CHICAGO — The idea of violence in the workplace is something no dry cleaner wants to entertain. However, by being proactive, leaders can lessen their chances that this type of aggression will darken their doors.
Carol Dodgen, owner of Dodgen Security Consulting, outlined some of the things business owners should look for during her recent webinar “Staying Safe in a Violent world,” hosted by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
In Part 1 of this series, we examined some of the ingredients for crime and where various dangers might come from. Today, we’ll continue by looking at red flags that could signal future problems and what to do when those signs appear.
The Danger of Ignoring Signs
One of the first reported cases of workplace violence — and the genesis for the term “going postal” — occurred in 1986. A postal employee, 44-year-old Patrick Sherrill, entered his post office in Edmond, Oklahoma and, in less than 15 minutes, killed 14 employees and injured six before committing suicide. It is still considered the deadliest workplace shooting in the country’s history.
“He was called into his supervisor’s office, and was reprimanded for something he has done,” Dodgen says, noting that this reprimand was not done behind doors but in front of co-workers. “He was ashamed of this, and that's something to keep in mind as we talk about handling dismissals and reprimands.”
Dodgen also points out that Sherrill asked one of his co-workers, who he considered a friend, if she was planning to come into work tomorrow — and then said that she probably shouldn’t. “This is an example of what’s called ‘leakage,’” Dodgen says. “It’s important to recognize these red flags. In so many of these cases, people either brush them aside, don’t report them, and don’t take them seriously.”
These warning signs can be indicators that something is wrong. “You often hear something like, ‘This guy just snapped,’” Dodgen says. “Chances are they didn’t ‘just snap.’ They’ve been on that path for quite a while.”
In the case of Sherrill, his neighbors had reported that he would walk around in camouflage at night, looking into windows, and had a history of taking and torturing neighborhood pets. He had also threatened revenge, according to reports, out of his anger at being disciplined at work.
“One of the biggest questions is, ‘What is the greatest indicator of future violence?’” Dodgen says. “How do you predict future violence? I would look at what they have done in the past. Have they shown this to be a pattern?” She says that, if you have to deal with one of your employees and have found yourself saying, “I really hate to confront him or her about this because I know how they’ll react,” that can indicate a problem.
Dodgen offered the following observable warning signs that, if noticed, should not be ignored:
- Violent and threatening behavior and hostility
- “Strange” behavior, such as becoming reclusive or letting their appearance deteriorate
- Emotional problems
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Performance problems, including problems with attendance or tardiness
- Interpersonal problems at work, such as conflicts with others or being hyper-sensitive
- Someone “at the end of their rope,” which can include indicators of impending suicide, or an unspecified plan to “solve all problems.”
“In a lot of these cases that I have studied and people I've interviewed,” Dodgen says, “I have seen this to be a commonality right before they do what they do: They will withdraw. They will become reclusive. It's almost like they have reached this point of despair, and the things they cared about in the past are no longer important.”
So, what’s do be done if some of these red flags are noticed?
“We absolutely have to have something in place to deal with this,” Dodgen says. “We need zero tolerance if somebody makes a threat. We have to take that seriously.”
Depending on the situation, dealing with this person can take on many forms.
“If they are exhibiting disturbing behavior,” she says, “sometimes just the intervention — talking to this person, getting a read on them and handling it sensitively — can make a difference. If there's something going on, maybe they've had some stressors in their life, a conversation or some kind of help can be rendered to this person, and they can return to being that productive employee.”
There is a spectrum when it comes to workplace violence, Dodgen says, starting at concerning behaviors, and then escalating to threatening behaviors, to physical injury and, ultimately, death.
“What we want to do with awareness and training, which I believe is critical for all employees, is to recognize these things and stop them before they get to that point,” Dodgen says. “In interviewing people, I've heard, ‘We knew this was going to happen’ a number of times. So, we have to do a better job of addressing these concerns. We absolutely have to.”
Come back Tuesday for the conclusion of this series, where we’ll examine different types of workplace violence and ways to prevent crimes before they happen. For Part 1 of this series, click HERE.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].