The dangerous employee: Is there a profile?

This is Part IV of a five-part series on workplace violence which appeared in the March 2002 issue of Workplace Today. Reproduced with permission from Workplace Today® Inc. ©2002 All rights reserved.

Can you ever really know? As you look to your left and then to your right at people you have known for years in your workplace, are there warning signs to alert you to the fact that one of them is heading towards his breaking point, and towards violence?

This is one of those 'good news, bad news' questions. The bad news is that you can never predict what anyone else is going to do. The good news, according to experts, is that there are enough indications of impending violence to pay attention to, so that an individual's risk for violence can be appraised. There is some science that can be brought to bear on the task.

The much thrown around profile of the workplace killer - the disgruntled 35 to 55-year-old white male employee, with a fascination for guns - is only part of the picture. This profile doesn't even need to be in the picture for a workplace violence episode to occur. Workplace homicides have been committed by otherwise passive workers who have been brought to the breaking point only they were susceptible to; or by workers who already were, or became mentally ill.

A recently developed workplace violence employee risk assessment tool (ERA-20) brings clinical experience together with the science on violence prediction and risk assessment in arriving at a 20-item checklist to appraise a worker's risk for acting out violently in the workplace. Sure there are more than 20 items to look at when considering whether somebody will become violent. Experts engaged in this exercise will extend their reach far into the person's background and history, and psyche, to look for vulnerability, emotional imbalance, and weaknesses in the psychological armour that keeps people intact.

The best predictor of future violence, experts say, is a past history of violence. But also important here is a past history of destructive, aggressive, or bullying behaviour, romantic obsessions, and even self-destructive danger. Self-harm is an imprecise exercise and can often include others (this is called extended suicide).

Many who go on to commit workplace violence start to show some changes in their emotional and psychological functioning. They may appear depressed and disorganized in their thinking. Beware of the quiet and soft-spoken individual who is suddenly agitated and suspicious, and starts to misperceive the innocuous actions of co-workers or supervisors as threatening. Companies have to be equally concerned about the chronic complainer who has already chalked up a number of grievances suddenly becoming quiet. Have the festering violent fantasies been transformed into a payback time plan? For the worker, all the layers of wrong heaped up throughout his lifetime, and added to by his persecutors in the workplace, will get solved in one blaze of glory.

And of course, many workplace violence perpetrators are loners. They have no one to confide to. No spouse, friends, or support system to screen their thoughts. They're usually criticism sensitive and righteous types who take their jobs too seriously (they don't have a life).

They tolerate frustration poorly, and are either conflict prone, or they tend to warehouse their angry feelings as fuel to build up for a later explosion.

Stress them with the threat of demotion, lay-off or job termination, or pressure them from the outside with the family, health and financial stressors of everyday life (for many) and they reach their breaking point.

Assessing whether a worker in your midst is perched to "go postal" isn't something that can be done with mathematical precision. At the same time, assessing risk in prospective workplace violence perpetrators isn't an impressionistic exercise either. The name of the game is risk assessment, and that involves bringing science and clinical experience to bear on the evaluation of an employee who represents a concern to the organization.

I like to tell corporate health or human resources, whoever is making the referral, to think about the worker who has started to act strange as wearing a t-shirt with a big question mark on it. At the moment this worker starts worrying co-workers and managers, he or she has become an unknown quantity.