Preventing and Responding to Violence in the Workplace

Lynda St. Clair
Lynda St. Clair

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D.

Feeling angry is natural and expressing anger in appropriate ways can have positive benefits for individuals as well as organizations.  Not all displays of anger, however, are appropriate.  No matter how legitimate its source, anger that is intentionally aggressive and focused on causing harm is unacceptable.

Not all violent acts that occur at the workplace are the result of issues in the organization.  Personal problems outside of work can spill over into the workplace, as the recent shooting of Kathleen Ann Bertrand at the Raleigh, NC Pier 1 Imports store demonstrates.

“Research on workplace aggression consistently reports that physical violence at work is extremely rare” according to scholars Deanna Geddes and Lisa T. Stickney.  The consequences can be horrific, making it critical that organizations establish programs aimed at preventing violence when possible and responding to violence if it happens.

Violence rarely occurs “out of the blue” argues researchers Stephen J. Romano, Micol E. Levi-Minzi,  Eugene A. Rugala, and Vincent B. Van Hasselt.   They note that a key part of a prevention program should be helping people identify behaviors that might signal a
potential for violence.  Examples include verbal threats, references to weapons, hypersensitivity to criticism, offensive comments or jokes about violence, and aggressive outbursts. Other warning signs might include unexplained injuries or bruises as well as repeated and disruptive phone calls, text messages, or visits from a current or former partner. 

Although the researchers advise caution about intervening in a potentially violent situation, if warning signs are observed early enough, it may be possible to intervene before violence erupts.  One possible intervention tactic they identify is checking in with a person and letting them vent, which is consistent with the types of supportive behaviors identified by Geddes and Stickney. 

If an individual seems potentially threatening, Romano, Levi-Minzi, Rugala, and Van Hasselt recommend reporting behaviors, either to the person’s supervisors or personnel in human resources or security services. Training of employees so they can recognize behaviors of concern and know how to report suspicious behaviors is also recommended.  Providing drop boxes, telephone tip lines, or email systems that allow employees to anonymously report suspicious behavior may be helpful.

Because there are important legal issues that need to be considered when addressing employee behavior, the researchers also note that organizations that lack the necessary expertise may need to consult with experienced professionals

What if, despite the organizations best prevention and intervention efforts, a violent incident does occur?  The researchers suggest that having a survival mind-set, based on awareness, preparation, and rehearsal, can help make the difference between an untrained response of “panic – disbelief – denial – helplessness” and a trained response of “anxious – recall – prepare – commit to act.” Training can help people assess situations more quickly (get anxious), evaluate available options (recall), and implement a response (prepare and commit to act.)  In a shooting scenario, for example, knowing alternative ways to exit a building can allow an individual to escape and contact emergency personnel. If escape is not possible, being aware of possible hiding places is critical.

“Employees have to become stakeholders in their own safety and security and develop a survival mind-set comprised of awareness, preparation, and rehearsal. Vigorous prevention programs, timely intervention, and appropriate responses by organizations and their employees will contribute significantly to a safe and secure work environment” conclude Romano, Levi-Minzi, Rugala, and Van Hasselt.

This article provides only highlights from the research articles upon which it is based.  It is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal advice regarding appropriate or inappropriate behavior and/or treatment of employees or volunteers in the workplace.


Geddes, D. & Stickney, L. L. (2011).  The trouble with sanctions: Organizational responses to deviant anger displays at work.  Human Relations, 64(2): 201-230.  Accessed online at

Romano, S. J., Levi-Minzi, M. E., Rugala, E. A., and Van Hasselet, V. B. (2011). Workplace Violence Prevention Readiness and Response. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.  Accessed at


Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D., is a retired management professor and co-author of Becoming a Master Manager, now in its fifth edition.  

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