Fearing violence, or the threat thereof, can be a jarring and gut-wrenching journey. Though the workplace should foster an environment that is professional, safe and confidential, you may find yourself feeling afraid, unheard and shut out.

While we’ve all been there at one time or another, acts of violence, bullying and threats have no place in a professional work atmosphere. Nevertheless, studies show that instances of brutality, both physical and mental, are continuing to take place on the job, and oftentimes, nothing is done about it. 

Silence Isn’t Always Golden

When experiencing or witnessing threats, malice or ill-contempt in the workplace, it’s common to want to look the other way. After all, it isn’t your business, and you wouldn’t want to meddle in a situation that isn’t your own, right? 

Believe it or not, your failure to take action after witnessing a violent act or threatening behavior isn’t permissible. In fact, doing so may cause you to fall personally liable if it can be proven that you were a witness to a malicious act and you did nothing about it. 

So, how can you report what is happening without making yourself the next target? We’ll get to that. But for now, let’s shift our focus and get to the meat of what causes scenarios like these to crop up, in the first place.

Why Violence in the Workplace Occurs

Let’s face it. Nothing in life is ever as clear cut and concrete as the world makes it seem. As such, not every individual that commits a violent crime in the workplace fits the stereotypes we often try to create. 

Rather than place potential perpetrators in a box, it’s better to observe common reasons that workplace violence occurs, as well as note significant changes in behavior, if there are any, to help us to intervene when we spot troublesome situations brewing. 

Generally speaking, there are a few indicators for violent crimes that have been observed in individuals who have committed them, that we can observe, in retrospect. 

This is not to say that everyone who exhibits these behaviors will commit malevolent acts, but rather, that these are indicators to simply look out for, among other concerning behaviors, before budding violence ensues. 

1. Irrational Behavior– Have you noticed an employee or your employer behaving in a way that seems rash or disproportionate to the severity of an offense? Irrational behavior like this can be a precursor that leads to violence on the job. Habits such as yelling, threatening or overt manipulation are all signs of unjustifiable behavior from a potential perpetrator. 

2. Dissatisfaction With Service or Treatment– Another reason cited for compulsory violence within the workplace is overall dissatisfaction with the way the person in question feels they are being treated. This comes in various forms, but may manifest as contempt for leadership on the basis of work conditions, unrealistic expectations and other similar scenarios. 

3. Personal Conflict– Conflict within peer groups on the job is inevitable, but navigating those conflicts in a way that is appropriate and professional is of the utmost importance. If you notice that a conflict is escalating, especially if it appears to be hidden or secret, you should begin devising a plan to take action.

4. Disciplinary Action– Unfortunately, disciplinary action of any kind, for some, has proven to be a reason for outlandish behavior in individuals who have carried out workplace violence. This can include firing, disciplinary warnings or being otherwise reprimanded by an authority figure.

5. Prior Criminal Behavior– Though this, nor any of the aforementioned circumstances, is a definite predictor of impending violent behavior, it can be said that in some cases, those who carried out violent acts did, in fact, already have a criminal record. Keep in mind, here, that the crime does matter. For instance, a person who was caught shoplifting shouldn’t automatically be assumed to be a violent person. 

6. External Factors– Sometimes, the individual in question may have external motivations for carrying out a violent act. Whether it be money, peer pressure or approval from others, some perpetrators may be seeking out a reward, of sorts, for their actions. 

Bear in mind that while the reasons that people behave violently may vary, there can sometimes be a display of all, some or none of the aforementioned precursors to malevolent behavior. 

What It Looks Like

Because there isn’t one single predictor of violent outbursts, it is wise to know what to look for when menacing behavior might be on the horizon. 

In addition to the already mentioned scenarios, it can also help to check for changes in patterns of behaviors when attempting to predict violent behaviors. For example, if you work alongside a co-worker, or a person in leadership, who typically acts in a rude or obnoxious way, but suddenly, he or she stops acting that way, you may wish to take note.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, sudden changes in behavior, whether for the good or bad, can mean trouble. Sometimes, an angry person that suddenly becomes nice, for no apparent reason, may be “stuffing” their feelings, which only causes more rage to build within. This is not to say that people don’t ever change for the better, but only that it is wise to take note, if observed.

General “Bullying” Behavior 

Usually referenced when referring to children, the act of “bullying” can take on many forms, and can be experienced even amongst adults. From threats to coercive control and manipulation tactics, learning to identify this kind of behavior early on can save you, and others, from physical harm down the line. Actions that mirror bullying include:

  • Repetitive negative actions towards a specific person
  • Taunting
  • Name-calling
  • Threats
  • Physical violence
  • Vulgar hand gestures
  • Spreading rumors, especially if they are untrue

What You Can Do

Now, for the burning question. What can you do when you notice concerning behavior from co-workers or those in authority? 

First and foremost, you should always approach situations with retaliatory potential with caution. You don’t want to get yourself caught in a trap where you, or those you love, could get hurt. 

Second, you should seek to tell someone who has the authority to control the situation. A supervisor, HR representative and the like are good options. Just make sure that whoever you confide in is going to keep your reports confidential, and isn’t caught up in the web of toxicity, themselves. The person you report to should have a mindset of neutrality, discretion and professionalism when hearing out your concerns. 

Fourth, you should take note of the environment, particularly if you are the person of interest. Take note of any areas within the confinement of your workplace where you could be assaulted with no witnesses. Places like bathrooms, stairwells and unlit parking lots should only be utilized with wisdom and caution. 

Fifth, seek to protect yourself and others by taking note of any tools that are on the job that could be utilized as weapons. Take proactive approaches towards keeping yourself safe. 

Lastly, steer clear of any unnecessary arguing or escalating of events. If possible, stay away from irrationally acting individuals, or, if you can’t, be sure to document the behavior prior to presenting it to the authorities or your trusted sources. Be sure to note the time and place of the occurrences and any additional details. This will make you look more credible when it comes time to report the malicious behavior.

All of these steps and more can be used to protect yourself and others from harm within a toxic workplace structure where potential violence can ensue.

Stand Up for Yourself and Others

While violent acts and behaviors in the workplace may prove an uncomfortable subject for some, the reality is that it happens, and it needs to be addressed. Bear in mind that neglecting to do anything when you witness malicious behavior can incriminate you, especially if the matter ends up in court. 

Remember, you don’t have to get directly involved in the situation to help out. 

Notifying the proper personnel when you see that something is off is enough to cover you, legally. Always make documentation of your observations, and be sure to protect yourself, mentally and physically. Use caution at all times and be wise. 

No one deserves abuse. Stand up and speak out against workplace violence.