Warning Signs

What are the Warning Signs of Workplace Targeted Violence?
Who is Likely to Pose a Risk?

The context
Organizations are communities, bringing benefits, opportunity, and meaning to their members.  They are also crucibles for inevitable conflict, stress, disappointment, and loss.  Workplace violence is a discouraging accompaniment to modern organizational life.  Homicides driven by revenge, mental disorder, unbearable losses, or extreme perceptions of injustice are statistically rare, but possible anywhere.  No workplace can presume to be immune.  Lesser but serious forms of aggression – assaults, stalking, bullying, intimidation and harassment – vary from industry to industry, but are found in all organizations of any size.  Inherent organizational risk factors may contribute to the mix.  Regardless of the actual risk a situation may present, the fear created by threatening behavior is very common and costly in tangible and intangible ways.

Organizations are obligated to respond to hostile work environment issues and may, in addition, have pro-active policies and programs to promote civility.  A more challenging issue for employers is how to respond appropriately when employees report their concern or fear of being physically harmed at work, whether by insiders or outsiders.

In meeting their obligation to maintain workplace safety, employers and administrators may rely on known and relatively observable signs that a violent incident could occur.  The indicators listed below have been associated with, or preceded, acts of workplace targeted violence.  Most of the signs reflect common sense and are straightforward.  The interpersonal and organizational context of a case, and what is known overall about an individual’s life circumstances should also be considered in conducting risk screening and assessments.  This will help prevent over-reaction to a situation or unfair treatment based on little information.

Interpreting the signs
The presence of warning signs does not necessarily mean that someone will be violent, only that a “threshold of concern” is at hand that should be addressed.  It is also unwise to assume that if only a few signs are present there is little or no risk.  If, upon inquiry, any warning signs are observed to be present, further specialized threat assessment consultation is prudent, especially for those unfamiliar with threat scenarios.  A simple stay-safe guideline is, “When in doubt, confer.”

    1. Verbal, written, or communicated threats, especially if specific plans to harm or kill others are expressed, or if an obsessive fixation on a targeted individual or group is evident
    2. Unsettling references to workplace or notorious violence, that it is justified or is inappropriately stimulating to the individual
    3.  An entitled, unyielding or extremely defensive and blaming view of disputes with the employer, organization, or other authorities
    4. Anger, intimidation, and bullying, especially if recent or frequent, and without personal accountability or remorse
    5. Boundary crossing or persistent unwelcome intrusions toward targeted individuals
    6. Stalking of a targeted individual, including a “love object”, regardless of whether an actual intimate relationship has existed
    7. Malicious actions including property damage, security protocol breaches, or defiance of safety-related limit setting
    8. Paranoia or unrealistic fears of being harmed or conspired against by others
    9. Bizarre or delusional statements or communications, especially if they include violent content or intentions
    10. A dark or depressive mood or noteworthy mood swings or agitation, especially with anger and/or suicidal tendencies; intense hopelessness or a sense of desperation over one’s circumstances
    11. Excessive involvement with firearms, automatic or illegal weapons, bomb making materials or military paraphernalia; recent acquisition of weapons or increased practice in a troubled context
    12. Amphetamine, cocaine, or alcohol abuse
    13. A recent or impending job loss or significant career setback – more serious to the extent the individual is extremely attached to his or her position or aspirations
    14. Serious personal stressors such as a family separation or death, financial problems, or other indications of a recent personal loss
    15. An escalation of any of the above signs, suggesting the approach of a possible violent climax
    16. A history of violence, especially recent or frequent
    17. A pattern of marked interpersonal conflict, or persistent, irrational and personally costly litigious campaigns to address grievances or legal disputes 

The more inclusive or broader a list of warning signs is, the higher the incidence of “false positives”: threat indicators are present but actual risk of harm is not posed.  The list presented here is intentionally more inclusive for two reasons: to prevent overlooking a serious situation, and because a number of the behaviors mentioned above are disruptive and by definition issues in themselves.  For further guidance on what is helpful information for WTS consultants conducting intakes, go to Initiating Consultation.

The significance or weight of these indicators will vary from case to case, and any situation may present additional unique factors.  In conducting formal assessments, warning signs or risk factor are considered in relation to the presence or absence of other indicators: risk factors are not so much summed up as they are integrated  by the assessment professional to form a narrative of what is going on with the individual of concern, what are possible outcomes, and viable responses.

Who are we looking for?
Workplace or campus targeted homicide is carried out by known or potentially known perpetrators.  These individuals – current or former employees, students, patients, clients, rejected spouses or others – have specific targets in mind.  The targeted victims could be individual ­– for example a supervisor, or symbolic ­– for example fellow students who are enviously hated.  The context leading to acts of targeted homicide is usually one in which a current or former employee or student perceives him or herself as having been gravely humiliated, wronged, or betrayed in the face of losing a job, academic advancement, a significant opportunity or recognition, or an intimate relationship.  Delusional or paranoid thoughts to attack one’s perceived persecutors drive or contribute to behavior in some instances.  Roughly one fourth of the cases involve issues of domestic or intimate partner violence, stalking, or romantic triangles in the workplace.

A pathway to violence
The individual choosing violence often sees no other viable or satisfying means for a just outcome.  By definition they rarely care about the consequences to themselves.  More often than not they are suicidal, and/or empowered by the notion of grandiose destructive control over their real or perceived adversaries.  The pathway to violence is rarely sudden and impulsive, but almost invariably an escalating one.  Contrary to repeated misstatements in the media, it is a myth that these individuals “snap.”  They make a series of decisions that the act is justified and worth the cost, leading to an attack of some form.  This well-understood “pathway to violence” is also likely detectable, as it is very common for the individual contemplating violence to communicate his or her feelings and intentions to third parties, such as co-workers and friends.

The warning signs above are incorporated within the WAVR-21 structured guide for the assessment of workplace violence risk, and is intended for workplace and campus threat assessment team members.