By Marisa Broughton
December 1, 2000

In the last five years, 14% of all homicides in Canada occurred at the work place. That figure does not include the number of assaults, or number of employees who felt they had no choice but to quit their job in order to escape the terrorism against them.

Workplace violence involves any negative behavior that is disruptive to either another employee, customer or against the company itself. The reason I use such a broad term of definition is because most cases that end in violence begins with a negative behavior. It is at the inception of this behavior that action should be taken and not later, once things have gotten out of hand.

Often Supervisors and Managers find themselves in a frustrating situation. Lack of awareness training leaves them feeling frustrated and uncertain. Workplace violence is not always obvious and therefore often managers do not know how to recognize a problem at its onset, let alone know what to do to stop it. It's a legitimate concern because if the problem is real, one is dealing with a time bomb and action needs to be carefully planned and handled delicately. If there isn't a problem, and the situation is handled poorly, the accused employee is embarrassed or forced to leave the job, then you have civil action to worry about.

Company culture is a determining factor in acceptable employee behavior. Compounding the problem is weak or nonexistent policies regarding harassment and workplace violence, which hold just as much liability as apathetic management who choose to look the other way when a problem threatens escalation.

Violent events at the workplace don't just happen out of the blue. There are always warning signs that something is wrong. Ultimately, it is the coworkers who usually first notice the change in behavior of one of their teammates. If awareness trained, these coworkers will know the importance and necessity to report their observations to management who can take immediate crisis intervention action. This is where a company finds excellent use of a "hotline" service. Anonymity is essential because if the employee fears that the potential aggressor will know who to go after, he or she will not report the activity. In that same light, employees who have undergone such awareness training know that their timely action could not only save their own life, but the lives of their coworkers.

Managers should take all threats seriously. Many times it's one employee's word against another, and when the offending employee is questioned s/he often remarks that - s/he was just kidding around or blowing off steam. Even if the offending employee was just blowing off steam or kidding around, keep in mind that the action was enough to cause concern to one employee - and that is one employee too many.

The warning signs of potential violence include:


  • Lowered productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Behavioral outbursts such as arguing, yelling or arguing with coworkers
  • Displaced aggression [kicking desk or punching walls]
  • Talk of destruction or making someone pay
  • Depression
  • Family problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Preoccupation with violence through movies, magazines and weapon collecting

It's important to remember that our anticipation of violence can inadvertently perpetuate violence. For example, a termination is already a tense and emotional situation and it's crucial that the employee be given a chance at a dignified exit. Having security in the same room at the time of termination is a show of force, and this alone can antagonize the employee into a hostile reaction. How you terminate someone should be carefully thought out and planned ahead of time with your safety in mind as well as the rest of your staff. If you think you are dealing with a volatile employee, pay the few extra dollars and have a counselor attend the dismissal meeting.

What a manager or business owner doesn't realize is that responsibility or liability concerning the safety of its employees does not end when they leave the company property. In the U.S., and Canada is not so far behind, lawsuits are being filed against employers for failing to take responsible and due care to prevent a foreseeable injury which the manager or company had a duty to prevent.