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Workplace Behavior Can Forecast Potential Employee Violence

Workplace Behavior Can Forecast Potential Employee Violence


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

This is the first article in a two-part series.

Last month, I attended the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE) conference, sponsored by AMU.

One session explained how research conducted in the intelligence field can be useful to human resource professionals in other industries. Katherine Hibbs Pherson’s presentation, “Assessing the mind of the malicious insider,” intrigued me because she used psychology and analytics to create a profile of a person capable of committing espionage.

Two areas of concern in the workplace today are violence and employee sabotage. Violence in the workplace is of particular concern since it often leads to employee injuries or fatalities.

Violence in the Workplace Should Concern Everyone, Especially the Intelligence Community

According to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, “preventing loss of sensitive information – or, more recently, violence in the workplace – is now more than ever a top priority in the Intelligence Community.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, has a two-page fact sheet that defines what is considered workplace violence and how it has affected employers over the years. Did you know that:

  1. Workplace violence can occur at or outside the workplace. During the past five years, several incidents of workplace violence have taken place in the United States. These incidents include a New York City Home Depot employee who killed himself and a manager and a fired Ohio State University worker who killed a coworker and wounded another before killing himself. Another incident occurred at the beginning of June, when a worker fired from an Orlando business returned to the company to shoot and kill five former coworkers and killed himself.
  2. Workplace violence can be a verbal threat, physical assault or homicide. Be cautious: deviant behavior can escalate!
  3. Approximately two million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.
  4. There are four types of violence and each type possesses individual characteristics. OSHA characterizes the four areas of violence as:
    • Violence by strangers (for example, a taxi driver robbed at gunpoint)
    • Violence by customer or clients (for example, someone unhappy with the service he received)
    • Violence by co-workers (for example, a fitness trainer at a Miami gym who killed two of the managers after he was fired )
    • Violence by personal relations (for example, an ex-boyfriend who stalks his former girlfriend at her job and kills her on-site)

How can HR professionals use the Intelligence Alliance’s behavioral model in predicting the potential for workplace violence? Be perceptive of your surroundings and keep an eye on what is going on around you. In summary, know your environment and culture. “HR departments need to make sure they have policies and practices so that employees feel comfortable reporting their concerns about other employees’ behavior,” said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta.

If a person starts to believe he or she is losing control, feelings of being unjustly treated could surface. These negative feelings can create psychological, physical and behavioral stressors that lead to workplace violence.

What Are the Predictive Factors for Employee Violence?

We need to train leaders to look for events that trigger stressors that are related to an individual’s personality characteristics and a perceived sense of control. Three factors have been identified as being influential in predicting potential problems:

This journey is triggered by a person’s stressors to personal and organizational issues occurring in their lives and how the organization responds to what is happening. The stages focus on how a person perceives and deals with their successes and failures. For example, issues in a person’s personal life can trickle into his or her professional life.

  • Counterproductive work behavior. An employee can be counterproductive when his or her behavior goes against the best interest of the organization. Stress from negative life events can lead to behavioral problems in the workplace.

Business Leaders Need to Know When and How to Act

Some business leaders will argue that they need to concern themselves only with work-related issues. However, Dr. Post and his fellow researchers concluded there is a correlation between signs of employee distress or unhappiness and how that person relates to stressors in his or her personal and organizational life, as well as how the organization responds.

As human beings, we do not want to see people spiral out of control. But without invading a person’s privacy, what steps can we take?

Most employers have some form of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) available to troubled workers. EAPs can provide direct or indirect services for personal financial, relationship and health issues.

Participation is always confidential. Think about how you can get that information on your employees’ radar. It could be a useful way to improve employee engagement and mitigate the potential for workplace violence.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.