Beverly Smallwood

Article Summary:

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

Violence in the Workplace: Dealing with High Risk Employees

Go back to Part One – Violence in the Workplace: Recognition and Prevention


  1. Enhance security measures such as physical barriers and other measures to protect from intruder violence.
  2. Prepare employees for emergencies; what to do in the case of a violent incident in which there’s little time to think.


1. DO NOT IGNORE HIGH-RISK BEHAVIOR!! Yes, it’s easy to do it, especially if you don’t like giving negative feedback, don’t want to agitate an already agitated person, or if you’ve pretty much gotten use to this
person’s attitude. You may have a false sense of “That’s just the way he talks. He would never actually do anything.”
Dangerous assumption!

2. Stick to describing specific, work-related behaviors in your conversations with the individual.
Resist the temptation to try to diagnose “why”…e.g., the person’s past history of abuse, menopause, midlife crisis, personal problems. Your job is to address job-related behaviors and attitudes. Playing amateur psychologist will only make the person angrier.

3. Translate the word “attitude” into specific actions that indicate a problem.
For instance, you might say, “In the team meeting, you commented several times that management was trying to manipulate employees. Other than those comments, you remained silent and physically pulled your chair away from the table.”

4. Explain why the problem behavior is inappropriate at work.
In other words, you will describe the practical impact of the person’s actions. Here’s an example: “Using that offensive term to describe members of our team not only damages our ability to work together but is in direct violation of our company policies. We value all team members and attempt to create a fair workplace for everyone.”

5. Hear the person out.
Ask the individual to tell you about what he/she is experiencing that may be contributing to the problem. If he/she is willing to talk, this can give you valuable insight about how the individual is perceiving or misperceiving workplace events. It will allow you to more accurately assess any physical danger that lurks.

The good news is, in many cases the opportunity to “be heard” can de-escalate the volatility of anger. This is especially true if the individual raises legitimate concerns and if you are able to take even a small positive action in response to it. (Work hard to hear legitimate concerns, even when they are expressed angrily and you don’t want to listen.)

6. Delineate what you’d like the person to do differently and how it will help.
This must go beyond, “Get a more positive attitude” or “Work more as a team member”. Be specific about the behaviors you want to see that will reflect a more positive attitude or better teamwork.

While acknowledging that the work situation can be less than ideal, emphasize that the individual still has responsibility to control his/her own actions. You can build awareness of personal responsibility by gently asking, “And how did you choose to respond to that?” after the individual complains about a person or a situation.

7. Try to involve the person in planning and problem-solving about how to make things better.
This is different from, “What can “they” can do?” It’s, “What can WE do?”

8. Document in writing the specific high-risk behaviors, your comments, and the employee’s reactions.
On an ongoing basis, document in writing the date, time, place, what the person did, the effects of what he/she did, and what you said and did, and what the employee said and did. Also document any action plans that come out of a discussion with the employee.

9. Do not try to be the employee’s therapist.
Do not try to give the employee personal counseling or advice. Regardless of your good intentions, you can do harm if you enter into this realm. Here’s why.

First, employees with deep anger problems are very complex cases, even for a trained psychologist. You can get in over your head very quickly and make things worse.

Second, even if you did help, you have now entered into a dual relationship. You set yourself up as an advocate, a trusted advisor. Then, when you have to give negative feedback or even take disciplinary action, the person feels betrayed. The result? Rage. More rage.

10. Refer the employee to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or another qualified referral source.
When you discuss this with the employee, choose your words carefully. Say something like, “Did you know that our company provides a resource to help us all deal with the stresses we have? Let me tell you about it.”

I find that “stress” is a word less stringently resisted and less likely to elicit, “You think I’m crazy!”

In some cases, companies make a mandatory referral to these resources. In such cases, they require a report
on the person’s follow-through. Confidentiality issues should be clarified.


A. First, seek safety for yourself and other employees.
B. Make accommodations for employees who complain of threats, stalking, or other menacing behavior.
You may need to shift work schedules and provide security personnel with a photograph of the stalker.
C. Inform top management and Human Resources about your observations and decide on a plan for dealing
with a potentially volatile employee.
D. If you believe there is imminent danger, use any sensible means to contact Security, HR, the police,
the fire department, or whatever resource is appropriate.
E. If it is possible, use whatever information you have about the employee to attempt to lower the person’s
anger. (Do not attempt this if there is a violent incident in progress.)
F. Notify the person’s spouse or someone else whose phone number will probably be in the employee’s
personnel file.
G. If an individual is making suicidal or homicidal threats, there are provisions in the law for involuntary
commitment for treatment. Consult a psychologist or community mental health center to learn about this
option in your area.


People don’t come with an “I am dangerous” identification stamp on their foreheads. Some of the most violent incidents have been perpetrated by quiet, loner individuals who don’t attract attention. Others have been at the hands of reasonably normal people who overreacted to work or other life stresses.

To make matters worse, we’re all busy with a thousand demands at any given time. It’s hard to be alert to the changes that are occurring in all of the people around us.

Yet, we must not fail to be vigilant (without becoming paranoid) and to recognize and intervene early with the destructive attitudes that can grow into seething monsters acting out in heart-wrenching, senseless violence.

Lockheed Martin has experienced the tragic consequences of one man’s rage. Today, family members at home and work are grieving.

I pray that, working together, we can prevent others from such suffering.

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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