25 Years of Workplace Violence: As seen from the Places where People Walk on Eggshells, Work in Fear and Worry

There is nothing more important than experience when it comes to maintaining safe, harmonious and productive working environments. We recently performed a review of some of our most challenging cases and are sharing important information and insights into what we have learned. Improving troubled workplaces almost always commences when we team-up with frustrated managers; many who are rapidly approaching the “end of their rope.”  After our first conversation with the vast majority of managers who are looking for answers, we learn that they have ignored or failed to see the red flags waving brightly where the unhappy employees work every day.

What we’ve learned about human behavior and threats of violence is true across industries throughout the nation and in businesses and government agencies, both large and small. If you read the newspapers and follow the headlines on the internet, you come to realize that there is a repetitive nature to acts of workplace and school violence. There are certain patterns of workplace behavior and performance issues that repeat themselves in case after case that are too often ignored and tolerated by well-meaning people who are either in denial or unwilling to confront the truth. There are also workplace policies and practices that we have developed for many of our clients that, when followed, prevent the escalation towards hostile, threatening and violent acting out and just make good sense from a purely human perspective.

While you can easily “google” and find statistical studies and formal research papers about workplace violence, in this case, we speak on the topic as professionals who have spent a good deal of their practice hours in the trenches with potential and actual perpetrators of violence . We have worked, side by side, with business owners, leaders, managers and their attorneys dedicated to keeping their workplaces safe and productive and their employees and customers free from harm. We suspect some of what we have to say will resonate with your experience and you may want to become more proactive in managing the inappropriate and potentially threatening behavioral situations you encounter going forward.

What impressed us were the four frequently encountered correlations we found in a high percentage of hostile workplace situations we have dealt with over our careers. These are the factors that you should recognize as being related to behavioral issues:

  • How carefully the employer vets a candidate for employment to determine the suitability of their personalities to work compatibly with existing staff and managers.
  • How ninety day probation periods and progressive discipline processes are utilized to address behavior and performance issues proactively.
  • How actively the employer enforces the standards of behavior that are set to hold employees accountable for their workplace interactions and performance.
  • How proactively you react to escalations of hostile, harassing and threatening behaviors.

The vast majority of complex and potentially dangerous cases we have managed or reviewed over the years have observable and often documented performance issues that can, in many cases, be traced back to early in their employment history and prior to threats being raised. These cases are allowed to develop and worsen over time and inappropriate, unacceptable patterns of behavior or sub-standard levels of performance are tolerated.

We’ve had cases that would stun you when you see what co-workers and supervisors are asked to accept, work around and compensate for due to the inaction of managers. When situations like these are ignored and tolerated or when appropriate action isn’t taken, the damage spreads like a fever that could have been cured. We forget that doing nothing is a choice of inaction and sends a potent message. It is important to keep in mind that by failing to act we validate the inappropriate behavior. By doing nothing we are silently saying, “It’s okay to act this way- to intimidate, harass, bully or threaten” because we allow it to continue. You would be amazed how frequently we get calls that start something like this, “We were going to call you a month ago but it wasn’t that bad yet. We thought we could handle it ourselves.” Problem behavior does not spontaneously correct itself when left unaddressed. It tends to deteriorate, at times, to dangerous levels. Too often, unsettling and escalating behavior is well documented in personnel files while no corrective action is taken. At other times, patterns of problematic behavior are reported verbally by managers or co-workers during the course of an investigation when formal complaints and threats have been made and they can no longer be ignored. When people are frightened enough, the truth spills out.

It’s worth noting that in over 80% of the eight hundred cases we’ve been involved in or reviewed, unacceptable behavior and performance have been tolerated for unreasonable amounts of time, negatively impacting productivity, creating hostile work environments and involving increasing numbers of people while developing into volatile incidents and termination scenarios. The lack of early intervention or use of progressive disciplinary processes also takes away the opportunity for troubled individuals or poor performers to improve or correct their behavior, receive often-needed professional evaluation or treatment or be fairly terminated prior to the advent of threatening and dangerous behaviors. Clearly stated and agreed upon employment policies are often not enforced although they are put in place to protect the employer and employees by maintaining certain codes of conduct and enforcing state and federal laws.

For example, here are the most common behaviors and patterns that we have seen in written documentation or that are described to us anecdotally regarding employees whose cases are elevated to us. When viewed together rather than looking at each behavior or performance issue in isolation, the potential for danger emerges and the path to prevention becomes clear.

  1. Absenteeism issues, patterns of absences, excessive tardiness and leaving work early, issues regarding time-keeping, abuse of breaks.
  2. Poor work ethic or habits, lack of teamwork, quality, productivity, timeliness
  3. Lack of respect for authority; constantly challenging authority, lack of accountability
  4. Disrespectful, argumentative or insubordinate
  5. Yelling and use of profanity directed at co-workers or managers
  6. Verbal altercations with co-workers, managers and/or customers
  7. Multiple co-worker and customer complaints
  8. Displays of anger, including banging or throwing things, destroying or damaging company property or equipment, slamming doors; temper tantrums
  9. Mood swings that are often described as “Jekyll-Hyde” type personalities
  10. Rude, intimidating, bullying, harassing or threatening behavior; creation of hostile work environments for co-workers or supervisors
  11. Overly demanding and high maintenance individuals
  12. Problematic personal life issues that affect interactions at work and limit accountability or performance management; over sharing and inappropriate involvement of co-workers or managers in personal issues.
  13. Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  14. Repeated, failed efforts for transfers or promotions with no clear path to advancement to the point of disgruntlement, frustration or angry acting out
  15. Self-injury (cutting, for example), suicide threats, uncontrolled emotional outbursts and meltdowns
  16. Issues evident at time of hire as documented in applications and interview notes
  17. Repeated policy violations, file notes or written warnings without improvement or consequences
  18. Self-righteous indignation; moral superiority and a belief and projection that they are suffering the injustices they are being accused of even when confronted with a preponderance of evidence.

The above list is not exhaustive but does represent many of the repetitive patterns of behavior we see time and again. Even after all these years, it remains a mystery to us why employers retain underperforming, disruptive and sometimes, dangerous people in the workplace. How is it that we can stand by and watch deadly scenarios develop in front of our eyes because we are afraid of the truth that we see? Why do we so frequently hear, after the fact, that the perpetrator seemed so normal, that there was never a sign? Or is it that we just aren’t paying attention, don’t know what to do, or don’t want to get involved? Unfortunately, doing nothing all too often has deadly consequences. We only need to look at the scene of one of the worst school shootings to understand what can happen if we do nothing to effectively stop the most troubled among us. In virtually every case we have intervened in, there were behavioral red flags that were ignored or missed.

We are reminded of the 23-year-old senior at Virginia Tech who, on April 16, 2007 killed 32 people before turning his weapon on himself and committing suicide. His troubled behavior was well known to local law enforcement, mental health and legal professionals as well as professors, students and campus security personnel. People even joked that they were just waiting for him to do something or hear about something he did. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he did. His past history over the prior 18 months reads very much like many of the case files we work with and when something as horrifying as the events at Virginia Tech occur, and more recent school shootings, we are reminded why we do our best to make sure events like this don’t happen on our watch. We work a case and investigate it until we have an opinion about whether it’s really dangerous or not. We never guess at it and keep going until we know everything we can know.

When reviewing this case and others, we are convinced that behavior like Cho Seung-Hui’s doesn’t escalate in a vacuum and suddenly explode in violence. It is often with the enabling behavior of others who adjust around these individuals, like the professor who taught him individually because of the danger Cho presented to other students or the professionals who knew of the danger but took no effective action. Many people were aware that Cho’s behavior and mental state had deteriorated in the weeks just prior to his rampage. Below are some of the warning signs that were described, after the fact, by those who knew him:

  • A troubled young man who rarely spoke or made eye contact, not even responding when directly spoken to.
  • He was always alone whether in the dining hall, in classes, watching TV, riding his bike, or working out.
  • He was depressed and suicidal; he may have been on anti-depressant medication.
  • He wore dark glasses much of the time and pulled his hat very low so that it was hard to see his face.
  • He was distant, sullen, lonely, mean and angry; his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic.
  • His writings were alarming, intimidating, threatening, spoke of death and were said to be “violence drenched.” A professor took him out of class and taught him one on one for the rest of the semester to keep the other students safe.
  • He had previously been accused of stalking two female students, following them, getting personal information about them from the internet, and taking pictures of them with his cell phone.
  • The local police received a call from an acquaintance who was concerned that he might be suicidal and he was taken to a mental health facility. Although he showed signs of psychotic thinking and a court ordered that he undergo an inpatient evaluation, a psychiatrist determined that he wasn’t suicidal, and released him the same day without performing the court-ordered evaluation.
  • Although the judge’s ruling on his mental health should have barred him from purchasing the handguns he used, according to federal regulation, he was able to buy two weapons and ammunitions in a local store and on the internet.
  • Despite repeated reports to school and local authorities, there was no coordinated effort to react to the early warning signs of danger; there was no follow through or point of responsibility.

After events like this, people will often say, “Yes. We knew. We were worried but there was nothing we could do. Our hands were tied. The threat wasn’t specific.” Similar sentiments were expressed after the more recent Parkland shooting in Florida and in other high profile cases. While these stories only surface to the public after deadly events take place, there are many people that saw the signs long before the acts. We don’t agree that there is nothing that can be done to stop the loss of life in the majority of these cases. The facts tell a very different story post-incident. The road to violence is usually well marked, the dangers known to many. We don’t accept the excuse that there is nothing we can do.

We firmly believe that many acts of workplace violence are preventable. Aggressively combating workplace violence not only saves lives and prevents would-be perpetrators from destroying or losing their own lives, it sends a powerful message to co-workers. Employees should not be exposed to unnecessary danger or asked to tolerate disturbing and erratic behavior. Proactively addressing behavior and performance issues not only makes the workplace safer, it also helps foster significant advances in workplace harmony, productivity and profitability while establishing respectful environments. There is a well-established and direct correlation as we stated above between who we hire, how we manage the people we hire, how we train the managers and leaders we select and threats or acts of workplace violence.

Some small workplaces may experience a single threat of violence while large employers including retailers, healthcare systems and banks confront potential threats on a daily basis and hundreds of potentially dangerous situations in a year. From our perspective, whether it happens to you or somewhere else- it’s vital to pay attention and take notice of what’s going on around you. It’s an opportunity to step back and step up, to take a look at the larger picture of work life and create potentially lifesaving improvements in how we run our businesses, improve work cultures and environments, increase collaboration and improve customer experiences. Just as there are proven predictors of workplace violence there are also proven predictors of successful individual and company performance.

We’ve learned in our personal and professional lives not to wait for something bad to happen because if we stand idly by for long enough, something will. In the meantime, we advise our clients to do everything they can to hire right, identify problems early, intervene and eliminate behaviors that are threatening and potentially dangerous to their workplaces. You may read these words and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s obvious. I know that. I’ve heard that before.” But instead, try asking yourself what you’re going to do about it. It is a far better and more positive use of time and resources, and far more rewarding, to forge a harmonious and productive workplace than it is to court disaster and tempt fate. It makes more sense to take the time to hire right and utilize 90-day probation periods than it does to fire slowly or too late.

While investigating cases of all types in our practice, we hear truths that are uncomfortable to tell and nobody wants to say. We are often saying the very things that no one else wants to hear or believe. But telling the truth has saved lives and prevented bad situations from escalating. We’d like to think that, for the most part, our clients know that is what they’ll get from us and what they’ve come to expect. We often refer to ourselves as “the finders of fact” or the objective truth tellers and we thoroughly accept our client’s right to form and draw their own conclusions and follow or not the recommendations we make.

Given the nature of our work and the risks involved, we have become increasingly convinced that discovering and telling the truth is the only option. We are willing to be challenged regarding how we reach our conclusions and determine credibility. Lives, after all, are often at stake. We follow a theory that if you’ve had enough difficulty with an employee and they have reached a point where they are sufficiently inappropriate to make themselves vulnerable to termination, they should be terminated. The facts show that tolerating on-going patterns of inappropriate behavior, giving too many chances when no improvement is being shown, people figure out that they can do what they want with no fear of consequences. The effective and consistent use of progressive discipline should be part of every contract between an employer and every employee. Ask yourself the last time you have experienced that a chronically poor performer spontaneously transformed into a stellar employee. It’s a rarer event than you might think but one that becomes clear when you see how problem behavior manifests and then escalates overtime when there are no consequences for inappropriate behavior and sub-standard performance.