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Warnings can precede workplace violence

The tragic school shooting in Connecticut has left all of us shocked. Many, like my 11-year-old, are experiencing feelings of insecurity. Over breakfast the other morning he asked, “Is it just me, or are there more of these shootings than in the past?” And he was brave enough to tell us that he worries it could happen at his school or even where his dad and I work. He’s not alone.

While the nation mourns with Connecticut, it may be surprising to hear that levels of violence in the workplace are dropping. But the tragedy reminds us workplace violence is still an important issue to monitor. There is a myth that violent behavior cannot be predicted, but experts in workplace violence say that is not true. Often, there are clues about troubled behavior that are dismissed or overlooked long before an actual violent outbreak occurs.

How do you know if you’re ready to monitor and protect your employees or customers from a violent employee? First, assess what your organization has done to prepare. If the answer is “not much,” then chances are this is an issue that requires your attention.

The first step in preventing violent behavior is to develop policies and procedures that support management, human resources and security in responding to any threats. The second step is to develop training for your entire workforce to help them detect signs of trouble. Examples of troubled behavior include a history of unstable performance or personal relationships, drug or alcohol abuse, or anyone who gets angry or frustrated quickly.

Some organizations are actually creating task forces or threat assessment teams with representatives from HR, security and legal counsel. The teams help to create streamlined processes for addressing inappropriate behavior, including the development of appropriate business continuity and emergency management plans.

Another issue these teams can help monitor is that of workplace suicides, which have increased 28 percent in the last year. Whether it can be attributed to economic instability or other factors, it is increasing, and experts say there are often warning signs.

It’s often hard for business owners or leaders to imagine a violent incident could happen in their organization. Sometimes, especially when budgets are tight, it’s hard to justify spending the money, time or other resources for training and preparedness. This is especially true when workplace homicides are actually down 52 percent from their highest levels in 1994. But the alternative of not being ready includes the loss of human life; the effect on customers, employees, families and friends of the victims; disruption in business operations; and potential lawsuits from victims’ families.

Businesses can’t afford to pretend they are immune. Educate your employees and managers on how to report suspicious behavior, and then prepare your HR and security staffs to respond and follow through. Experts say there is severe underreporting of conflicts that eventually lead to violence. Often, it’s because the behavior is dismissed as a person’s eccentricity, or people don’t feel like they have a trusted place to go to when they need to address their concerns. With the right vigilance and procedures, you can ensure your workplace is a safe place for your employees and your customers.


Michelle Hicks, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the communication practice of Buck Consultants, a Xerox company. 

About Michelle Hicks


  1. Great post! To reduce organizational stress, implement policies and procedures, establish workforce task teams to detect bullying, harassment, and violent behavior, and offer a safe reliable support system for employees.

  2. If a traumatic event does occur in the workplace, does anyone have a policy regarding time off for employees for recovery of the workplace violence?

  3. Joined up thinking.
    Great to see business scoping this in to BC Plans and co-ordinated approach throughout organisation.
    It should form part of over arching security awareness training, policy and procedure, if the threat assessment shows it to be a real threat.