It may seem that instances of workplace violence occur without any warning.
It's widely perceived that extreme incidents happen because the stress associated with the job or personal problems causes an employee to snap.
While it's true that some cases of workplace violence come out of nowhere, red flags usually present themselves prior to an attack. Because many managers and supervisors aren't tuned into these early warning signs, by the time they realize their employee is struggling with an issue, it's too late.
Probably the most obvious warning sign an employer can look out for is stress. This is not to say that a stressed employee is prone to violence, but it should be addressed by the employer to see if any assistance or counseling can be provided.
Signs an employee is stressed include:
Decrease in production
More serious warning signs that require immediate employer attention include:
Increased confrontations with supervisors/staff
Portrays themselves as a victim
Comments of revenge
Vague threats of violence toward staff
Blatantly disobeying company policies and procedures
Infatuation with other workplace violence events
Fascination with weapons
Finally, any of the following actions should be referred to the police or other local officials immediately:
Repeated threats of suicide
Repeated threats to harm or humiliate co-workers and supervisors
Repeated incidence of fist-fights, shoving and defacing company property
Weapons are brought to work
Talks openly about hurting fellow employees
In terms of preventing workplace violence, employers need to understand that shootings and other acts of violence occur because of:
1) Psychological factors
2) Employment-related factors (layoffs, discipline, terminations, stress)
3) Social factors (domestic problems, alcohol problems, drugs, weapons)
During difficult economic times, employers need to be in tune with how employees are managing their stress in all domains of their lives, especially if layoffs are imminent.
For example, if an employer knows that an employee is dealing with stress at home and at work, and is drinking, the risk of violence increases.
Employee Assistance Programs, like WorkLife Solutions, are great resources, as employers have access to a network of mental health and work-life professionals trained to assist employees cope with a variety of issues.
In short, EAPs help employers understand their employees better so that they may strike preemptively to prevent violence.
It's also important that employers do not take for granted that a case of workplace violence can happen anywhere, any time.
With the help of its EAP, employers can train staff to identify the warning signs outlined above and report them as soon as are they are prevalent.
Leslie P. Sexer, LCSW is the director of WorkLife Solutions - Family Centers' employee assistance program serving businesses throughout Fairfield County. She is also the agency's director of Clinical Outreach Services. Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Fund and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.