Violence in the Workplace – The Realities and the Options

Reports of aggression and hostility in our homes, in our schools, and on our streets are all too common today. And, violence in the workplace has become a reality. One in four workers are attacked, threatened or harassed each year. With that in mind, we must implement training to counteract violence before it happens.

Lately, it seems, we can’t avoid hearing, seeing or reading about more incidents of aggression and hostility. Violence has infected the very tapestry of our lives. In our homes. In our schools. And, with frightening regularity, violence seems to have firmly anchored itself in workplaces and organizations across the nation.

Combating violence is a three-step process:

  1. We must understand the magnitude and effects of the problem.
  2. Then we must identify the potential aggressors and victims.
  3. Finally, we must identify and implement viable solutions to curtail, eradicate and immunize our organizations from the lasting ramifications of violence.

Magnitude & Effects
According to the U.S. Department of Justice the workplace is the most dangerous place to be in America. The problem is so pervasive that the Center For Disease Control has classified workplace violence as a National Epidemic.

In fact, workplace homicide is the fastest growing category of murder in the U.S. And homicide is now the leading cause of on-the-job death for women (and second leading cause for men). However, the real danger (and staggering cost in both human and financial terms) is the mountain of physical and verbal violence, of which murder is just the peak (representing only 0.05% of the 2 million victims of physical workplace violence / year). [Source: U.S. Department of Justice, BJS, 7/28/98]

1 in 4 workers are attacked, threatened or harassed each year, costing:

  • $13.5 billion in medical costs / year
  • 500,000 employees missing 1,750,000 days work per year
  • 41% increased stress levels

Aggressors & Victims

Who are the perpetrators of workplace violence?
Over 80% are male, usually white and over 30. Though news accounts would lead us to believe otherwise, only 3% are former employees (20% are current employees). Actually, over two-thirds of physical and verbal attacks come from strangers (e.g., during a robbery) or customers. This is especially the case for male victims. Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know. For example, domestic violence spillover is the fastest growing category of workplace violence.

Who’s at greatest risk of workplace violence?
Anyone in a job that involves extensive contact with the public, especially if limited attention is paid to customer satisfaction. (Witness the increasing accounts of airline passenger rage.) Also, anyone working in markedly bureaucratic organizations where limited attention is paid to employee satisfaction. (It’s no accident that postal workers – more than any other occupation -have “gone postal”.) In this context, supervisors and managers are particularly at risk: employee-boss murders have doubled during the past ten years.

Can potential aggressors be identified?
Yes they can! In fact, 85% of workplace violence perpetrators exhibit clear warning signs before “going postal”. GHR Training Solutions has developed a Formula for Workplace Violence that we call:


Profile + Observable Warning Signs + Shotgun + Triggering Event = Always Lethal

Profile (of potentially violent persons):

  1. Previous history of violence, toward the vulnerable, e.g., women, children, animals
  2. Loner, withdrawn; feels nobody listens to him; views change with fear
  3. Emotional problems, e.g., substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem
  4. Career Frustration – either significant tenure on the same job OR migratory job history
  5. Antagonistic relationships with others
  6. Some type of obsession, e.g., weapons, other acts of violence, romantic/sexual, zealot (political, religious, racial), the job itself, neatness and order

Observable Warning Signs (often newly acquired negative traits):

  1. Violent and Threatening Behavior, hostility, approval of the use of violence
  2. “Strange” Behavior, e.g., becoming reclusive, deteriorating appearance/hygiene, erratic behavior
  3. Emotional Problems, e.g., drug/alcohol abuse, under unusual stress, depression, inappropriate emotional display
  4. Performance Problems, including problems with attendance or tardiness
  5. Interpersonal Problems, e.g., numerous conflicts, hyper-sensitivity, resentment
  6. “At the end of his rope”, e.g., indicators of impending suicide, has an unspecified plan to “solve all problems”

Shotgun (not required for non-lethal violence):

  • Access to and familiarity with weapons

Triggering Event (the last straw, no way out, no more options):

  • Being fired, laid off or suspended; passed over for promotion
  • Disciplinary action, poor performance review, criticism from boss or coworkers
  • Bank or court action (e.g., foreclosure, restraining order, custody hearing)
  • Benchmark date (e.g., company anniversary, chronological age, Hitler’s birthday – as was the case for Columbine)
  • Failed or spurned romance; personal crisis (e.g., divorce, death in family)

That’s how to predict it. Organizations can prevent employee-initiated violence during the hiring process (e.g., through careful interviewing and background checks). For the existing work force, they can use a combination of benevolent, motivational management practices, a zero-tolerance violence policy (effectively communicated and enforced), employee training, and appropriate use of counseling, EAP referral and disciplinary action – plus sound security measures.

But how can employees protect themselves and their coworkers when faced with a hostile, potentially violent non-employee (e.g., a customer)? They can call on the POSTAL carrier’s traditional nemesis:

DOGS: Defusing Of Grievance = Safety

Visualize a big balloon that’s about to burst. The balloon must be gradually deflated (rather than punctured) – by confirming a person’s perspective (without agreeing with it). Here”s how you do that:

[Much of the following was originally formulated by hostage negotiator Larry J. Chavez, B.A., M.P.A. of Critical Incident Associates,]

1. Understand the mindset of the hostile or potentially violent person
The person has a compelling need to communicate his grievance to someone now! Give him a verbal outlet. Even if he is wrong, the individual is acting on perceptions that are real to him. In the overwhelming number of cases, the person just wants fairness.

2. Practice “Active Listening”
Stop what you are doing and give the person your full attention. Listen to what is really being said. Use silence and paraphrasing. Ask clarifying, open-ended questions.

3. Avoid confrontation. Instead, build trust and provide help
Be calm, courteous, respectful and patient; open and honest. Never belittle, embarrass or verbally attack a hostile person.

4. Allow a total airing of the grievance without comment or judgment
Make eye contact (but don’t stare). Allow verbal venting of emotion. Let the person have his say (not necessarily his way). Ignore challenges and insults – don’t take it personally; redirect attention to the real issue.

5. Allow the aggrieved party to suggest a solution
A person will more readily agree to a resolution that he helped formulate. And it might surprise you that the person’s suggestion may be very reasonable.

6. Move toward a win-win resolution
Preserve the individual’s dignity. Switch the focus from what you can’ t do toward what you can. With the person’s permission, call in additional resources – e.g., supervisor, Human Resources, Employee Assistance Program, Security, or Police.

Eliminating violence in the workplace should be a top priority for every executive, manager and team leader. And if your organization hasn’t experienced this issue yet, be glad. Do not, however, be content. Rather than doing nothing or waiting until a serious act of aggression occurs in your organization, get proactive – by training your team to eliminate violence before it happens.

Don Grimme is one America’s leading training experts and authorities on reducing turnover and attracting excellent job candidates. For information on his firm, GHR Training Solutions, visit

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