Recognizing the Potentially Violent Employee


A popular psychological view of the potentially violent employee involves a three-part profile that defines (1) general

characteristics, (2) characteristics specific to a nonlethal employee, and (3) characteristics specific to a lethal employee:


       General characteristics of a violent worker:

              a white male, age 25 to 50;

              demonstrates low self-esteem;

              is considered a loner; and,

              has a fascination with weapons.


       A worker who may commit nonlethal violence demonstrates these additional characteristics:

              under the age of 30;

              has a history of some violence; and,

              abuses drugs or alcohol.


       A worker who may commit lethal violence demonstrates these additional characteristics:

              over the age of 30;

              indicates no history of violence or substance abuse; and,

              shows indications of paranoia, or delusions, and is unable to appropriately release frustration.


A thorough study of many case histories of workplace violence indicates that this profile, although generally accurate, attempts to

go too far in defining “nonlethal” and “lethal” employee groups. As demonstrated by the case histories earlier in this study, it is

not certain that all violent employees are fascinated with weapons; neither is it accurate to assume that substance abuse is only

found in employees under the age of 30. It is certainly inaccurate to say that only lethal employees exhibit psychological disorders

by exhibiting delusional or paranoid behavior.


The evidence presented by actual cases of occupational homicide indicates that characteristics of either the nonlethal or lethal

employee group are interchangeable and not predictable to a certainty. Nonetheless, many of the characteristics in this popular

profile are reliable and, if considered appropriately, may help to define a general profile of the violent employee. In this regard, it is

best to not attempt to specifically define the characteristics of a nonlethal or lethal employee. To do so is to risk underestimating

a potentially lethal situation by the interpretation of presumed nonlethal characteristics which are not wholly reliable. The more

prudent and practical approach is to define potential violence with less specificity to grouping and seek a higher probability of

predicating individual acts of violence. The characteristics outlined above, when taken together without regard to nonlethal or

lethal grouping, are frequent indicators of potential violence and, therefore, should never be ignored.


Dr. M. Mantell, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry for the School of Medicine at the University of California-San Diego offers

a more complete list of characteristics of the potentially violent employee which focuses primarily upon attitudes and behavior,



     1.The individual exhibits a disgruntled attitude regarding perceived injustices in the workplace.

     2.The individual is likely to be socially isolated -- a loner.

     3.The individual is likely to exhibit poor self-esteem.

     4.The individual “cries for help of some kind.”

     5.The individual demonstrates a fascination with military or paramilitary subjects.

     6.The individual may be a gun or weapon collector.

     7.The individual may demonstrate temper-control difficulties.

     8.The individual may have made threats against coworkers, supervisors or the organization.

     9.The individual demonstrates few, if any, healthy outlets for rage.

    10.The individual may demonstrate excessive interest in media reports of violence, especially in the workplace.

    11.The individual may have an unstable family life.

    12.The individual may cause fear or unrest among coworkers and supervisors.

    13.The individual may have been involved in chronic labor-management disputes.

    14.The individual may exhibit numerous unresolved physical or emotional injuries or have a history of numerous unresolved

       physical or emotional claims against the organization.

    15.The individual may complain regularly about poor working conditions or an unsatisfactory working environment.

    16.The individual may complain of heightened stress at work.

    17.The individual will be a male between the ages of 30 and 40 years.

    18.The individual may demonstrate a migratory job history.

    19.The individual may demonstrate drug and/or alcohol abuse.

    20.The individual may exhibit psychiatric impairment.


As can be seen from this extensive list of characteristics, Dr. Mantell has expanded considerably upon the previous profile and

provided more finite characteristics by which to identify a potentially violent worker. At least two management journals have

offered alternative profiles of potential workplace murderers in an attempt to educate managers about the issue. As with the

profiles offered above, some of the information is reliable, some of it can lead to assumptions of safety where danger exists.


A profile offered by National Trauma Services identified the typical violent worker as (1) white, (2) male, (3) middle-aged, (4) a

user of unusual weapons, and (5) a “religious or political proselyte.” The first two elements of this profile are reliable; the third is

uncertain, although believed to be probable; the last two elements are not completely reliable predictors of violence and they

imply the exclusion of a variety of other, more common, indicators. A study of occupational homicide indicates that the most

frequently used weapon is a handgun, although there is recent evidence that weapons with greater destructive potential are

becoming more prevalent. Most workplace murderers use weapons which are readily available and with which they have some

familiarity. Religious or political proselytizing, although an indicator of potential violence, is not the only warning sign to be

considered; nor is it the among the most common.


Another profile offered to managers and supervisors included the following characteristics:


       male, age 25 to 40 years;

       a loner;

       owner of lethal weapons;

       a history of interpersonal problems;

       exhibits self-destructive behavior; and,

       exhibits introversion after complaining or asking for assistance;


As in the previous examples, much of this profile is true; however, important behavioral warning signs are excluded. If interpreted

to the exclusion of other possibilities, this profile could lead a manager to overlook potential violence that did not match the

specifics of the profile. It is certain that some violent workers will match this profile; it is also likely that many will not.


Each of these profiles is valuable. They provide helpful information that can lead to early identification of a potentially violent

employee and, thereby, enhance the possibilities of intervention. Unfortunately, each of the profiles is incomplete. Given the

nature of occupational homicide, and the fact that it is an issue only recently recognized, these shortcomings are understandable.

Workplace violence has not benefited from a widespread comprehensive program of research which could address issues of

motivation and behavior. Knowledge of the issue has been gathered informally from actual incidents (not always reported with

great accuracy) and from other, non-management sciences. Much has yet to be learned about the causes, and therefore the

prevention, of occupational homicide. It is, however, of vital importance that researchers and other interested individuals continue

to publicly offer their knowledge of the subject. Through a combined and continuing effort, managers will be able to refine their

ability to assess potential violence in the workplace and act appropriately to intervene.


The leading American researcher into workplace violence is S. Anthony Baron, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of the Scripps Center

for Quality Management, Inc., in San Diego. His profile of the employee most likely to commit murder in the workplace includes

these characteristics:


       a male, aged 25 to 40 years,

       has a history of violence,

       tends to be a loner,

       owns several weapons,

       has requested some form of assistance in the past,

       exhibits frequent anger,

       has a history of conflict with others,

       has a history of family or marital problems,

       after periods of verbalizing anger will become withdrawn,

       is paranoid, and

       exhibits self-destructive behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse.


It is important to recognize that there are a number of exceptions to this profile among the thousands of case histories of

occupational homicide. Several of the incidents reviewed previously show that the perpetrators were not involved in drug or

alcohol abuse, did not have a history of violence and, in some cases, were not in the age range indicated in the profile. Some of

this is, admittedly, assumption, in that the background history of a perpetrator is often not complete.


Despite the fact that this profile is the most acceptable of those reviewed, one should not assume that the absence of a

characteristic or two indicates that an individual is incapable of murder. It is valid to accept this profile as generally accurate so

long as it is not taken too literally. Many tragic workplace homicides clearly indicate that a profile that is too specific, or interpreted

too rigidly, can be misleading, at best. With this word of caution, however, Dr. Baron’s profile is the most accurate of those

reviewed and is recommended for practical use by managers and supervisors.


Despite the uncertainty of the process, the practice of profiling a potentially violent employee is an important component in any

prevention program. It must be realized, however, that any profile can be improved as knowledge and understanding of the issue

increases. With such a caveat, then, the following generalized profile of the potentially violent employee is offered. This profile

relies heavily upon the behavioral characteristics common to potentially violent individuals. This approach, in turn, relies upon the

fact that workers are typically quite familiar with their coworkers and therefore have an excellent opportunity to observe behavior

which may prove threatening to themselves or others. It is not uncommon for supervisors and managers to be familiar with a

good deal of personal information about employees. They often have the opportunity to measure the behavior of a worker over

extended periods and are therefore well able to detect early warning signs if they are trained in the recognition process. These

behavioral warning signs are the most reliable indicators of potential violence.


In each case a probability has been assigned to the general characteristic that is observed. These probabilities are useful as

general guidelines; exceptions will always occur. It is important to note that the probabilities are drawn from a review of incidents

and literature dealing with a sampling of actual occupational homicides. The sample was not complete because of the large

number of incidents. They are merely estimates and are offered to assist in understanding the most likely scenario. Conservative

probabilities have been used in order to minimize the effect of inadvertent exclusion of other possibilities or characteristics. As is

the case with all other attempts to profile the violent individual, exceptions must always be kept in mind:


       male (80% or better probability);

       white (75% or better probability);

       working age (90% or better probability);

       will display one or more of the following behavioral warning signs (90% or better probability of at least one):


              a history of violence,

              evidence of psychosis,

              evidence of erotomania,

              evidence of chemical or alcohol dependence,

              evidence of depression,

              a pattern of pathological blaming,

              evidence of impaired neurological functioning,

              an elevated frustration level,

              an interest in weapons, or

              evidence of a personality disorder.

       will vocalize, or otherwise act out, violent intentions prior to committing a violent act (probability uncertain, but common);

       over a sustained period of time, will exhibit behavior that is interpreted as strange, bizarre or threatening by multiple

       coworkers (probability uncertain, but common).


It must be emphasized that this profile should only be considered a working outline, always subject to improvement and change

as more is learned about the issue of occupational homicide. Of primary importance in recognizing potential violence is the test

of common sense. A critical element in any prevention program is employee feedback. Coworkers are typically the first to

recognize a behavioral warning sign, even if they are unable to identify it precisely. The work environment must be managed in

such as way as to encourage a cooperative approach to identifying potential violence through the early recognition of behavioral

warning signs. This must be followed by a consistent management commitment to intervention that benefits not only the

workplace, but the individual who is in distress.




New Arenas for Violence is now available from the Greenwood Publishing Group. This is a definitive study of workplace violence

that includes causal factors, intervention, prevention, and case studies of the issue. Read the synopsis. (ISBN 0-275-9 5652-0)