A Look at Workplace Violence

by Peter Johnson

It’s been a hectic week. You feel good about what you have accomplished,and you are eager to begin the weekend. During a final check of email, something distracts you, and you glance up from your computer monitor.  Immediately your ears start ringing, 
a noise cracks through the quiet office, your world slows down as you stare across the office floor and see your co-workers running. Just then, another loud bang! You can feel your heart pounding through your chest and throat. Confused and disoriented you try to rationalize what’s happening. You spot one person walking down the hall with a gun in his hand. Immediately you notice him aim directly at your receptionist, another shot rings off…Hearing the words “Workplace Violence” (WPV) often generates a multitude of emotions: anger, ear, anxiety, confusion, and often helplessness. The danger of workplace violence is exacerbated by the common fear of not knowing what to do. Let’s ask some uncomfortable questions: 

1.    Has your organization ever experience workplace violence?
2.    Are you confident in your ability to spot pre-assault indicators within your workforce, clients, customers, or visitors?
3.    Have you done anything to reduce your exposure to workplace violence?
4.    What makes your organization different from other companies that have seen horrific acts of workplace violence?
5.    What if a severe act of workplace violence happened at your company today?

Initially you have to decide if the scope of the problem is big enough to modify your office, shop, or worksite. Currently in the United States, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) approximates that 2 million workers experience workplace violence each year. Defining Workplace Violence Simply put, “Workplace violence is any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening, disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. It ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and even homicide. It can affect and involve employees, clients, customers and visitors.”—OSHA

A quick glance at the definition of workplace violence can leave one discouraged. After all, almost all companies have experienced some form of workplace violence. However, we need not adopt a fatalistic approach to workplace violence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated, “But when the violence comes from an employee or someone close to an employee, there is a much greater chance that some warning sign will have reached the employer in the form of observable behavior.” Sadly, a majority of companies in the United States hold this paradigm: “Dial 911 faster” and “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.”  They commonly believe that those committing the violence randomly snap. The most dangerous of these beliefs is that people simply snap, go “postal,” crack, or come unhinged. It is important to keep in mind what the FBI has learned through investigating numerous instances of workplace violence: “Whenviolence comes from an employee, there is a much greater chance that some warning sign will have reached the employer.”
When considering the “dial 911 faster” response to a violent situation, the average police response time in the United States is over 14 minutes for a priority one call. Our nation has approximately 750,000 sworn law enforcement officers; contrasted by 319 million citizens. How could a police-to-citizen ratio of 1:425 possibly protect everyone, considering most incidents of workplace violence are over before the first officer arrives on scene?

Indicators of Potential Violence

Archway Defense believes that pre-assault indicators are often present before an act of violence erupts in the workplace. Individuals with a higher propensity for violence usually have the following three factors that lead to workplace violence.

Personal Issues
Personal issues can arise from fiscal, domestic, emotional, chemical dependency and/or psychological problems. Personal issues are unquestionably the hardest element
to detect and mitigate. Yet, when supervisors are appropriately trained and empowered, personal issues can be easier to recognize and identify.

Workplace Perceived Injustice
Perceived injustices are just that, a person’s perceptions or impressions. The injustice need not be real, but simply viewed as real by the individual. Perceived or actual injustices in the workplace can include issues related to termination, performance reviews, compensation, working conditions, etc. 

“X” Person(s)
The “X” person(s)-target persons-can be anyone the disgruntled individual considers as the cause of their perceived injustice. Typically, this involves multiple people. Those committing workplace violence must have someone to project his or her hatred and anger toward.
Mitigating Workplace Violence

To successfully mitigate WPV, a company must identify individuals with all three factors and develop a plan to reduce the severity of at least one factor. The ultimate goal of any company should be to train all individuals on what to look for, then train them on how to systematically reduce their exposure to individuals exhibiting these three factors. The reduction could simply involve partnering with the disgruntled individual to help remove or lessen the perceived injustice.

Regarding the “RUN, HIDE, FIGHT” model: It is not a process of running, then hiding, then fighting. Rather, it is three individual options that hold equal value, depending on the situation. A shining example of this is the attack that transpired in Moore, Oklahoma. Moments after Alton Nolen was fired from his job at a meat processing plant, he returned with a knife and beheaded a 54-year-old woman in the office. Nolen then turned his attention to another female worker and began to repeatedly stab her. Seeing the vicious attack unfolding in front of him, the owner, Mark Vaughan grabbed a pistol and shot Nolen. The “FIGHT” actions of Vaughan undoubtedly saved the second woman’s life and many more at the plant. Had Vaughan run away or chosen to simply hide, the attack would have unquestionably been more deadly.
Notably, every company needs to develop a post-incident response plan, commonly referred to as an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). These plans can streamline post-incident response during critical times.  Often, having general plans in place to control fallout will prove invaluable during a tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situation. By contrast, if your organization has yet to establish reasonable post-incident response plans, you will most likely experience an uncoordinated, haphazard, and largely ineffective response.

Finally, it is imperative that companies consider workplace violence mitigation from a three-pronged approach. First, identify who is exhibiting the three indicators that lead to a higher propensity of WPV. Second, train all employees how to respond effectively during an act of violence. Third and lastly, develop a strategic plan to handle the inevitable fallout that comes after an act of WPV.  

Peter Johnson is founder of Archway Defense, which offers workplace safety training and consultation. Prior to establishing Archway Defense, Johnson served five years as Federal Air Marshal (FAM) International Team Leader conducting counter-terror missions and surveillance around the globe. During his time with the FAMS, Johnson achieved “Top Gun” at the Federal Air Marshal Academy in 2010. Prior to FAMS, Johnson served 6 years in the USAF Air Base Defense deploying internationally for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Johnson’s deployment experience included serving as a designated marksmen, clearing ordinance, conducting reconnaissance, and gathering intelligence with local nomads. CONUS Johnson served as a pre-deployment trainer, combat arms instructor, and assisted the Inspector Generals Office in testing base defense vulnerabilities.

Johnson earned a B.A. in Criminal Justice with a heavy emphasis on Counter-Terrorism. His undergrad culminated with his capstone research focused on the Radicalization of Somali Youth in Minneapolis.

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