Workplace Violence: How Can We Know if We’re Safe?

Linda Lockwood, Ph.D.

Metropolitan State College of Denver


All too often the headlines in the newspaper or lead story of the television news outlines another act of violence against people in the workplace. In an effort to guard against the violence, companies are training workers to identify potentially violent co-workers. Training programs and evaluation of these programs are costing businesses millions of dollars each year.  Workplace violence exists on a continuum from subtle, covert verbal violence to the massive killings that we see all too often on the news. Because of the availability heuristic, many people perceive it as a problem that primarily exists in post offices and other public service industries. Workplace violence has become widespread and non-selective in its appearance, however.  By some it is seen as a long-term, enduring trend in our society that has most likely not reached its peak.

Workplace violence is obviously a serious problem that must be better understood in order to prevent its occurrence. Its cost to our society is measured in terms of dollars and human life. For instance, it’s the second greatest cause of death in the workplace for men and the first greatest cause of death in the workplace for women (Gonzalez, 1999). If the cost of human life is not enough, millions of corporate dollars are being spent on fighting violence in the workplace by implementing training programs to identify and prevent potential violence.

In an effort to assist companies and police agencies to prevent workplace violence, a number of studies have tried to figure out what elements may be contributing to its occurrence. One suggested contributor to the increase in workplace violence is current business practices that put the employee on the defensive. Such things as downsizing and contingent employment practices serve as examples of practices that may interfere with feelings of security and loyalty in employees (Neuman & Baron, 1998). When employees feel that an injustice has been done, they may become violent (Gonzalez, 1999).

Unfortunately, business practices are not the only potential contributors to the increase in workplace violence. Other potential factors include individual characteristics that may make a worker more prone to violence.  For instance, researchers Martinko and Zellars (1998) used a social learning framework to organize what is known about workplace violence. They emphasize that an “individual’s cognitive appraisal” of a situation can create more severe affective reactions and potentially aggressive behaviors in situations that may not call for heightened responses. In other words, some people may create a “mountain out of a mole hill” because of the way they unrealistically interpret their situation.

Lastly, job stress and personal distress are factors that are associated with the increased likelihood of workplace violence (see Hurrell, 1996 for example). Profiles of perpetrators indicate that high stress levels are commonly experienced prior to an act of workplace violence. These stressors could be directly related to the individual’s job or may be related to a personal relationship. In fact, domestic violence is a big contributor to the incidence of workplace violence. Stalking and physical violence against an estranged wife or husband is not an uncommon form of violence occurring in the workplace.

Workplace violence differs from most other kinds of aggression because most experts say that predictive behaviors signal the upcoming violent act.  Experts state that most violent acts are preceded by threats like, “I don’t get mad, I get even.” In addition, as mentioned above, when employees feel that an injustice has been done to them, they may begin acting out in the workplace, testing the limits of tolerance of their employers. If employers do not respond to these early acts, the person may become more confident and an escalation of violence may be observed (Gonzalez, 1999).

So, how are companies planning to combat violence in the workplace? To begin with, training sessions are being incorporated into the workplace to assist workers in identifying warning signs of workplace violence. Unfortunately, however, many companies are only training management and executives, and not training the employees that are more likely to be exposed to the warning signs. Plans or procedures for dealing with an unfolding crisis are also critical for companies to develop. How to warn employees of trouble developing in another area of the company or how to get employees out of the building and into safe areas is critical. Unfortunately, the latest statistics show that only 28% of companies have developed policies and procedures to deal with workplace violence. Increased awareness through good training programs offered to all employees may help to reduce the number of violent acts in the workplace. However, researchers will also need to continue to study contributing factors in the workplace, so that preventive measures can be implemented more successfully.

Resources Cited

Gonzalez, E. Confronting workplace violence psychologist traces everyday causes. Rocky Mountain News, October, 1999.

Hurrell, J. Worthington, K., & Driscoll, R. (1996). Job stress, gender, and workplace violence: Analysis of assault experiences of state employees. In Violence on the job: Identifying risks and developing solutions. VandenBos and Bulatao Eds. American Psychological Association, Washington D.C.

Neuman, J., & Baron, R. (1998). Workplace violence and workplace aggression:

Evidence concerning specific forms, potential causes, and preferred targets.

Journal of Management, 24(3), 391-419.

Martinko, M., & Zellars, K. (1998). Toward a theory of workplace violence and aggression: A cognitive appraisal perspective. In Dysfunctional behavior in organizations: Violent and deviant behavior. Jai Press, Stamford CT.