“Dangerousness” has three constituents: the assessment of risk (“risk factors”), the type of violence being predicted (“harm”) and the likelihood harm will occur (“risk”). (Violence and Mental Disorder. Monahan and Steadman. Univ. of Chicago Press. 1994). Dangerousness at the workplace takes many forms. I will be using the workplace as an example of one setting because so many people call me about HR addressing a coworker of whom others are afraid, but Dangerousness (a term of art) exists in any environment. Stalking is another example of behavior which can be dangerous and should never be ignored.
The most common image is a worker losing control of his anger, getting a gun and shooting co-workers and anyone else who gets in his way. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence. Less rare are situations where an employee is seriously depressed and, for example, tells a co-worker or manager he is suicidal, or wants to end it all, or is making inappropriate good-byes to those around him, or has had a series of uncharacteristic accidents at work which may endanger co-workers.
Stalking behavior is inherently dangerous. Stalkers are obsessional, that is they have a fixed idea and feeling they can’t diminish without acting in a certain way. Think John Hinckley stalking Jodie Foster and then shooting President Reagan to get her attention. An analogous situation may be an employee romantically fixated on a co-worker turning up unannounced at the co-worker’s house when their social relationship doesn’t warrant this behavior, or telephoning her (usually a woman) repeatedly. This is a boundary crossing. Other boundary crossings occur where an employee is stalked at the workplace by a rejected lover or spouse or an employee may be the love object of a delusional person. These are volatile situations and inherently highly dangerous.
Most violence between co-workers is preceded by warnings. Understanding a warning when it occurs permits a rapid, appropriate effective response, thus increasing the safety of the workers, the workplace, and the organization.
Other behaviors which may be warnings of dangerousness in an employee:
- Chronic drug or alcohol abuse
- Escalating conflicts with co-worker(s) with expressed, implied or symbolic threats
- A failure to respond to supervision/limit setting
- A recent past history of physical fights and assaults by an employee
- Verbal aggression
- Intimidating behavior
- Mood swings, extreme moods, angry outbursts
- Someone taking out a restraining order an employee
- Irrational sensory experiences such as voices telling the person to act in a violent manner (command hallucinations)
- Irrational beliefs and/or accusations about others planning to harm the person
- An expressed sense of entitlement for one’s job
- Preoccupations about violence
- Employee(s) complaining he/they are afraid to work with a co-worker and want to be transferred.
When unaddressed complaints about dangerousness persist at the workplace, the potential exists for allegations by employees about a hostile work environment, harassment, or even constructive termination.
Once a “warning sign” is identified, understanding the degree of actual risk usually requires professional judgment. The determination is usually accomplished through a fitness-for-duty examination and threat assessment, and can also be accomplished by interviews with the complaining persons and obtaining other background information. Differentiating degrees of risk is difficult to establish without a thorough mental examination of the person by a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist experienced with this type of evaluation. Making this determination enables the human resources department to make a proper intervention in order to ensure this individual does not continue to create a hostile work environment by harassing co-workers or is dangerous to himself or others. A no-risk or low-risk determination also is helpful for HR and the complaining parties.
When “Dangerousness” exists, a rapid response is indicated. A variety of precautions are available even before an evaluation of fitness-for-duty/risk assessment. Because these situations are inherently unstable, the early involvement of an experienced professional to provide guidance is invaluable to reduce the likelihood the situation inadvertently escalates.
Read more about Risk/Threat Workplace Violence Assessment.