had a positive effect on him. After working through his personal issues, Richard was allowed to return to work. This case is just one example of how a company can manage the risk presented by a threatening individual by asking the right questions, getting the right people involved, and adapting the response to fit the circumstances.

Companies in this position can ask employees to sign waivers even before they go for counseling; the idea is that management needs to be able to get whatever critical information is needed to assess the threat. Waivers should also limit the amount of information that can be gathered and the number of people who have access to it.


Well-trained supervisors are the key to an effective workplace-violence-prevention program. The company must invest the time and resources needed to ensure that front-line managers are familiar with the HARM model and know how to spot inappropriate behaviors.

Differentiating truly threatening behavior from simply annoying or difficult behavior can be challenging at times. All assessments must be made within the context of the specific case. For example, in one company where the author was called in to train staff in the HARM model, a female manager brought up a problem she had been having with a subordinate. She asked, “Is swearing an indicator of violence or these increased levels of aggressive behavior?” The answer depended on more specific details from the situation.

In this case, the manager worked in a manufacturing environment where, she said, swearing was not unusual among the staff. However, when one individual swore, the manager said, she felt frightened and threatened, especially as the worker’s tone grew more vulgar and loud.

When asked how she handled the swearing, the manager remarked that she thought there was nothing she could do; the rest of the team members used similar or the same language, yet she felt that this was not intimidating.

Under questioning, it was revealed that this worker only started swearing (and getting louder) when he began to lose an argument. It became clear that it was not really the words that were a concern but rather that this worker was using his language and tone to threaten the opponents of his argument to get them to back down. Because that is intimidating conduct, the swearing in this case did qualify as threatening and fell within the “Aggression” level of the HARM continuum.

The question then arose: What could the manager do to resolve this situation? The manager should have brought the problem to the attention of both the employee and the threat assessment team. But she should also have dealt with it from the beginning, because swearing is harassing and inappropriate behavior, and it could have been taken care of before it escalated into threatening behavior.

In training managers to nip problem conduct at the earliest stage possible, one of the most important lessons to convey is that these behaviors have no business need; they are totally inappropriate for the business world even in their mildest form. Thus, there is no need to tolerate low-level aggression or to wonder when is the right time to intervene. Managers should be taught to let employees know immediately that no inappropriate behaviors will be excused in the workplace. That relieves the manager of having to define which bad behavior is the one that might lead to violence. Thus, in the case just discussed, if swearing had not been allowed in the workplace at all, and if that policy had been disseminated and enforced consistently, there would have been no need for the manager to worry about whether one worker’s profanity was more threatening than that of other workers.

As a part of the training, managers should be taught how to discuss these behavioral issues with employees in a nonconfrontational manner. This includes a range of techniques in managing situational behavior beyond the scope of this article, from deescalating situations by using a softer voice and nonaggressive body language to sending home an overly emotional employee. But it is essential that the training emphasize how important it is for managers to report any nonviolent incidents that violate the company code of conduct. These cases must be investigated and disciplinary action taken if appropriate. This approach keeps supervisors from ignoring problems and puts the employee on notice that such behavior will not be tolerated, which may help to curtail any further escalation along the HARM continuum. It also establishes a record that may help the company later if the employee needs to be suspended or fired.

Good Policies

Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, accused of continued verbal confrontations and grabbing a student’s arm, once claimed that the school’s zero-tolerance policy was never explained to him. His remark is instructive in that it shows how important it is for management to make the company’s zero-tolerance policy clear and to ensure that no employee or manager can plausibly claim not to have been well informed of its meaning and consequences.

So what does a good zero-tolerance policy consist of and how can the company ensure that everyone understands it? A good policy includes the general objectives and the specific prohibitions, including the weapons policy. It also lays out employee and management responsibilities, as well as the role of human resources.

General Objectives

The first step in a good policy is to state explicitly the main goal: that no type of violence or threatening behavior will be tolerated, and then to include some examples of prohibited conduct. Again, this list should draw on the HARM model to ensure that early-warning problems are spotted and dealt with. This list might include:

  • Aggressive or hostile behavior that creates a reasonable fear of injury to another person.
  • Racial or cultural epithets or other derogatory remarks.
  • Harassing or intimidating statements, phone calls, or e-mail messages, or those that are unwanted or deemed offensive by the receiver.
  • Physical assault, threat of assault, or stalking of an employee or customer.

Weapons. While restricting weapons may seem an obvious policy decision, remember that the HARM model looks to be as proactive as possible. Therefore, spelling out the details of the policy, including any sanctions, can help avoid incidents. For example, it’s essential to spell out details and penalties clearly by stating something like: The possession, transfer, sale, or use of weapons—even those an employee may be licensed to carry— on company-owned or leased property is prohibited. This includes, but is not limited to, parking lots, personal cars, company-sponsored events, and company vehicles. Violations may result in termination, and the company will report the transfer, sale, or use of weapons to law enforcement.

The policy should also define the term “weapon.” It typically includes any firearm (including a BB gun) whether loaded or unloaded, any knife (with the possible exception of a small pocket knife), or martial-arts or electronic-defense weapons. The policy should state, and any training should note, that an employee unsure of whether a particular object is considered a weapon should ask for clarification from a supervisor or manager before bringing the instrument onto company premises.

Additionally, policies should prohibit the use of dangerous instruments; any instrument would be considered dangerous if, under the circumstances and determined by the behaviors being exhibited, the instrument could cause physical injury. This policy will allow managers to use the HARM model to determine whether common office or facility equipment is being used in a threatening manner. For example, a hammer is part of a normal tool shop, but if a worker uses a hammer in a menacing way, the company should have a policy that says this makes it a dangerous instrument and qualifies as a violation of the company policy.

The policy should further state that any weapon or dangerous instrument on company-owned or leased premises may be confiscated. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to such items in the workplace. Employees’ desks, workstations, and offices may be subject to security searches, and this should be part of the written policy as well.

Sanctions. Inappropriate behaviors need to be addressed based on the facts of each situation, recognizing that the circumstances surrounding each incident make different reactions appropriate. For example, if swearing is prohibited in the workplace, an employee who swears after hitting his thumb with a hammer might get a verbal reminder of the policy, while someone who swears aggressively (as in our previous example) might get a written reprimand or even be put on administrative leave and asked to go for counseling in lieu of other action. Likewise, a part-time law enforcement officer working elsewhere who brings his service weapon onto company property because he did not have time to go home between jobs would not be dealt with as seriously as an employee who brings in a gun to threaten another employee.

Companies should use graduated discipline, up to and including dismissal. It’s important to understand that zero tolerance means that every incident is investigated; it doesn’t mean that every incident will be handled in the exact same way. “Cookie-cutter” approaches can be overreactions; these water down the policy, meaning that workers lose confidence and won’t provide the information needed to track aggressive behavior.

Employee responsibilities. The primary responsibility of each employee is to adhere to the policy by refraining from committing any of the prohibited behaviors. But the policy should also encourage or require employees to help the company detect early warning signs from other workers, vendors, or customers by reporting suspicious, threatening, or inappropriate behavior to their supervisor, the threat assessment team, HR, the EAP, or an anonymous hotline if the company has one and the employee wishes to remain anonymous. Of course, employees should be told to call 911 if there is a dangerous situation. The policy might also advise employees not to challenge or attempt to disarm an armed person. In addition, the policy should state that the employee is obligated to cooperate with designated personnel in any investigation into any reported violation of the policy.

Manager responsibilities. Like employees, managers must immediately report any violations or suspicious or unusual behavior to a threat assessment team or other designated authority. Managers also need to ensure that they enforce the workplace violence policy fairly and uniformly.

Perhaps the most important aspect of any zero-tolerance workplace violence policy is the need for immediate action. Investigations should be conducted as soon as an incident is reported, and it may also be appropriate, depending on the level of the threat, to simultaneously suspend the subject of the investigation.

As mentioned previously, an investigation must be performed for any and all incidents of aggressive behavior. However, it frequently happens, as in Richard’s case, that a worker who poses a threat also has performance problems that haven’t been addressed. When the behavior begins to escalate, companies sometimes try to address both the aggressive behavior problem and the performance issue at once by using a zero-tolerance policy to fire the worker. But if an aggressive-behavior incident occurs on Tuesday and a personnel hearing is scheduled on Thursday, it will be nearly impossible to convince an arbitrator that this worker was an immediate threat to safety; if that were the case, why wasn’t he suspended on Tuesday?

When this behavior is looked at as part of the HARM model as a possible indicator of workplace violence, it becomes clear that it’s too dangerous to wait; because someone may get hurt, it’s urgent to take immediate action. Besides safeguarding employees and customers, this also helps if and when any arbitration becomes necessary.

HR responsibilities. Human resources personnel are critical members of the threat assessment team, as they hold information about the worker’s home life and background and are often the coordination points for security, real estate services, and corporate communications areas. HR should also ensure that there are no reprisals toward employees who report violent acts and that confidentiality is maintained where appropriate. As mentioned previously, in some cases it might be best to ask for waivers so that additional critical information can be shared.

As the numbers show, workplace violence incidents remain a problem for all types of organizations. However, these acts are rarely spontaneous; warning behaviors almost always arise first.

Classic advice with regard to achieving financial savings is that if you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. In workplace violence, by watching for the small change in behavior, companies can save valuable lives down the road.

Frank E. Rudewicz, CPP, is senior managing director and counsel at Decision Strategies in Hartford, Connecticut.  He is chairman of the ASIS International Safeguarding Proprietary Information Council.