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Violence in the Workplace

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Managing Risk: Focus on Violence in the Workplace

The potential for violence—or threats of violence—is present in nearly every workplace setting. Media headlines about acts of violence that occur in the workplace are near daily reminders of the potential for tragic consequences. While these reminders are frightening, there is good news. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of nonfatal workplace violence actually declined by 35% in 2002–2009 (Harrell, 2011). Workplace homicides have also steadily decreased. Fatal incidents went from 1,068 in 1993 to 521 in 2009 (Harrell, 2011).

While research indicates a downward trend, the concern remains. Indeed, the fear of a threat of violence is itself a concern to employers and employees. And with good reason: organizations get the most from their people when employees feel safe. Just as drivers who are distracted by text messages represent safety and productivity concerns, workers distracted by concerns about the potential for violence may be less effective. And while it is impossible to completely eliminate the threat of violence—research on trauma tells us that the most traumatizing events are those caused by other human beings (Solomon & Green, 1992)—there are strategies that employers can implement to minimize or mitigate risk in their workplace.

Individual Risk Factors

It is important to note that no single risk factor can predict a violent act. When risk factors compound, the risk of violence increases. Media accounts often fail to acknowledge this, focusing instead on a single detail of the violent perpetrator’s backstory. Some risk factors are beyond an individual’s control, and many are well outside of the bounds of the workplace. Risk factors may be behavioral and may be related to work or unrelated to work (see box).

Common High Risk Behaviors (Resnick & Kausch, 1995)

  • Has a fascination with weapons
  • Past history of violence, trouble with the law, alcoholism, substance abuse • Files multiple unreasonable grievances, openly voices threats
  • Carries a grudge, a belief that revenge is justified
  • History of antisocial behavior
  • Blames others for own problems
  • The general tendency to react angrily to most situations, (versus a temporary emotional state) (Schouten, 2003a)

Risk Factors Related to Work (Resnick & Kausch, 1995)

  • Unsatisfied by treatment from supervisor
  • Feels picked on, isolated by supervisors
  • Downsizing,“right-sizing,” reductions in force
  • Treated unfairly or particularly inhumanely at termination

Risk Factors Unrelated to Work (Resnick & Kausch, 1995)

  • Divorce or personal stressors
  • Love relationship gone sour, lover seeks revenge
  • As message from terrorist (e.g., Oklahoma City, World Trade Center)

The Myth of Mental Illness and Violence

The presence of mental illness is commonly believed to be a risk factor for violence. This is simply not the case. Research demonstrates that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from a mental illness (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). In fact, people with mental illnesses are more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of violence (Appleby, Mortensen, Dunn, & Hiroeh, 2001). Psychiatric illness is only considered a risk factor when combined with additional risk factors unrelated to a mental illness (such as some of the personal stressors listed in the box). Treatment of mental illnesses and efforts to address compounding factors further decrease the potential risk of violence by a person with a psychiatric illness. Thus the idea of someone having a mental illness should not be seen as a risk factor for violence in the workplace but rather a sign to encourage those individuals to seek treatment.

Organizational Factors

Research has indicted that there are a number of current organizational factors that can help create a “distressed work environment.” These include ongoing budget cuts, low pay increases or pay freezes, low work group harmony, and ongoing changes in management structure (Schouten, 2003b).

While shifts in the workplace will continue, it is important to note that over time these variables, when combined with the personal challenges facing individual employees, can all play a role in overwhelming workers and lead to actions that could include violence.

One area where increased tension in a workforce can occur is in the processes through which employees are managed and their performance is measured. Many businesses are moving to methods of evaluating workplace performance that involve fewer categories of performance. In some cases, these matters can contribute to the risk of aggression, as a poor evaluation may pose greater threats to job security. Factors that can be considered for minimizing this risk include transparency in the process and clarification of expectations. Managers and supervisors can also be trained in the most effective ways to coach performance and to hold difficult conversations with employees.

The Role of Emotion as the Engine of Taking Violent Action

Often when an incident of workplace violence occurs, the observation, “he didn’t seem that angry” is made. What then is the role of emotion in violent action, and how can an understanding of this relationship assist us in understanding workplace violence?

Humans are hard-wired biologically to respond to negative emotions in functional, adaptive ways. These emotions serve a purpose. We experience a stimulation, which provokes an emotion, which motivates us to take action. For example, we hear a loud noise, which provokes distress, and we take action to get away from the noise.

When considering workplace violence, clues about potential problems may be found when an employee responds with anger to the experience of being singled out. Generally the more an employee experiences a negative situation as a “personal affront” or feels ridiculed as a result of his or her behavior, the greater the chance that, if other risk factors are present, the employee will seek retribution for the situation. In fact, some companies that deal with these situations work diligently to identify those individuals who experience a workplace problem as a personal attack. In those companies, the goal is to take steps to lessen the likelihood that an employee will develop anger toward the whole organization or feel persecuted as a result of a workplace problem.

People react in a variety of ways when confronted with an experience or situation where they feel singled out, shamed, “wronged,” or personally offended. These can fall into four categories or “poles of a compass” (Nathanson, 1992), all of which are attempts to make sense of a situation where one feels wronged or personally offended. Individuals may 1) avoid, 2) withdraw from the difficult situation (often appearing sullen and disconnected), 3) turn the negative experience against themselves, which may increase risk for depression, substance use or other self-destructive behaviors, and finally 4) embarrassment can turn into an attack with significant anger directed onto others. As Freud said; “Shame has the shortest fuse and the longest burn.”

Negative experiences with supervisors (performance reviews), the organization as a whole (downsizing), or the family (divorce or rebuke from a girlfriend) have already been noted here as risk factors for violence. Others see the rage, frustration, and anger, and hear the calls for vengeance. Underneath is the emotion of humiliation. The greater the sense of public exposure, the more intense the negative experience for that individual. Many of the violence risk factors are publicly embarrassing events. The violent act is a final, unavoidable option to “save face” and be seen by others as big and powerful.

Addressing Violent Threats in the Workplace: A Real Case Example

A team member in a customer service support center notified her manager that a coworker had posted drawings on the cubicle bulletin board depicting people being shot with the phrase, “die, die, die, you’ll all get yours” written on the top. She felt increasingly worried about working closely with the coworker. The manager contacted the human resource department, which activated the company’s threat response team to consider options.

Representatives from the company’s corporate security, employee assistance program (EAP), and employee relations department and the employee’s direct manager met to discuss the situation. Background information was sought concerning the employee’s prior workplace performance as well as current performance history. It was learned that he recently received strong negative feedback about his performance and was not receiving additional financial compensation as a result. Since that time, he has appeared more withdrawn and agitated while doing his job, although his overall performance has not declined. Given the corporate policy stipulating a violence-free workplace, it was agreed by the threat response team that representatives from corporate security and an EAP staff member would contact the employee and ask directly about the drawings.

The meeting with the employee took place in a private area, and the drawings were presented to him in the hope of understanding how he imagined the drawings impacted the worksite and his coworkers. The policy concerning a violence-free workplace was explained to the employee, and he began to share his anger about the recent performance review. He also shared that additional personal stressors were negatively impacting him. It became apparent that he was undergoing a significant strain on his resources to manage his day-to-day life. He was referred to the EAP, and a medical recommendation was made for him to receive treatment for an underlying mental health issue related to his personal situation. He received a performance warning for the inappropriate drawings and received medical attention for his situation.

The employee returned to work five weeks later, and while he had to manage the personal embarrassment he experienced as a result of the complaint about the drawings, he resumed working with his team in a cooperative manner.

Is There a Need for Greater Vigilance Now?

In the current economic climate, many employers agree that larger economic pressures place greater strain on their employees. It remains to be seen if violence increases as a result of this. The challenge in our current economic climate is to continue to promote positive work-life balance and overall wellness within benefits plans and be continually sensitive to the impact that nonwork factors play in employees’ work life.

Tips for Employers

Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

Organizations must develop structures that allow for humiliating or threatening behavior to be stopped quickly and effectively. This requires the leadership to ensure that the organization has established a clear policy stating that violence in the workplace will not be tolerated and that serious consequences will result (up to and including immediate termination, calling of law enforcement, etc.). The policy should also articulate the consequences for related behaviors, such as verbal threats, bullying, harassment, and other behaviors that could make an employee feel unsafe. Occasions for communicating the policy to all employees can be used as educational opportunities to reinforce the company’s commitment to maintain a safe environment for employees and customers. Adopting polices that speak to a “violence-free workplace” allows for quick interventions once the organization identifies a potential threat.

Creating a Threat Response Team

Some companies have successfully addressed workplace violence by putting in place a threat response team (TRT). A TRT is a cross-functional team representing diverse perspectives from within the organization that works to address threats or actual incidents of violence, to protect employees, and to provide a safe workplace. These teams are especially important for large organizations. A team might include building security personnel, medical case managers, disability managers, employee relations staff, employee assistance clinicians, and the corporate attorney. The manager from the affected department or location joins the team after an incident and participates as appropriate.

“No one person has all the information they need to handle an incident or the threat of violence,” says Virginia Hebard, MSN, RN, COHN-S/CM, CWCP, who has worked withTRTs in multiple large international organizations based in the Chicago area. “By having a multidisciplinary TRT, you ensure that there is more than one person making the decisions. This also provides a safeguard to make sure that the team reaches the best possible outcome for employees and the organization.”

Each member of the TRT plays a defined role and adheres to a clear policy for how to operate when a member is unavailable during an incident. Communication among members of the TRT with the employee population is critically important. The purpose of the TRT should be heavily promoted to employees, as well as how and when to contact the TRT. Employers should develop a mechanism for receiving information anonymously. In some cases, calls and emails related to a threat are handled by a third party to further ensure anonymity.

It is impossible to completely eliminate the threat of violence. However, there are strategies that—when implemented by employers—can substantially minimize or mitigate the risk of violent incidents at their workplace.

Daven Morrison, MD, is the current president of the Academy of Organizational and Occupational Psychiatry. He has served as an executive consultant to private industry organizations, including Accenture, BP, Bank of America, Conseco, Food Lion, Hospira, and Motorola, as well as local municipalities served by city managers.

Phillip Resnick, MD, is professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. He has served as a consultant in many high-profile cases, including those of Jeffrey Dahmer, Susan Smith, Timothy McVeigh, Andrea Yates, Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Brian Mitchell, the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart.

Last Updated: April 2012


  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Fact Sheet: Violence and Mental Illness. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Appleby, L., Mortensen, P. B., Dunn, G., & Hiroeh, U. (2001). Death by homicide, suicide, and other unnatural causes in people with mental illness: a population-based study. The Lancet, 358, 2110–2112.
  • Harrell, E. (2011). Workplace violence: 1993–2009 (Special Report NCJ 233231). Retrieved from U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics website.
  • Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and pride: affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: W W Norton.
  • Resnick, P., & Kausch, O. (1995). Violence in the workplace: role of the consultant. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 47(4), 213–222.
  • Schouten, R. S. (2003a) Violence in the workplace. Mental Health Works.
  • Schouten, R. S. (2003b). Violence in the workplace. In J. P. Kahn & A. M. Langlieb (Eds.), Mental health and productivity in the workplace: a handbook for organizations and clinicians (pp. 314– 328). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
  • Solomon, S.D. & Green, B.L. (1992). Mental Health Effects of Natural and Man-Made Disasters. PTSD Research Quarterly, Vol. 3, pp. 1-8.

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