Predicting Workplace Violence: The Problem with Profiles

Predicting Workplace Violence: The Problem with Profiles

Stopping workplace violence is a high priority for anyone filling a supervisory position in their organization. Unfortunately, there are several commonly held myths about effective strategies for doing so.

Stopping workplace violence is a high priority for anyone filling a supervisory position in their organization. Unfortunately, there are several commonly held myths about effective strategies for doing so. Perhaps the most dangerous myth is that it is possible to use profiling and employment pre-screening to identify those who are most likely to commit violence in the workplace, and not hire them. There is no data to support this myth. In fact, the research supports the opposite conclusion: It is simply not possible to pre-screen your way to a violence-free workplace. 

This, of course, is not to discount due diligence in hiring and screening practices. By all means, applicants must be pre-screened for a history of violence and other very obvious problems in their background. But relying on screening practices to keep violence out of the workplace is simply not adequate or wise.

Problems with Profiling and Psychological Tests

Profiles tend to be self-validating after-the-fact. It’s easy to fit a perpetrator into a profile after a violent incident, but the truth is that many people may fit any number of traits listed on the profile, but never become violent.

Profiles might be useful for mental-health professionals, but in the hands of untrained people they can be used to label, and even harass employees.

Under the right circumstances, pushed beyond their ability to cope, nearly anyone can become violent.

Profiles can actually help create the event they are intended to prevent if a worker who could become violent is singled out in a way to exacerbate his/her perception of procedural injustice.

Profiles can create a false sense of security where in fact, there may be risk.

Other Popular, but Baseless Predictors

An internet search for the traits of likely perpetrators of violence in the workplace yields no shortage of listings that are worse than unhelpful. Below are some of the most commonly cited traits associated with perpetrators of workplace violence which are either so subjective, or so ubiquitous among non-violent workers that they are useless as predictors of workplace violence.

Fascination with or owns weapons. This commonly listed trait fails as a predictive indicator due to its subjectivity. What constitutes “fascination,” or “obsession?” Given the range of opinion and emotion among Americans surrounding this topic, one person’s harmless enthusiasm might be interpreted by others as a creepy obsession. “I know it when I see it,” is not a sufficiently objective way to identify an obsession with firearms. Millions of gun owners are openly enthusiastic of firearms-related hobby activities, and gregarious in their associations, and will never commit violence of any kind. 

Argumentative, controlling behaviors, etc. These commonly cited indicators are also rendered useless both by their subjectivity and their commonness in the workplace. I’m willing to wager that every person reading this article has experienced these sorts of coworkers in their careers, and none of them have committed violence. 

Layoff victims. Once again, studies show that the event of being laid off alone is not the precipitating factor among people who become violent. It is in how it is handled and whether or not the victim perceived procedural injustice in the process.

As I cautioned at the beginning of the article, evidence does not support the idea that co-worker violence can be predicted by observing individual personality differences. Instead, both scientific and anecdotal evidence clearly indicate that employee-on-employee violence has its origin primarily in the workplace culture.

A Better Approach

Know your workers well enough to recognize changes in behavior that are indicators of stress. Keep in mind that these are indicators of stress, not predictors of violence. They might fall into some of the following categories:

Change in job performance. An employee’s increased in absenteeism or lateness, increased mistakes or errors, faulty decision making, forgetfulness, confusion and/or distraction are all changes that should catch your attention.

Abnormal illness behaviors. Taking more sick days, staying off work for longer than expected, a sudden weight loss or gain, or a neglect of personal hygiene are all indicators of stress.

Inappropriate emotions. Crying, screaming, sulking, temper tantrums, or overreacting to criticism should command attention.

Use of strong language. Increased use of profanity, name calling and obscene gestures should be noted.

Changes in social behavior. Increased conflict with other workers, or withdrawal from others can indicate dangerous stress levels.

Expressions of desperation. Statements similar to these: “I don’t know what I’m going to do!”  “I don’t think I can stand this much more,” “Somebody has to do something!” and any talk of suicide is a red-flag behavior that cannot be ignored. There’s often a very short distance between the decision to do violence to oneself and the decision to do violence to others.  

Substance abuse. Of particular concern is an escalating pattern in which the employee may be visibly hungover on the job, or begin arriving at work under the influence of intoxicating substances. Alcohol will reduce any normal inhibitions that may have previously prevented him or her from engaging in violence. At-risk employees and substance abuse is a very dangerous combination.

Predicting and interdicting workplace violence is not about profiling and screening. It is about being engaged with your employees enough to see changes in behavior that indicate stress, and allowing you to engage with your worker in a constructive way before the violence threshold is crossed.

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