Although workplace violence causes more than 500 deaths each year – according to a July 2010 fact sheet from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – more than 70 percent of employers admit they do not have a formal workplace violence policy in place, according to a 2005 BLS survey of workplace violence prevention. NBC 4, a news channel in Ohio, interviewed psychologist John Tilley, who warned that "coworkers with a violent tendency often will give out a warning, using threats." Co-workers should know how to respond to a threat, defuse the situation and protect themselves.
Identify Early Warning Signs
In a workplace violence employee handbook, the University of California, San Diego, identifies some early warning signs that an employee might progress to threatening behavior and even violence. Initial indicators include performance problems; issues with alcohol or other substances; appearing more disgruntled than usual; insubordination; newly developed lack of cooperation or difficulty building relationships; bizarre uncharacteristic behavioral changes; or the onset of tardiness and absenteeism. An employee might make veiled threats or indirect threats before progressing to more serious threatening behavior. Treat all threats seriously, even if the employee claims to be joking.
Prevent the escalation of threatening behavior by alerting supervisors and management to the issue immediately, even if the threats appear to be minor. Alternatively, report the issue to human resources or your organization's threat management or risk assessment team as appropriate. Treat the employee with respect and dignity throughout the process.
If you are a supervisor, explore options to resolve the underlying issues, such as personal leave time, counseling or a referral to the company's employee assistance program. Explain to the employee that a veiled or implied threat – even one meant as a joke – can be intimidating and viewed as threatening behavior, and take appropriate disciplinary action as necessary, depending on the individual circumstances.
Try to remain calm if the threatening behavior is severe. If the employee threatens you with a weapon, remain calm and controlled and do not confront the employee. Never try to remove the weapon or be a hero. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's informational material on violence in the workplace emphasizes that contacting the police in the presence of an armed and agitated coworker could frighten him into action. Instead, unobtrusively signal to a co-worker for assistance if the opportunity arises. Otherwise freeze, and stall the employee by keeping him talking in a conversational tone. Be respectful and look the employee in the eye, while remaining alert to any possible opportunities to escape.
After the Incident
The company's employee assistance program can provide support and counseling resources for employees who have been affected by threatening behavior in the workplace. Later, the division or risk assessment team should review the policy and protocol for dealing with threats in the work environment to identify if there are areas to be revised, clarified and improved.
If you are the employee's supervisor, consider various levels of discipline depending on the severity of the threat. If the threat involved a weapon, the employee needs to be immediately removed, and perhaps fired and prosecuted, but a less severe threat may warrant different action. For example, a trivial or minor statement not intended as a threat by one employee, but perceived as one by another employee, might be resolved by separating the two employees involved for a period of time.