Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

Part one of a two-part series for managers about preventing and dealing with the threat of violence in the workplace.

Violence in the Workplace: Recognition and Prevention

He had been known as a hothead, even a racist hothead. Some witnesses said that he had talked about wanting to kill people and had bragged that he was capable of doing it. Tragically, on the morning of July 8, 2003, he proved that these were not idle threats.

Doug Williams left a business ethics and sensitivity class, walked out the back door of the building, got his guns from his vehicle, walked back into the plant, and started shooting. Before the gunfire was silent in the Lockheed Martin plant in Meridian, MS (some 90 miles from my home), Mr. Williams had killed five of his co-workers and wounded nine others before turning the final fatal shot on himself.

Should someone have seen it coming?

Could this tragic event have been prevented?

Is there anything that can be done to make all of our workplaces safe from such senseless violence?


The first issue to explore is whether these violent workplace incidents result from negative elements
within the work culture or from the soul of a psychologically unbalanced individual. Most often, it’s usually a combo.

A toxic work culture can invite the deadly chain of anger, seething bitterness, and violence. Elements of this type of psychologically unhealthy culture include harsh managerial practices, ineffective communications, informal practices of retaliation for perceived wrong-doing, and lack of psychological inclusion of all groups of people. Stir in little top management vice and greed. Add to these the horrible aftereffects of downsizing and the climate of distrust experienced by the survivors of layoffs, and you have fertile soil for discontent, disdain,
and disaster.

A particularly significant risk factor in workplace violence incidents is antagonistic manager-worker relationships. That’s one of the reasons we devote a lion’s share of our time to teaching managers how to create motivating, positive,collaborative relationships with employees.

Toxic workplaces are clearly risky business!

However, even when company leaders and team members have worked hard to create a “Magnetic Workplace”, a psychologically healthy place to work, some individuals elect to harbor resentments, brood over real or imagined wrongs, see themselves as perpetual victims,and isolate themselves from any interpersonal experiences that could challenge the paranoia and the walls they’ve built. These can become dangerous people.

Doug Williams angrily walked out of a business ethics and sensitivity training class! The company was making an effort to provide encouragement and resources to create a workplace of integrity and compassion. When an individual is consumed with rage, even positive actions can stoke the rage.

Most often, it’s not a simple either/or when it comes to environmental vs. individual toxicity. However, we know this. The single most deadly combination is an uncaring, authoritarian, high-stress workplace in which a person predisposed to paranoia, hostility, and violence becomes increasingly angry and frustrated…and ultimately explodes.


Here’s the first warning. Don’t get paranoid yourself! As you read these warning signs, you’ll recognize some
of them in the people you rub shoulders with every day… maybe even the person in the mirror!

One symptom does not a killer make.

Here’s the principle: The more of the warning signs you see in a person, the more often you see them, and
the more intensely you see them displayed, the greater the danger.

Here are a few of the signs to look for:

  • Acting on impulse and emotion, overreacting to situations and having outbursts of rage;
  • A “me-first” focus that ignores others’ needs;
  • A “victim” attitude that always sees others to blame for problems;
  • Perfectionistic expectations and a demand for perfect order;
  • Talking about or acting out “getting even,” aggressively or passive-aggressively;
  • Escaping from reality through isolation, addictive substances or activities, lies, and deceit;
  • Sudden behavior changes, doing things out of character;
  • Mood swings;
  • Argumentative behavior, in which threats are perceived or implied but not overt;
  • Obsession with plans to “fix all of this”; veiled references to a secret plan;
  • Chronic suspicion, especially when there is a paranoia focused on specific individuals;
  • Being a loner;
  • Overtly expressed prejudices against certain groups;
  • Threats of future injury to others;
  • Talking about weapons he/she possesses;
  • Menacing with a fist or brandishing a weapon;
  • Low-level assault, such as pushing;
  • Overt physical violence, striking at another with a fist or weapon.


Actually, violence-proofing is too strong a term. I wish you could, but there are no guarantees.

However, there are things that you can do to:

  1. create a workplace that is less likely to breed discontent, and
  2. deal specifically with high-risk situations. Put these strategies to work and you’ll definitely lower the threat level in your workplace.


  1. Treat people fairly.
  2. Show commitment to employees’ wellbeing, not just the bottom line.
  3. Emphasize communication between management and employees.
  4. Place a premium on occupational safety.
  5. Involve workers in everyday decisions.
  6. Train people to work in groups, not just as individuals.
  7. Enact and publicize policies that do not tolerate violence or the threat of it.
  8. Let people know what is expected.
  9. Offer plentiful praise, reward, and recognition for jobs well done.
  10. Emphasize the meaning of the work, raising morale and the internal satisfaction of working together to accomplish important things.
  11. Do thorough pre-employment screening and interviews to explore the person’s fit in the organization’s culture and community.
  12. Develop policies, discussion forums, and mutually agreed-on norms for appropriate treatment of people different from the majority in race, age, ethnicity, or gender.
  13. Provide training for managers and employees in strategies for de-escalating conflicts and resolving them constructively.


  1. If layoffs become necessary, make the announcements as humanely as possible and offer outplacement services for those who lose their jobs. Also give “survivors” opportunities to grieve, to talk about their fears in a supportive environment, and to become involved in reorganization plans.
  2. When a worker must be laid off or even fired (except where there is specific reason to believe there is danger), don’t add insult to injury by abrupt, uncaring instructions like, “Security will stand here while you get your personal things out of your desk.” (I’ve talked with conscientious people who are left with lingering anger because they were treated like criminals and forced to leave jobs undone without the opportunity to communicate with anyone about next steps.)
  3. When a worker is fired or laid off, consider follow-up contacts to demonstrate the company’s concern and to make it possible to identify and attempt to reduce brooding antagonism.

Go to Part Two: Dealing with High Risk Employees

Beverly Smallwood is a licensed psychologist who has worked with Fortune 500, healthcare, and other organizations around the world for over 20 years. Her specialties are leadership development, employee retention, and personal resilience. She’s often featured in such national media as MSNBC, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, FOX, and New York Times. To contact her about speaking, consulting, or coaching, call 877-CAN LEAD (226-5323) or visit her website Magnetic Places, where you can also sign up for her free email newsletter.

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