Workplace Violence and the Ostrich Syndrome

How to Spot, and Stop, Problems

By Linda Siniard, SHRM-SCP

While it is a myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger, it is an apt image for how we human resource professionals often wish we could react when having to deal with what may be—or not be—impending workplace violence.

We aren’t trauma psychologists specifically trained to know what to look for, nor are we lawyers who know how our actions—or lack of actions—can be defended in court. We often feel we don’t have the credentials or the right to judge behaviors that may not interfere with our organization’s productivity, communication, or performance outcomes, but still on occasion appear different, even disturbing.

While we can probably all agree it’s easier to stop small workplace incidents than to handle the aftermath of a critical incident such as workplace violence, the lines between an unhappy or disgruntled employee and one who may actually act on destructive or violent intentions are blurred. As employers, it can be risky to implicate individuals as potentially dangerous or create a sense of urgency where one does not exist.

Identifying behavior that leads to workplace violence is like playing darts with our eyes shut: we sense the dartboard is over there and all we can do is hope we hit the bullseye. It took me one year of exposure to an at-risk employee to realize my first HR workplace violence situation was in play. (Note: his colleagues, who had worked by his side, had identified and were concerned about the same behaviors for 20 years!). Yes, I knew something was amiss. But every time I felt there was a preponderance of behavioral evidence, I pulled back because he could have been simply labeled as “odd.”

We live in a culture that routinely uses violent language when expressing anger and frustration: “I could have killed him!” “If I could have pushed him over a cliff, I would have!” Thus, one of our most basic means of communicating—language—cannot be taken literally as a foreshadowing of impending workplace violence.

However, times are different. With the dramatic increase in community and workplace attacks resulting in numerous deaths and injuries, everyone has not only the right, but the responsibility to speak up about concerns. As reported by the AFL-CIO and OSHA, since 2013, workplace violence has continued to be the second leading cause of deaths and injuries on the job. You don’t need to be an expert in psychology or the law to be aware that a coworker’s behavior has changed or is escalating in a questionable or unhealthy way.

Workplace and/or personal stress may appear in your employees’ conduct as inappropriate actions, comments, jokes, and body language. These exhibitions may have no imminent danger to your workforce. However, the following list of behaviors may become important components of your professional judgment, the protection of your company and your workforce, and may indicate the need for interventions such as medical or administrative leaves of absence or a referral to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Organizational psychologists, security experts, and HR professionals agree on a few behaviors that are important to notice, while maintaining awareness that not all negative workplace behaviors are ultimately problematic or violent in nature.

The following indicators should be acknowledged by not only your management team and coworkers, but also by your HR department. In an instance of heightened concern, an outside counselor—EAP or healthcare provider—should be included as an assessment tool. (This is not as easy as it may appear. Federal and state workplace regulations may prohibit an employer from requiring a fit-for-duty examination. Please review your state’s regulations.)

Workplace behaviors of particular note as possible indicators of future workplace violence (or not):
  • A change – frequency or intensity of behaviors that have become disruptive to the work environment
  • In meetings, workstations, hallways, or on company grounds - crying, sulking, temper tantrums, or withdrawal from workplace or social interaction
  • Disregarding the health and safety of self or others
  • Excessive absenteeism or tardiness
  • Opposition to, disrespect for, or confrontation of authority, co-workers, or subordinates
  • Increased mistakes, errors, or unsatisfactory job performance
  • Employee defiance in the face of job performance conversations
  • Employee’s inappropriate statements or inability to handle constructive criticism of job performance
  • Faulty decision making where this was not a concern in the past
  • Emotional language, swearing, inappropriate commentary
  • Forgetfulness, confusion and/or distraction
  • Inability to focus
  • Blaming others for mistakes
  • Complaints of unfair personal treatment
  • Talking about the same problems repeatedly without resolving them
  • Insistence that he or she is always right
  • Misinterpretation of communications from supervisors or co-workers
  • Personal hygiene is poor or ignored
  • Sudden and/or unpredictable change in energy level
  • Complaints of unusual and/or non-specific illnesses
  • Holds grudges, especially against his or her supervisor, verbalizes hope that something negative will happen to the person against whom he or she has the grudge

Physical signs that a person may be becoming violent:

Sometimes it is not what a person says, but what their body is "doing." Use caution if you see someone who shows one or more of the following "non-verbal" signs or body language, especially in combination with multiple behavior changes.

  • Flushed or pale face
  • Sweating
  • Pacing, restless, or repetitive movements
  • Signs of extreme fatigue, such as dark circles under eyes, poor posture, slow movements and/or responses
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Clenched jaws or fists
  • Exaggerated or violent gestures
  • Change in voice
  • Loud talking or chanting
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Scowling, sneering or use of abusive language
  • Glaring or avoiding eye contact
  • Violating your personal space, standing too close
Other warning signs of a potentially violent person:

In some cases, there have been clear patterns of warning signs before a violent incident.  When you can, take note of:

History of violence
  • Fascinated with incidents of workplace violence
  • Shows an extreme interest in, or obsession with weapons
  • Demonstrated violence towards inanimate objects
  • Evidence of earlier violent behavior
Threatening behavior
  • States intention to hurt someone (can be verbal or written)
  • Holds grudges
  • Excessive behavior (e.g. phone calls, gift giving)
  • Escalating threats that appear well-planned
  • Preoccupation with violence
Intimidating behavior
  • Argumentative or uncooperative
  • Displays unwarranted anger
  • Impulsive or easily frustrated
  • Challenges peers and authority figures
Increase in personal stress
  • An unreciprocated romantic obsession
  • Serious family or financial problems
  • Recent job loss or personal loss
Negative personality characteristics
  • Suspicious of others
  • Believes he or she is entitled to something
  • Cannot take criticism
  • Feels victimized
  • Shows a lack of concern for the safety or well-being of others
  • Blames others for his problems or mistakes
  • Low self-esteem
Marked changes in mood or behavior
  • Extreme or bizarre behavior
  • Irrational beliefs and ideas
  • Appears depressed or expresses hopelessness or heightened anxiety
  • Marked decline in work performance
  • Demonstrates a drastic change in belief systems
Socially isolated
  • History of negative interpersonal relationships
  • Few family or friends
  • Sees the company as a "family"
  • Has an obsessive involvement with his or her job
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol
That said, we aren’t dealing with computer programs (or ostriches), we’re dealing with humans.  While it would make our lives easier were we to be able to proclaim: “If you’ve checked off 15 or more of the boxes above, run!”, unfortunately people aren’t so easily read. 

Before indicating that a single change in behavior is important or critical to note, consider that multiple changed behaviors or escalating behaviors (more frequent or more intense) may be significant.   Assess whether the new or increased behaviors are disruptive to others or to productivity.  Also, consider that an employee’s personal life may be in disarray, and that is not necessarily a cause for concern in the workplace.  (Or, it may be.  Here again the quandary.)

Some disturbing behaviors may be managed through performance evaluations, workplace counseling, and disciplinary actions.  Or, they may result in no perceivable improvement from what are typical remedies.  Whether or not there is improvement, documentation is a key to protecting your company and workers.  But, documentation alone will have no effect on a problem employee. 

Here’s the bottom line. We’ve all seen or read interviews of family, neighbors, and co-workers of an assailant who’ve said, “He was such a nice guy.”  “She was so quiet, never bothered anyone.” “He stayed to himself I didn’t know much about him.”  Rarely do we hear, “I knew something was wrong.  I should have said something.

We cannot closely monitor the behavior of all of our employees.  Our workplace is a community comprised of coworkers who simply desire to accomplish their work free of the threat of violence.  We have the right to ask for their informed assistance, through training such as Kantola Training Solution’s “Workplace Violence: The Early Warning Signs,” in knowing when to speak up and get help if they notice anything that causes concern.

Collectively, an intelligently-informed workplace can be the early alert system we in HR need to prevent us from ever having to utter that dreaded phrase, “He was such a nice guy.” 


Linda is a Senior Human Resources consultant at HR Options. She has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources in a wide variety of industries (publishing and media, technology, performing arts, hotels, oil and gas, manufacturing, wineries, financial services, and law firms) with private, public, union, non-union, multi-state, and multi-national organizations. She has a B.A. in Organizational Leadership, an M.A. in Transpersonal Psychology, a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification, and is currently balancing work with the pursuit of her Ph.D.

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