Workplace violence: The myth that we’re helpless

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

In the aftermath of any serious workplace violence incident, there are those, even those fairly close to the 'shooter' who look at each other with genuine confusion and say "who could know?". Others may also look at each other, but do so knowingly and their looks convey a deeper understanding of something having been amiss with the workplace aggressor long before the tragic event.

In the psychological and occasionally organizational autopsy that is carried out after the event, telltale signs are almost always found. Of course, as the saying goes, "hindsight is 20/20".
So what is the truth?

Can a company ever really know that its hired a powder keg? Supply the spark one day - it could be weeks, months, or years later - and the day after the event the company gets all the publicity that it never bargained for or wanted.

The cost of a severe workplace violence incident is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands in the USA, and aside from money, in lost productivity and profit, a workplace violence incident is also measured by the ensuing bad public relations, poor workplace morale, psychological trauma to both workers and management.

The most common type of workplace violence is violence committed in the commission of an offence by a criminal whose motivation is money, for drugs or for other necessities. This type of workplace violence in a commercial context is predictable because crime is ubiquitous.

Prevention mostly involves being keenly aware of security, and training gas service station attendants and retail workers properly about it.

The type of workplace violence that is committed by someone who has a current or past relationship or involvement with the workplace, who is either an employee or connected to an employee in some way, involves a different approach, and the main stay of that approach is paying very close attention to clues.

Violence never occurs in a vacuum. There are almost always signs of impending violence, and one doesn't need to be a expert to decode them.

They are the signs of change in every day life. A well-groomed, punctual and reliable employee shows marked deterioration in personal care.

The worker who complained endless and noisily about being mistreated in the workplace suddenly and conspicuously becomes silent.

Another worker, generally quiet and soft-spoken starts making references to suicide, or to other workplace violent incidents.

In a similar vein, employers can avert a tragedy by first identifying, and then providing support to a woman who is being abused by her partner.

Domestic violence, imported into the workplace, represents a measurable portion of workplace homicides.

And when the frustrated and abusive husband comes looking for his wife - and he knows that he can inevitably find her in the workplace - it's not uncommon for innocent co-workers to be drawn into the line of fire.
A little training goes a long way.

Anyone in the workforce can be taught to notice and correctly interpret changes in their fellow workers, and take the appropriate steps.

Not every time-bomb has to go off. Figure out that you have one, and you can always call someone to defuse it.

OC Transpo worker Pierre LeBrun showed a number of signs before he went "postal" and came back to OC Transpo to kill 4 co-workers. Not paying close enough attention to the signs or misreading them, led to a referral to an anger management program that didn't pick up on how imbalanced or dangerous he was.

The safe rule-of-thumb is that almost everyone who goes on to commit an act of extreme violence, in the workplace or elsewhere, either announces, or more often, leaks clues about what he's thinking well in advance of what either looks like on the surface to be an unprovoked violent rage, or a carefully planned workplace execution.

The encouraging message: paying attention to the clues will save both lives and money.