It wasn’t long ago when the utterances of an angry employee were cast aside as temporary fits of verbal rage. An employee mumbling about how he’d like to kill his boss or harm people of a certain ethnic descent would have been shrugged off by most co-workers a couple of decades ago. Times have certainly changed as a result of the rash of shooting sprees throughout the world. Even the slightest hint of a workplace violence threat should raise red flags.
How the threat of violence can cripple a business
Imagine a scenario in which an employee has his hours and pay cut after a performance review. He returns to his work station and mutters something along the lines of “I oughta punch him in the face…” within earshot of his co-workers. Though just about all of us have felt like telling off our bosses, verbalizing these feelings in the form of a threat of physical violence should not be tolerated.
If the disgruntled employee in the above scenario were to act on his desire to harm his boss, it could potentially devastate the business. He might not stop with his workplace superior. He could bring a gun to work and make a beeline for his boss’s office, only to have a co-worker attempt to stop him. The disgruntled employee, who feels as though the world is against him, would not hesitate to shoot the intervening employee, his boss and anyone else in his way. Such a scenario can be avoided with preventative actions by employees.
Consider another scenario in which a co-worker expresses his desire to engage in a sexual relationship with someone else at work. The mere verbalization of such a desire is often construed as a threat of violence. If such a statement is interpreted as a threat, it spells serious trouble for the workplace dynamic. Plenty of employees will go out of their way to avoid interacting with the sexual aggressor. Some might even refuse to speak or e-mail the aggressor due to overwhelming fear. Fearful employees do not work in an efficient manner. They cower behind their desks, become extremely introverted and contribute much less than they are capable of. This is an excellent example of how a workplace violence threat can damage an organization’s bottom line.
How to properly manage a workplace violence threat
Employees should be trained and encouraged to look for signs of violence amongst their co-workers. In the past, most people did not take the threat of workplace violence seriously as it was not commonplace. Nowadays, people are on edge. We’ve all been shell-shocked after watching seemingly endless news reports of killing sprees in offices, schools, buses and other public venues. Any indication of a potential violent outburst should be immediately reported to one’s supervisor as well as human resources personnel.
Red flags for potentially violent activity include any type of verbal threat, demonstrations of aggressive behavior and expressions of sympathy for those who’ve gunned down innocents. It is imperative that employees remain aware of these indicators, regardless of how long a co-worker has been with the company or how nice he seems. Even the most civil person has the potential to become a mass murderer when the right buttons are pushed. Some people hide mental illness quite well, only to explode in a violent fit when they feel as though the workplace tide has turned against them. Others take out their personal problems on co-workers and bosses as they have lost their will to live. So think twice before popping in those earbuds each morning and tuning out your work environment. Remain hyper-aware of your co-workers and you might pick up on subtle and explicit cues that indicate the potential for a violent outburst.
Don’t let workplace violence threats close your company’s doors
Consider a situation where a co-worker scrawls hateful language in the company restroom or directly targets a certain office mate with a verbal assault. This is not the type of behavior that one should chalk up to “boys being boys”. Hateful speech and verbal attacks are grounds for legal termination. Unfortunately, many workers and human resources personnel take hints of workplace aggression too lightly. Some fear that word will spread if they nark on the potential aggressor. Those who are higher up on the workplace totem pole tend to worry about wrongful termination lawsuits when firing individuals who make veiled threats in the workplace.
When in doubt, always err on the side of caution. Report all suspicious activity and threats, no matter how subtle or covert they seem. The failure to take action in response to a workplace violence threat could lead to a much more dire scenario than the prospect of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Those threats could materialize in the form of real violence against yourself, your co-workers and your superiors. If the disturbed employee wreaks enough havoc, he could harm enough people to the point that the company is forced to go out of business. Shrugging off the sign(s) of a potential attack are never worth it. You will never forgive yourself if someone who exhibits violent tendencies or opinions takes action by harming your fellow employees, yourself or even himself in the form of suicide. Do not be afraid to speak up.
Workplace violence threats are not strictly limited to the use of weapons
Though most people assume the threat of workplace violence involves inflicting harm on another individual with a weapon, there are all sorts of other ways for malicious individuals to cause chaos. An astonishing two million workers in the United States claim to be the victims of workplace violence every year. This figure represents the number of cases that are reported. Once you consider the number of workplace violence incidents that remain unreported, you get a clearer picture of how wide-scale the problem really is. Yet this violence is not solely limited to an angry employee or customer shooting up a work site. Workplace violence extends to physical assaults without the use of a weapon, sexual abuse, threatening behavior, harassment, written threats and verbal threats/abuse.
Though an individual who shakes his fists, throws objects, uses demeaning language, curses out co-workers/customers or simply speaks in a condescending tone might not seem like cause for concern, each of these behaviors is an indication that a deeply-set problem looms. Such behaviors should be noted and brought to the attention of management in order to reduce the potential for an attack that harms employees, ruins the workplace atmosphere and steers customers/potential business partners away. Everyone should be aware that one “bad apple” has the potential to spoil the bunch and put everyone out of work. It is time to be proactive by doing everything in our power to prevent workplace violence threats from having a disastrous impact on our businesses and our lives.
Can we help you?
Bryghtpath has developed the workplace violence programs, threat management teams, and crisis plans for many Fortune 500 organizations. Our firm has more than a century of experience in developing actionable plans to help prepare organizations for the unexpected. Learn more about our approach to Crisis Management, including threat management and workplace violence prevention programs, in our Ultimate Guide to Crisis Management.
Our expertise includes crisis communications and emergency procedures, and we’d love to help empower your management to handle challenging workplace violence situations safely.
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