Comp Clues


Predicting Workplace Violence

By Gregory T. Hale, Ph.D., Psychologist
| Date: 03/01/2002

Gunshots recently sounded in a workplace in Northern Indiana.  Sadly, the loss of two lives, and multiple injuries resulted from the actions on one employee.  The workplace is generally a safe place.  In fact, it is a place where people have often felt safer than they do in other environments.  Despite the enormity of the problem of workplace violence, a lack of information about the causes and predictors of workplace violence continues to exist.

The consequences of workplace violence are serious and often life changing, not just for the individuals involved, but also for the workplace itself.  There are several factors which help to identify and predict the likelihood of workplace violence.  The assessment of risk in the workplace is the focus of current scientific study.  However, even with the benefit of scientific knowledge the assessment of potential violence in the workplace is often inaccurately and inconsistently investigated.  Moreover, the accuracy of predictions based on the information gathered is erratic.  The inconsistent methods of evaluating risk assessment have not led to consistent or accurate predictions regarding workplace violence.  Risk assessment should conform to an understood strategy for evaluating the relevant factors.  This is the only way to more accurately and reliably predict workplace violence.

Predicting workplace violence requires the identification of workplace factors which form the context of the behavior and personal factors directly affecting the employee.  Understanding the specific personal factors and workplace factors, and how they interact permits the psychological evaluator to make more accurate predictions.

Workplace factors consist of factors likely to occur in the workplace.  The factors have a significant bearing on the individual’s psychological and behavioral reaction.  For example, perceived injustice, electronic monitoring and concern regarding job insecurity are examples of workplace factors affecting an individual’s attitude and psychological experience in the workplace.  Thus, an overly close and punitive style of supervision often negatively impacts the individual worker.

Personal factors such as alcohol use and abuse, a history of aggressive behavior, perceived low self-esteem, and the use of psychological aggression, exemplify the personal factors predictive of workplace violence.  The previous use of aggression has been documented to be one of the personal characteristics of aggressive employees.  It is also illustrative of a potentially aggressive employee who is likely to act out in the workplace.  Aggression appears to be an element which is stable across context and time.  As a result, an individual’s past history of aggression in general is often predictive of future violence in the workplace.

Finally, although it is possible that personal and work factors may operate independently in predicting workplace violence, a more accurate prediction of the workplace violence can actually be better understood when the interaction of both is clearly understood.  When negative workplace factors are combined with a history of alcohol use, past general aggression, low self-esteem and the use of psychological aggression, the likelihood of workplace violence significantly increases.

Assisting employers in better understanding high risk employees is obviously important so as to avoid the sad and horrifying consequences of violent actions in the workplace.   The proper assessment of a potentially violent employee involves an appropriate and thorough psychological examination of personal and workplace factors.  As noted, workplace and personal factors need to be explored and properly assessed.  The risk assessment should consist of reviewing historical items such as past incidences of violence, and the presence of a personality disorder or other major mental illness.  In addition, negative attitudes related to the workplace, a lack of psychological insight and active symptoms of mental illness, combined with impulsivity and unresponsiveness to past treatment are also to be considered.

Finally, risk management issues should also be assessed.  For example, do the plans for violence lack feasibility, and what exposure does the individual have to destabilizing factors.  In addition, it is important to understand how compliant an employee has been with past attempts to resolve conflicts in the workplace.  A limited personal support system and a high level of personal stress increase the potential for acting violently.

In summary, increasing the accuracy of predictions regarding workplace violence requires a thorough and comprehensive assessment of personal factors and workplace factors. Understanding how these factors act together enables the psychological examiner to more accurately assess the likelihood of physical violence in the workplace.  Avoiding potentially explosive situations is to ignore the reality of impending danger in the workplace. By way of example, homicide is the leading cause of death of women in the workplace.  As such, it is imperative that a zero tolerance policy related to violent behavior in the workplace be encouraged.  Moreover, physical and psychological aggression in the workplace should be documented and monitored carefully.   Aggressive behavior should be evaluated more thoroughly to protect the safety and well-being of the other employees.  In this way, the workplace remains an opportunity for everyone to be productive and pursue their vocation.