The 5 Myths of Workplace Violence

April 18, 2012
Shootings on the nightly news are just the tip of the iceberg

Workplace violence is a reality that cannot be ignored. Every organization has to understand the dynamics, risks and costs to their business. Educating employees about the signs and symptoms of potential workplace violence threats and creating awareness through training is vital to your prevention program.

Reducing the threat necessitates that a broad range of stakeholders — from CEOs and division leaders to building management, human resources, contract security and law enforcement — work together to lower an organization’s workplace violence risk and enhance morale and performance.

There are many common myths about workplace violence, such as “it can’t happen here” or “there is no way to predict workplace violence.” Workplace violence and its precursors can take many different forms. While news coverage of workplace shootings define the typical public understanding, the true nature is far broader. Shootings represent the extreme apex of vicious acts, but workplace violence is also defined as threats and other intimidation or harassing behavior directed toward any person at work. This is critical to keep in mind: Many less-dramatic levels of inappropriate or abusive behavior are in their own measure forms of workplace violence, and can lead to more violent behavior.

According to ASIS Intl., “workplace violence refers to a broad range of behaviors falling along a spectrum that, due to their nature and/or severity, significantly affect the workplace, generates a concern for personal safety, or results in physical injury or death.”

Milder behaviors include any disruptive, aggressive, hostile or emotionally abusive behaviors. Mid-range behaviors demonstrate direct, conditional or veiled threats, stalking and aggressive harassment. Violent behaviors include overt violence causing physical injury.

With increases in unemployment in recent years and a downturn in the economy, there is reason to believe that these incidents of workplace violence may actually be increasing. AlliedBarton conducted a national survey, as we are concerned that the incidence of workplace violence is significantly understated and that many employers are unaware of the dangers.

The objective was to determine if American workers have experienced violence in the workplace, have witnessed violence while working, have been threatened with violence, have concerns about workplace violence, or have taken actions to ensure their own safety. We also measured workers’ attitudes toward their current employers.

The study indicated that more than half of Americans employed outside their homes (52 percent) have witnessed, heard about, are aware of or have experienced a violent event or an event that could lead to violence at their workplace. These events include open hostility, abusive language or threats, and can escalate up to the infliction of physical harm.

The Warning Signs
Although workplace violence sometimes can take place with no prior indications whatsoever, there are often warning signs for an employee who requires intervention, and as leaders we need to make sure all employees understand and recognize the more subtle forms of workplace violence — the warning signs of potentially destructive acts to come — so that everyone can act as eyes and ears to recognize and report unusual behavior.

Just because someone exhibits one of these behaviors does not mean they are prone to violence. It is when someone has a noticeable change in behavior, when the behavior is displayed constantly, or when behaviors are observed in combination, that you should consider telling someone about the situation.

Warning signs include excessive tardiness or absences; an employee who exhibits an increased need for supervision; lack of performance from someone who normally is efficient and productive; an inability to concentrate; demonstrating clear signs of stress, such as by an employee who traditionally adheres to safety procedures who is suddenly involved in safety violations; a sustained change in attitude and behavior; weapons fascination, which is a classical warning sign; drug/alcohol abuse; and not taking responsibility for actions.

A person who uses excuses and blames others is exhibiting a classic behavioral warning sign that is easy to identify but just as often ignored by managers. A worker who engages in this behavior is typically signaling for assistance and may require counseling.

5 Common Myths
These five myths could land an organization in trouble regarding workplace violence prevention:

Myth 1: “It’s someone else’s job to prevent workplace violence.” It can be hard to find a person who will own any part of the mission to prevent workplace violence. The “not my job” syndrome is perhaps the biggest misconception. In fact, workplace violence prevention is everybody’s job. Everyone in the organization has to be an active observer and get engaged when situations or another employee’s behavior crosses a line. This falsehood ends up creating organizational apathy toward workplace violence. A strong, aware organizational culture is one of the best defenses.

Myth 2: “It can’t happen here.” People often confuse the fact that something has not happened yet with the idea that it will not happen in the future. The main result of false security is that people sometimes ignore some of the issues or individual behaviors that can lead to a violent incident. Often people are completely disconnected and unobservant of people who live and work very close to them because they are not paying any attention. How many times have you heard people say, “I had no idea…” following a violent incent by a neighbor or co-worker.

Myth 3: “Workplace violence is usually blue-collar related.” Some people have a bias that workplace violence is a blue-collar phenomenon, when actually it can happen in any job situation, anywhere. Organizations cannot afford to single out any group to be the fall guy for workplace violence. This myth is particularly bad for a number of reasons, the main one being that it creates a totally wrong impression. The reasons people engage in workplace violence are complex and personal and can’t be boiled down to simplistic things like “blue collar” identity. This is what happens when people try to over-generalize.

Myth 4: “Workplace violence is caused by outsiders.” People want to believe that any disruptive violence that comes into their space from outside, but the truth is that workplace violence is a web in which some elements are caused from within and some from external forces. The myth doesn’t face up to the fear of internal sources of workplace violence within the organization. It also doesn’t address the shared responsibility of everybody in the company to help deal with it. Often, the potential sources of internal workplace violence are giving off subtle warning signs before they manifest with violent behavior.

Myth 5: “It’s just a matter of luck.” Hiding behind the luck theory is just another way, like all these other myths, of insulating yourself from the deeper truth. Workplace violence is a real possibility in life and pretending it doesn’t exist is false and dangerous. Maybe it will never touch you in your entire life, but maybe it will. And if it does, and if you have not taken steps to prevent it and to mitigate it, and if someone you know and care for is hurt or injured, that is something that you will carry with you.

How to Take Action
The idea that management should somehow be shielded from any kind of involvement after a workplace violence incident is a fallacy and a mistake. As a leader, how you act in the wake of workplace violence speaks volumes to your company — your employees, customers and stakeholders.

Our survey found that 94% of employers take some action as a result of workplace violence, but that the action taken usually was limited to meeting with employees. Some 73% of employees who witnessed, heard about or experienced workplace violence reported that their employer held a meeting, and 69% say the employer met with the employee who experienced workplace violence. However, employers appear much less likely to take other actions when these event occur — only about half (53%) took disciplinary actions. Even fewer implemented training programs (45%) for employees or supervisors (35%). Fewer than half (44%) of senior managers are perceived as being concerned with workplace violence with only 17% being very concerned about the issue.

It is also important that employees understand that they play an active role in prevention. Education and awareness are critical. The daily interactions of co-workers weigh heavily on the ability to identify potential issues before they become disasters. But your employees must be aware of the warning signs, recognize the myths that could land an organization in trouble, and know where to go for help.

Editor’s Note: This article is condensed and excerpted from Bill Whitmore’s book, Potential: Workplace Violence Prevention and Your Organizational Success --

Bill Whitmore is Chairman, President & CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services.

About the Author

Bill Whitmore

Bill Whitmore is Chairman, President & CEO of AlliedBarton Security Services.