How to screen for the risk of violence in the workplace

A guide to decision making

How to screen for the risk of violence in the workplace

by Glenn French, President of The Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence

Occupational health and safety concerns regarding workplace violence have now firmly caught the attention of legislators, mental health practitioners, employers, and organized labour.

We have reached a "tipping point"; a concept popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name which refers to the “culmination of effort and events which moves an issue to a new level of public awareness”.

Following years of indecision or indifference, workplace violence, harassment and other forms of abuse are now viewed as a workplace "accident" and are therefore subject to the same rigorous assessment and remediation that should be applied to any occupational hazard.

As such, employers must take reasonable steps not only to respond to malicious workplace conduct when it occurs but also to investigate behaviour that can potentially be harmful to their employees.

Responding to workplace physical violence and harassment, after the fact, is relatively straightforward. It requires human resources to investigate the incident in keeping with established policies and procedures; however, when the threat is more muted or less apparent, the options are less clear, such as in the case where there is an unsubstantiated concern expressed about a co-worker's stability or intent. 

In these incidents, the most critical question facing the human resource practitioner is, does the situation require a more in-depth assessment to determine the level of risk. Currently, there remains a gap in the information and tools available to human resource practitioners on how to identify and manage these potential threats.

Far too often, these types of decisions are dependent on a practitioner's experience, intuition or merely a "gut" feeling. Although this informal approach may have proven successful in the past, it is impressionistic and does not promote sound decision making which can be replicated in the future or documented. 

Although there are many factors to consider when deciding to refer an employee for a more in-depth risk assessment, a significant psychological construct to take into consideration is “Perceived Personal Control” (PPC), commonly referred in the psychological literature as "Locus of Control".  PPC is an individual’s belief, whether real or imagined that they are in control of their circumstances, whether at work or in their personal life.

Lacking a sense of diminished personal power is not a condition reserved for individuals with a mental health disorder; in fact, the need for control applies to all of us in varying degrees. The opposite of control is helplessness, which if left unabated, can lead to a general feeling of hopelessness, resentment and eventually anger. For a human resource practitioner, establishing a person's sense of internal control is a crucial first step in determining risk.

There are four general categories of enquiry that can help establish an individual's level of perceived personal control. Keep in mind that these are not specific questions, but areas to explore either through questioning or as part of an open source investigation. They are: 

Work life: 

  • Does the employee exhibit chronic job dissatisfaction, as evidenced through multiple grievances, complaints or legal challenges?
  • Is the individual the subject of performance concerns which focus on conduct? 
  • Do they appear overwhelmed by either the pace of work or the fairness of work assignments? 
  • Do co-workers fear them and have they expressed concern? 
  • Does the employee overidentify with either their specific job or career, giving the appearance that this is the most important part of their life?

Social engagement: 

  • Are you aware of any impending losses or stressors in the employee’s life, such as financial hardship, separation or death?   • Is the employee socially isolated with few friends or acquaintances?
  • Is there any evidence of anti-social behaviour in the form of past or pending criminal charges or restraining orders?

Medical or Mental health concerns: 

  • Is there evidence or suspicion of substance abuse including the misuse of prescriptions?
  • Does the employee complain of a recurring medical ailment, including mental health concerns, which might include anxiety or depression?

Interpersonal factors: 

  • Does the employee demonstrate a sense of entitlement at work, meaning that they are owed special consideration or that they are indispensable?
  • Does the individual lack stability and would you consider them impulsive? 
  • Is the employee suspicious about the motives of co-workers or the organization? 

Answering in the positive to any of these questions is not a confirmation that the individual will be violent. In the absence of a direct threat, it is impossible to predict violence. However, if there are many positive indicators, there is a reason to pause, as this could suggest personal fragility which, under certain conditions, could lead to more aggressive behaviour.

In these situations, it is advisable to consult a colleague or manager regarding next steps, one of which could be a comprehensive risk assessment by a qualified practitioner.

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