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Tips to Identifying Workplace Violence Warning Signs

It can be very difficult to discern when someone is going to be violent in the workplace. Identifying a single, isolated warning sign of possible violence should never be considered sufficient. Because not every person will show the more common signs of future workplace violence, every office community ought to be well-informed about what the common warning signs of workplace violence usually are, as well as techniques to properly identify the contexts and patterns that often lead to volatile situations. This article first offers a review of the most common warning signs of workplace violence. After, it provides some essential tips that will help you and your office community identify these signs.

Safe Workplace

Remember: Workplace violence often starts with small incidents. It is much better to be able to prevent workplace violence by intervening early rather than making changes after a crisis occurs. If an employee is unsettled by a colleague who is indicating a potential for workplace violence, they should feel free to speak up immediately, knowing you will respond appropriately. Each of these reported concernsshould be reported to the HR team.

Common Warning Signs of Workplace Violence

What follows is a review of some common warning signs of workplace violence. No individual sign should be regarded as predictive of workplace violence. Rather, these signs become more poignant when they can be identified collectively and within certain contexts. following these warning signs we offer five tips  to help you look more deeply at, and to understand those signs.

History of violence:

Evidence of prior violence in the workplace or elsewhere (legal records, etc.), demonstrated fascination with weapons and/or violence, acts of physical aggression, history of drug or alcohol abuse 

Decreased job performance:

Increased errors, refusal to acknowledge performance problems, uncooperative, blames others for mistakes, distraction and/or inability to focus, forgetfulness, increased need for supervision, inconsistent work habits, exorbitant lateness or absences 


Insistence that he/she is always right, disrespect for authority, disregard for the safety of others, blaming others for mistakes, overreacting to criticism, complaints of unfair treatment, holds grudges, sense of entitlement

Atypical behavior:

Emotional language, swearing, crying, tantrums, making inappropriate statements, testing the limits to see what he/she can get away with, sneering or use of abusive language, glaring or avoiding eye contact, violations of personal space, exaggerated violent gestures, general excessiveness, suspiciousness 

Atypical or disrupted social life:

History of negative interpersonal relationships, social isolation at work, unreciprocated romantic obsession, few friends or family, ignored or poor personal hygiene, personal problems such as divorce, family death, serious financial problems, and job loss

Tips for Identifying Workplace Violence Warning Signs

Every person, workplace and situation is unique, and a professional, objective viewpoint or outside assistance may be necessary to determine if intervention is necessary. Knowing this, it is very important to understand that the behaviors identified above indicate only that a person is experiencing high levels of stress and don’t necessarily mean that workplace violence is at hand. There are certain tips for identifying when these signs have a higher chance of leading to workplace violence that should be taken into consideration.

Presence of multiple warning signs: It is very difficult to understand when a person will likely be violent. While not everybody will show signs, the behaviors and physical signs serve as more reliable warning signs that a situation might turn violent when multiple behaviors occur simultaneously. Survey the situation to see if there are several signs present, and always consider the context.

Escalation of warning signs: Typical warning signs of workplace violence escalate by becoming more frequent or intense. It is the change that occurs in frequency and intensity that should raise a red flag. People suspicious that a colleague has become violent are urged to trust any “gut feelings” and report their observances to a supervisor while there is still time to diffuse a potentially violent situation.

Changes in behavior patterns: Often times, it is the new, sustained adoption of these behaviors and characteristics that points to potential future workplace violence. While an indicator alone may mean very little, a change in an individual introducing the indicator into his/her established behaviors is a red flag. If an individual’s work habits change in any of the ways mentioned above, a supervisor may suspect that there is a need for intervention to prevent workplace violence. Further, peers are usually pretty quick to pick up on deviations from expected behavior, and a work environment should be fostered in which concern can be openly expressed.

High-risk work environments: Certain work environments have been identified as having a higher risk for violence than others. Environmental factors that increase the likelihood of workplace violence can be as banal as handling money, or as predictable as having regular interactions with a volatile, unpredictable public. Other characteristics include: isolation from peers, the presence of alcohol, working late at night, and having an office location in an unsafe neighborhood. Special attention should be paid to warning signs that occur in these environments.

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Mike Saad, CPP

Senior Director Consulting Services at Huffmaster Crisis Response, LLC
Michael Saad is Senior Director of Consulting Services, Huffmaster Crisis Response, LLC. He is responsible for the security consulting line of business for the company. In that capacity he manages security program evaluation, corporate policy and procedure development, federal security compliance initiatives, corporate investigations, security threat and vulnerability analysis, and business risk management.
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