Workplace Violence – Detect the Warning Signs & Triggering Events
Our other articles on workplace violence describe its nature and scope, our POSTAL formula and behavioral profile, and defusing techniques. Here we describe the warning signs and triggering events … and what to do when you detect them.
The POSTAL Formula for Workplace Violence Prevention:
Profile + Observable Warning Signs + Shotgun + Triggering Event(s) = Always Lethal
The Profile is most useful during the hiring process, to screen out potential perpetrators. For your existing workforce — and when dealing with outsiders — we turn to the…
Observable Warning Signs
These warning signs, which can be newly acquired negative traits, parallel and overlap the profile, but now we focus on current behavior. So, instead of a previous history of violence, our first warning sign is observed…
- Violent and Threatening Behavior
For Patrick Sherrill (the first postal worker to “go postal” in 1986), it was tying up neighborhood dogs with bailing wire and a strong fascination for weapons.
In general, this also includes:
- Destruction of property or threats of sabotage
- Disregard for the safety of others or violation of safety procedures
- Threats, intimidation, bullying, e.g., Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech and Harris and Klebold of Columbine (as both perpetrators and victims)
- Violence against a family member, e.g., Mark Barton murdered his wife and children just before his Atlanta day-trading massacre
- Stalking or harassing others. Cho was involved in at least three stalking incidents, the first occurring 18 months prior to his rampage. Also, he placed harassing phone calls to his roommate and took cell phone pictures of female students’ legs under their desks.
Patrick Sherrill’s neighbors noted his strange behavior in the neighborhood — mowing his lawn at midnight and peering into neighbor’s windows while wearing combat fatigues. His coworkers said he preferred his own company and described him as enigmatic. Cho was known as the question mark kid. He had an imaginary girlfriend who lived in outer space.
In general, strange behavior can include:
- Becoming reclusive, e.g., a sudden withdrawal from friends or acquaintances
- Poor personal hygiene or a deteriorating and unkempt appearance
- Inappropriate dress, e.g., Cho never took off his sunglasses, even indoors
- Bizarre or paranoid behavior
- Erratic behavior or an extreme change in behavior
For example, Patrick Sherrill was often angry and frequently depressed. A district court found Cho to be: “an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” Professors described him as insecure and depressed, as were the boys of Columbine. This also can include:
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Appearing to be under unusual stress; signs of depression or despondence
- Inappropriate emotional display, e.g., screaming, explosive outbursts, rage, crying
Sherrill’s coworkers perceived him as a problem employee and a consistent non-performer. Virginia Tech declined to divulge details about Cho’s academic record, but Cho’s mother was increasingly concerned about his inattention to class work and his time spent out of the classroom. Performance problems also can include:
- Inability to concentrate … decreased energy or focus
- Deteriorating work performance
- Attendance or tardiness problems
- Increased need for supervision … coworkers have to take up his slack
Cho was described as awkward and lonely … arrogant and obnoxious … timid, dorky and pushy. Sherrill was a habitual complainer. This also can include:
- Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees
- Hypersensitivity or extreme suspiciousness
- Resentment and frustration
- Exaggerated perceptions of injustice
The last warning sign on our list is also the last warning sign a potential perpetrator probably will display. For example:
- Has a plan to solve all problems. What do you think that plan might entail?
- Indicators of impending suicide (e.g., selling property, closing Credit Union account).
- Other indications of extreme desperation, marital discord, financial distress, etc.
Cho purchased guns in the two months preceding his rampage, spent time at a local target range, began working out at the gym, and shaved his head military style. Also, there was the media package Cho sent to NBC News. [It was not received until after the massacre, of course, but wouldn’t his roommates have had some awareness of its preparation?]
The ‘S’ in our POSTAL formula simply is access to and familiarity with weapons — not only shotguns, but also handguns, rifles, explosives and knives (or box cutters). Also martial arts training.
Patrick Sherrill had been a Marine sharpshooter and was a member of the National Guard marksmanship team. Cho and the boys of Columbine acquired this ability.
Shotgun is not a warning sign. Hunters and gun collectors are not more likely to commit workplace violence, unless they’re obsessed with their guns. It’s just that, without access to and familiarity with weapons, that violence probably won’t be lethal.
The Triggering Event is the last straw or set of straws — experienced by the perpetrator as no way out, no more options. This could be:
- Job/Career Related
- Personal Crisis
- Benchmark Date
Patrick Sherrill’s rampage appeared to be an act of revenge for a poor performance review. The morning before the murders, the senior supervisor threatened to terminate Sherrill … and he was scheduled to meet with his immediate supervisor the morning of the murders to discuss performance issues. Remember the significance of obsession with the job in the Profile.
But job/career-related events — such as being disciplined or fired or even criticized — are only one type. It also can be…
— foreclosure on a mortgage, bankruptcy, a restraining order or custody hearing.
For example, divorce, death in family or a failed or spurned romance — as it may have been for Eric Harris, whose girlfriend had recently broken up with him.
It may even be a…
For example, turning 40 or a 10-year company anniversary … and feeling he’s going nowhere in life. Or the anniversary of some other event that is significant to the individual.
The Columbine massacre occurred on April 20th. Do you know whose birthday that is? Adolf Hitler. Not a date most of us celebrate or even know, but significant to these two budding neo-Nazis.
All of us have experienced one or more of these unpleasant events in our lives, which probably triggered negative feelings. Such events can trigger violence in those already primed for it, i.e., they fit the Profile and/or display the Observable Warning Signs.
These events would tend to shake anyone’s sense of balance, at least temporarily. A violence-prone person already is unbalanced. The triggering event pushes him over the edge.
Applying the Observable Warning Signs and Triggering Events
Look for the Observable Warning Signs and Triggering Events as you:
- Deal with your employees on a day-to-day basis
- Interact with customers … and observe strangers
How you handle individuals who exhibit the warning signs will vary considerably depending on the severity and situation. At a minimum, sit down and listen to the troubled employee or customer.
The one absolute: Never Ignore!
In the words of the husband of one of the victims at Lockheed-Martin:
Obviously, he was a sick guy. I wish somebody had given him some help … before he destroyed my life and my kids’ life.
Our prescription for preventing employee-initiated violence is:
- Benevolent, motivational management practices [Some organizations are breeding grounds for violence.]
- Appropriate use of counseling, EAP, disciplinary action, and/or law enforcement
- Employee and management training — all employees need to know about the warning signs (and the anger-defusing techniques covered in our other article)
- Sound security measures, which, at a minimum, eliminate Shotgun from the equation
- And a zero-tolerance violence policy — effectively communicated and enforced
A clarification about zero-tolerance: This term is often used to mean applying the same severe punishment for even minor offenses. That is not what we mean. Minor offenses and potential red flags should never be tolerated or ignored, but your response should be proportional and appropriate.
The goal of this article has been to prevent violence from ever occurring at your workplace, at least as initiated by employees. Our “Defuse Hostility” article will show you how deal with outsiders and potentially violent incidents.