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Preventing Violence at Work

​WORKPLACE VIOLENCE INCIDENTS HAVE become all too common in the news. Whether it be the massacre of 31 by a student at Virginia Tech University, the shooting of eight by a disgruntled worker at a Connecticut Budweiser distribution plant, or the wounding of a doctor by a distraught son who also shot and killed his mother, who was a patient at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, the stories are chilling.

Years ago, such shootings were associated only with certain industries, such as the U.S. Postal Service, which led, perhaps unfairly, to the term “going postal.” Today, no one is exempt. From law firms to manufacturing plants—any industry in any region with any type of demographics can have workplace violence. Why?

There are many factors that have led to more widespread incidents of workplace violence. They include the recent and ongoing economic downturn, which has exacerbated worker tensions that already existed due to mergers, consolidations, and layoffs; and the ongoing issue of deinstitutionalization and lack of insurance for those needing psychiatric care. Employees no longer believe that their employers care about them, and there is increased anxiety about the future. Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship between job stress and workplace violence.

Defining the Issue

While it is best not to conflate workplace violence with straightforward financial crimes that occur at the workplace, such as a robbery, it is useful to include within the definition of workplace violence more than shootings in order to heighten awareness and effect change. Thus, it includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, bullying, harassment (including that of a sexual nature) threats, and stalking. And it does not matter whether these acts are committed by employees, clients, customers, family members, acquaintances, or strangers if they are directed against employees in the workplace or against the company itself.

Addressing the Problem

Why devote resources to this problem? All of these acts of workplace conflict, even the more subtle and nonlethal ones, affect the health and productivity of workers, coworkers, and managers. Addressing workplace violence in all its forms reduces absenteeism, employee turnover, and worker compensation cases. It reduces litigation for claims of inadequate or negligent security. It reduces cost due to employee injuries, death, and psychological issues. It improves morale. And most importantly, addressing workplace violence saves lives.

Assessing Behavior

What complicates the issue of policy enforcement with regard to precursors to outright violence is that fear is subjective; we all feel it in different ways, at different times, and to different extents. It can’t be measured, and it can be exacerbated by previous life events. This creates difficulty for us as security professionals as we attempt to assess what level of a problem a certain behavior presents. Ultimately, the criteria should be that every person’s perception and feelings of fear are valid for assessing their own experience and must be respected regardless of how another person might judge the situation.

In many workforces, one employee may be fearful of someone while a coworker may not be at all intimidated by the same person. The fact that one person finds the behavior or situation frightening is reason enough for security to examine it; there need not be a consensus among the entire workforce that a particular behavior is threatening.

Types of Perpetrators

It is helpful to look at workplace violence in terms of motivational factors; people committing workplace violence can be categorized into groups based on those factors.

The first factor is personal relationship problems. In this category is a person whose relationship with an employee goes bad. We see this in domestic violence situations. Security departments may have to enforce restraining orders or technically diminish ways that the perpetrator can find the victim, because often the worksite is the only place an abuser may know where to find the victim once he or she has moved out of a known or shared residence.

The second factor is an employment gripe or conflict. Illustrative of this is the case of Michael McDermott, an employee at Edgewater Technologies in Wakefield, Massachusetts, who killed several human resources employees over employee benefit disputes.

The third factor is a client or customer relationship. In this category are perpetrators who have a relationship with the workplace. Hospitals, for example, have an abundance of relationships with upset family members, psychiatric patients, and drug-seeking addicts.

The last factor has to do with someone’s political, religious, or ideological beliefs. In this category are perpetrators who target the establishment because of what it represents. John Salvi was an example of this many years ago. He went to two Northeast abortion clinics on the same day, killing workers in each. He had no client or customer relationships with these entities but later said he wanted to kill anyone who was associated with abortion. Animal rights terrorists who target research labs would fall into this category as would radical Islamist terrorists who target American businesses.

Warning Signs

There are many risk factors and red flags that, in combination, may serve to alert coworkers, supervisors, managers, and security personnel to an emerging problem. These include signs that the person blames others whenever anything goes wrong, acts impulsively and has trouble controlling emotions, has a fascination with weapons, uses drugs, is a loner, exhibits a pattern of violent behavior, or shows tendencies toward violence.

Other signs might include an obsession with death, feelings of worthlessness, and a deteriorating relationship with supervisors. Significant family, financial, and personal problems; perceived or real instances of discrimination; loss of employment; and psychiatric illness such as depression, paranoia, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder can also be factors that raise concerns or serve as triggers that cause bad behaviors to escalate or to go from threats to real violence.

It is important to educate management and others about these factors, but it is also important that they understand the limitations of this type of list. Someone exhibiting these factors may never pose a risk, while someone else may become violent without such red flags.

The purpose of the list is simply to raise awareness. Supervisors, coworkers, managers, and security personnel must all be sensitive to and aware of these potential signs, and they should be encouraged to report concerns early so that any real threat can be addressed before anyone is hurt.

Myth Busting

Key to detecting and defusing workplace conflict and preventing incidences of violence is debunking popular myths. One of the most potent myths is that “it can’t happen here.” We know that it can and does happen anywhere. Last month’s tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, six fatally, was a reminder of that fact.

As noted earlier, workplace violence is no longer confined to certain high-stress environments. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in four workers is attacked, threatened, or harassed on the job each year.

The second myth that the security industry needs to dispel is that the perpetrator “just snapped.” In reality, acts of serious violence in the workplace are rarely without precursors. More often, they come about after being manifested over time by many of the signs discussed.

The third myth is that this problem can’t be prevented. With appropriate planning, education, drills, culture, and resource deployment many incidents can be averted. People just need to understand what to look for. Most importantly, they need to act on what they see by reporting their concerns to management or others, such as employee assistance programs, human resource departments, security, or the police.

Why aren’t workplace violence incidents stopped? What prevents employees from reporting concerns? Often companies have done a poor job of educating staff about the issue. As a result, employees don’t know what to look out for or who to report concerns to. Worse, if they do see something, they don’t trust that they can report their concern confidentially. Thus, they fear retaliation from coworkers or superiors and possible job loss. They may also worry that they could be wrong and that the company will overreact to their information.

A final myth, a corollary to the previous myth, is that “you can’t stop someone with a gun, so why bother?” This is not necessarily true. As noted ahead, training can help at the least to reduce fatalities until police arrive.


Company policies should clearly state that no forms of intimidation or violence will be tolerated in the workplace. Management then needs to follow through on that promise with appropriate training and enforcement.

The policy should lay out what the consequences of any misconduct will be and what procedures employees should follow to report concerns. It should address the barriers to reporting discussed earlier by providing appropriate means of anonymous reporting and awareness training. Management will also need to periodically review the policy to ensure that it includes new forms of behavior that might need to be added, such as cyberbullying.


Training should be both general and specific. General awareness training would cover issues such as what is considered inappropriate behavior, red flags, and reporting procedures. Specific training would cover various types of scenarios, such as how to react in an active-shooter situation. In that type of training, employees learn vital life-saving skills, such as how to lie down to avoid vital organs being hit if shots are fired, as well as what to expect that police and other responders will do. This information will arm people with tools that can help them stay calm and avoid putting themselves and others into more jeopardy if an incident occurs.

Drills are also a good idea. It is proven over and over that doing drills and practicing for any type of disaster or emergency helps save lives and reduce injuries.

With regard to behaviors such as stalking, intimidation, subtle threats, and harassment, role-playing exercises can raise awareness and teach employees why they should not make threats, for example, as well as how to deal with these behaviors if they are on the receiving end or see someone being victimized.

Schools are at the forefront of this type of training, teaching kids what to do if they are bullied and not to just ignore it or take it. We have to do the same in our workplaces.

Security’s Role

Within a company, many departments need to coordinate their efforts to combat workplace violence. Having interdisciplinary groups work together on workplace violence prevention yields more strategic solutions.

The company may also want to designate a cross-departmental core team that will be activated for major problems. This team would be charged with assessing options and deciding on the best course of action for specific issues that arise. Useful representation for that team would include human resources, security, mental health, and risk management. If the question before the team involves an employee in one department, the manager of that department should be part of the team for those deliberations.

All security personnel should be well trained in workplace violence issues. For example, they should understand not only how to detect and respond to problems but also the stages that victims go through and what can be done to help them.

Security can also play an important role in alleviating fear and lending support by, for example, escorting people to court to get restraining orders and helping victims navigate the court system. Another service might be going to an employee’s home to do a security assessment if, for example, the person is being threatened by a former spouse.

The security department may also want to offer employees classes on managing aggressive behavior, conflict management, nonverbal communication strategies, and self defense.

Security can also provide advice about options available in dealing with a difficult person. Simply helping someone decide whether to carry a whistle or pepper spray can make the person feel cared about and properly prepared.

Of course, security also has a major role to play in investigating allegations of threats or other improper behavior. And security should do a general workplace threat/risk assessment to determine whether anything about the way workspaces are configured can be improved to mitigate workplace conflict or harassment issues.

All of these activities foster peace of mind and great relief for the workforce and will strengthen security relationships with other departments and employees. It also is fulfilling for security personnel to feel they have helped a person in need with their expertise.

Security should keep track of incidents of all types and seriousness both for the purpose of detecting trends and to ensure that the company has detailed records on individual incidents in case of litigation. Doing so can help to justify resource investment requests at budget time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls workplace violence an epidemic. By developing a good policy, enforcing prudent protocols, and maintaining good training and security, companies can work to eradicate this illness plaguing our workforces.

Bonnie S. Michelman, CPP, CHPA (Certified Healthcare Protection Administrator), is director of police, security, and outside services at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts. Michelman was recently appointed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council, a 26-person senior advisory group reporting to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She also serves as the security consultant for Partners Healthcare, which comprises nine hospitals. She is a member and past president of ASIS International. Michelman is also a past president of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety.