Preventing Workplace Violence

America has been battered with mixed messages about violence in the workplace. Although the Department of Labor released a study last week saying workplace homocides have dropped 34 percent, the news comes on the heels of two horrific massacres.

On July 29, day-trader Mark Barton killed nine people and injured 13 others at two Atlanta brokerages where he had worked. Afterwards, he turned the gun on himself. His family was discovered later in their home, bludgeoned to death. One week later, Alan Eugene Miller allegedly killed two co-workers and a third person in an Alabama office where he used to work. He has been charged in the murders.

"Statistics are interesting, but they don't represent the whole picture - they give averages and totals," says Dr. Lynne McClure, an expert on managing and preventing high-risk behavior in the workplace. "What's really happening is we have ups and downs in terms of numbers, but there's still too much violence in the workplace."

Both of the recent shooting incidents came as a shock to those who worked with the gunmen. In Miller's case, neighbors and co-workers described him as a nice man. McClure says the clues may be visible early, and it's the responsibility of company managers to spot trouble and take action.

"They have the most power to intervene, but they have to look at high-risk employee behavior very early in the time line," she says. "If they intervene early enough, they can prevent this behavior from escalating."

McClure says employers and co-workers should watch out for the following eight high-risk behaviors:

  1. Actor behavior. When a worker acts out in anger instead of trying to resolve a problem. For example, slamming doors, stomping out of rooms, hitting the desk, throwing paper or other objects across the room.
  2. Fragmentor behavior. When the employee sees no connection between actions he takes now and consequences later that may cause problems. For example, not completing his part of a project, then blaming everyone around him when it fails.
  3. Me First behavior. An employee does things that makes him or her happy, even if it is hurtful or inconsiderate to the needs of co-workers or disrupts the company's daily workflow. A person displaying this type of behavior may take a long, unnecessary break that leaves a work team unable to do anything.
  4. Mixed Message behavior. This is when the employee presents himself in one way, but actually behaves in the opposite way. For example, he may describe himself as a hard worker, but in fact, is not.
  5. Wooden Stick behavior. This is when an employee is extremely rigid, extremely inflexible, and consistently tries to control other people.
  6. Escape Artist behavior. An employee that avoids reality by lying, is a substance abuser, exhibits some kind of addictive behavior to avoid reality of work.
  7. Shocker behavior. When the employee acs out of character in a negative way. For example, when the most reliable employee starts not showing up on time or not at all, when there is a sudden and visible decline in performance on the job, when that person suddenly stops meeting deadlines. Often, this is a woman who is being abused at home, says McClure. If that is the case she is not a risk to the company, but her abusive partner may be.
  8. Stranger behavior. This is when one who is already extremely remote and withdrawn becomes fixated on one idea or on another person. For example, Barton repeatedly mentioned "those businesses who are out to get me."

  9. While people in the workplace may sometimes exhibit one or more of these behaviors, McClure says managers have to determine how consistent and therefore, how serious a problem they might indicate.

    "A manager has to look at all behaviors and how many the employee exhibits, how often and how intensely," she says. "Those three measures are the way to assess risk."

    Once company leaders recognizes a potential risk, they need to "identify behavior problems as part of performance problems in addition to the tasks of the job," Dr. McClure says.

    "When a manager sees these high-risk behaviors and patterns that show there's a risk, the manager needs to identify the behavior, document it, because it's observable and measurable, talk to the employee and then depending on circumstances, they either require training, such as classes in anger management," she adds.

    The employee may need other counseling depending on how serious their behaviors are, and the manager may want to provide resources to prevent that behavior from escalating.