Warning Signs in the Workplace

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The workplace may be one of the few places that you interact closely with individuals on a daily basis that you would otherwise never come into contact with. The larger your company, the greater mix of personalities you will encounter. It may be a sensitive subject, but workplace violence and signs of a troublesome employee are an issue worth learning about in order to keep you and your company safe and working at optimal efficiency.

Some of the country’s “worst” employees are individuals you may have heard of in the past. Patrick Sherrill, infamous for the 1986 United States Postal Service shooting spree in Oklahoma, killed 14 coworkers and injured six when he was threatened with termination by his supervisors. Also in 1986, David Burke, a USAir employee, was fired from his job for stealing sixty-nine dollars. Soon after, he followed his boss onto a flight to San Francisco, shot him with a revolver he had snuck on board, shot the pilots, and brought the plane down along with all 43 of its passengers.

Now the point of these notable incidents is not to invoke fear, but to demonstrate a concept that they share with almost all other instances of workplace violence or employee difficulty: there were several warning signs of problematic behavior far before they committed these extreme acts. The scale of violence committed by these men is rare, but the point is they exhibited problematic behavior long beforehand. These men did not simply “snap” one day – they had a work history of being unreceptive to criticism and receiving reprimands for mediocre work performance, among other things. Being aware of the warnings signs of a potentially troublesome employee can often stop a myriad of possible problems before they ever begin.

Warning Signs of a Potentially Violent or Difficult Employee

Disclaimer: These simplified list items come from “The Gift of Fear,” authored by Gavin de Becker, with my own input added. The author does not advocate the use of checklists to identify violent individuals. This list serves only as an example of characteristic clusters a difficult and/or violent employee may exhibit. Symptoms or signs in isolation are not particularly significant, but clusters of characteristics can be a red flag. I highly recommend reading “The Gift of Fear” to gain greater insight.

  1. Inflexibility: Inflexible employees are rigid and/or unwilling to discuss ideas contrary to their own.
  2. Weapons: Employee has recently purchased a weapon, owns a weapon collection, and/or frequently discusses or jokes about weapons with others.
  3. Sadness/Anger: Chronic sadness and anger are indicative of many other conditions besides a precursor to violence or difficulty. Take note if you have an employee that is sullen or angry more often than not.
  4. Co-workers Fear: Other employees are leery or afraid of this individual. Coworker input regarding others is a crucial part of assessing your employees.
  5. Paranoia: This employee fears others are out to get him or conspiring against him.
  6. Criticism: This employee cannot accept criticism well, perhaps to the point of denying any defects in his work or insisting his employer’s opinion is wrong.
  7. Blame: Personal responsibility is not this employee’s strong suit. He or she may consistently blame others for their shortcomings, or insist nothing is their fault.
  8. Unreasonable Expectations: This individual may have a preoccupation with always being right, or a sense of entitlement when it comes to winning or being praised (or getting a raise).
  9. Police Encounters: Hopefully this is something caught in the pre-hiring stage, but be aware if this employee has had any recent encounters with law enforcement as well as any recent arrests.
  10. Contact: An employee that has been terminated but continues regular or suspicious contact with the workplace, coworkers, or supervisors could be a sign of unhealthy preoccupation.

This list is not exhaustive, and is not intended to be used as a checklist. My intent for you as an employer is to get a clearer picture of an employee that may need additional guidance or discussion. Now what to do you do if you feel you have an employee that exhibits most, or all, of these signs?

What You Can Do to Minimize Employee Risk and Maximize Employee Skills

  • Research who you are hiring: Background checks and reference calls are of vital importance here. Surprisingly, many employers skimp on this crucial part of the hiring process. Make sure you have done your research on the individual you choose to hire to represent your company.
  • Provide competent supervision. It is your duty as an employer to know who you are hiring and provide guidance when needed. Listen to your employees’ concerns and let them know your own concerns in an objective, non-accusatory, conversational fashion. You are trying to help, not hurt, your employee.
  • Listen to your intuition: This may be the most important piece of counsel to follow no matter what situation you find yourself in. Culturally, we have been somewhat groomed to disregard our intuition and base decisions on concrete fact and fact alone. This is a travesty, because intuition has served us a crucial purpose since the beginning of time. Often times, we ignore our intuition in the name of political correctiveness, timidity, or fear of hurting another’s feelings. Getting back to trusting one’s instincts can literally save you. If you intuition is nagging at you, it never hurts to sit your employee down and have an honest conversation. Better safe than sorry.
  • Seek professional help. Human resources can be a helpful resource, but sometimes you encounter new situations that call for further measures. If you are not sure how to proceed with an employee, or if you are fearful of an employee, there are several professional firms in the country (including Gavin de Becker’s firm) that specialize in threat and risk assessment/management.

(Image Credit: © auremar – Fotolia.com)

About Kim Shorr

Kim Shorr received her master's in forensic psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and has experience in counseling, assessment and case management. In addition to writing and research, her interests include natural living and politics.

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