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While people are sometimes surprised when workplace violence erupts, the fact is there are often a number of warnings signs indicating some type of physical or emotional disturbance is in the making. Often, the signs are subtle at first and may seem isolated. However, as the situation worsens, the signs will become more obvious and must be dealt with quickly in order to avert an outburst of violence in the workplace.
One of the earliest signs that someone is on the road to creating workplace violence is a noticeable change in behavior and temperament. Someone who is normally courteous and looks people in the eye during conversations begins to withdraw, speaks only when spoken to, and offers only short responses when asked a direct question. The individual also rarely if ever looks directly at others during a conversation.
As part of the change in temperament, the individual may begin to cry for no reason, or sulk at some imagined slight. Employees who were once punctual and never missed a day of work begin to be late or call in sick several times during the course of a month. He or she may begin to be less careful with personal hygiene, although this may be such a gradual transformation that it takes coworkers some time to notice the difference.
Over time, the potential perpetrator of workplace violence may take to workplace bullying. At first, this type of workplace intimidation may be presented as some sort of dark humor. However, as the office bullying increases, the veneer of humor is discarded and the verbal abuse becomes more pointed and frequent. This office bully in training gradually becomes less sensitive to the feelings of anyone else, although he or she may be easily hurt by any remarks he or she interprets as criticism.
As the potential for workplace violence grows stronger, the workplace bully may begin to focus on a chosen few in the office. Those unfortunate few receive more criticism and are subject to more name-calling than anyone else. The bully begins to move in closer when lobbing insults or criticisms, invading the personal space of his or her coworkers. Eventually, the verbal thrashings may be augmented with pushing on a shoulder or jabbing the victim in the chest. The bully may also take to throwing notepads or other small office equipment while verbally attacking a coworker.
Ideally, action is taken before the situation escalates to this level. If not, it must be done immediately once the bully begins to grow more strident and incorporates physical actions into the workplace violence. Attempting to appease or calm the bully is not likely to make any difference. Instead, managers and human resources personnel should be alerted to what is happening before the workplace violence moves on to the next and much more serious step.
It is important to note that someone may become violent in the workplace due to a number of factors. Stress in the workplace as well as personal issues such as relationship or money problems can pave the way for someone who is normally a team player to become increasingly violent. By identifying the warning signs early on, it is possible to stop the process before someone is injured, and get the employee the emotional counseling he or she needs to regain control and be a valuable employee once again.
The closest thing I've ever seen to workplace violence was when two co-workers got into an argument about a moral issue, and things nearly came to blows. This was a personal argument, though, and the boss came out and broke it up.
I also remember when a co-worker was unfairly called on the carpet and he was very, very upset. He quit on the spot, then walked through the office spewing a string of profanity and obscenity I have rarely heard outside a Martin Scorsese movie! The boss called the cops to escort him off the premises, but he was already gone. I don't think I was afraid of him coming in and shooting up the whole building, but
I don't think I'd have been surprised to see him waiting outside the door for his boss.
Also, a guy who had worked for the company some years before came in and walked around, talking to people he knew, but he was acting a little off. He later emailed some threats in after the big boss told him to leave. He was a little scary, too.
One warning sign is talking about situations in hypotheticals. For example, saying things like, "Wow. I wish this place would burn down." I'm sure most employees say something like that occasionally, but for someone prone to violence, it may be more common.
Also, someone who has had some kind of adverse job issues may be more apt to commit violence in the workplace. They might be written up, or even have salary or benefits cut. This might be because the company is making across the board cuts, but someone might take it personally. It has to be known company-wide that everyone is being affected, or someone who is especially moody or melancholy anyway might be more moved to violence.