The term "going postal" has become such a part of American slang that it even warrants its own mention in Wikipedia. It is defined as "becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of shooting people to death, usually in a workplace environment." Unfortunately the USPS has had to carry this tarnish to its brand since the early 80s, even though incidents of workplace violence take place every day in every region of the country and in every sector of the economy. Nearly all of these incidents are "unexpected," even though in 2008 an average of two workers per day were killed in the workplace.

My first brush with a potential workplace violence incident occurred managing a print center in a remote business park. After having sent an employee home without pay earlier in the day, I was catching up on paperwork well past closing. Having left the front door and back bay door open to improve ventilation, I was surprised to see a large man get out of my employee's car. It was my employee's spouse. I knew from the moment I saw the "Tasmanian Devil" tattoo on his shoulder that this might not turn out well. But more on that later!

What is Workplace Violence?
Workplace violence is violence or the threat of violence against workers. It can occur in or outside the workplace and ranges from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. Workplace violence is one of the leading causes of job-related deaths. However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide.

Any definition of workplace violence must be broad enough to encompass the full range of behaviors that can cause injury, damage property, impede the normal course of work, or make workers, managers and customers fear for their safety. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines workplace violence as, "violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty."

At the low end of the ASIS workplace violence spectrum are disruptive, aggressive, hostile or emotionally abusive behaviors that generate anxiety or create a climate of distrust, and that adversely affect productivity and morale. These behaviors of concern could - but will not necessarily - escalate into more severe behavior falling further along the workplace violence spectrum; however, independent of the question of possible escalation, these behaviors are in themselves harmful, and, for that reason, warrant attention and effective intervention.

Further along the spectrum are words or other actions that are reasonably perceived to be intimidating, frightening or threatening to employees and generate a justifiable concern for personal safety. These behaviors include, among others, direct, conditional or veiled threats, stalking, and aggressive harassment.

At the high end of the spectrum are acts of overt violence causing physical injury. These acts include non-fatal physical assaults with or without weapons - including pushing, shoving, hitting, kicking or biting - and, in the worst cases, lethal violence inflicted by shooting, stabbing, bombing or any other deadly means.

Most definitions of workplace violence describe any physical assault, threatening behavior or verbal abuse occurring in the work setting that includes, but is not limited to:

· Intimidating presence
· Harassment (being followed, sworn at, or shouted at)
· Obscene phone calls
· Suspicious powder mail
· Threats

· Beatings
· Rapes
· Shootings
· Stabbings
· Package bombs
· Suicides

Four Categories of Workplace Violence:

Type 1: Violent acts by criminals, who have no other connection with your workplace, but enter to commit robbery or another crime.

These acts account for the vast majority of workplace homicides. In these incidents, the motive is usually theft, and in a great many cases, the criminal is carrying a gun or other weapon, increasing the likelihood that the victim will be killed or seriously wounded.

Preventive strategies for Type 1 include an emphasis on physical security measures such as access control, special employer policies and employee training.

Type 2: Violence directed at employees by customers for whom your company provides services, or by "disgruntled" individuals, such as animal rights activists who may believe your organization is involved in "unacceptable business behavior."

These verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults are committed by an assailant who either receives services from or is under the custodial supervision of the affected workplace or the victim. Assailants can be current or former customers/clients such as passengers, patients, students, criminal suspects or prisoners.
The customer/client may be provoked when s/he becomes frustrated by delays or by the denial of benefits or services. Many "mystery mail" and suspicious package incidents are perpetrated by individuals who feel some level of "perceived injustice" against an individual or organization.

Type 3: Violence committed by someone that has employment-related involvement with your company.

These verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults are committed by an assailant who has some employment-related involvement with the workplace - a current or former employee, supervisor/manager, for example. In committing a threat or assault, the individual may be seeking revenge for what is perceived as unfair treatment.

This type of violence can usually be divided into two sub-types: violence between supervisors/managers and subordinates, and violence between co-workers or peers.

This type of violence has a much greater chance of some warning signs in the form of observable behavior. This knowledge, along with the appropriate prevention programs, can mitigate the potential for violence or prevent it altogether.

Type 4: Violence committed by someone with whom the victim has a personal relationship.

These assaults involve verbal threats, threatening behavior or physical assaults by an assailant who, in the workplace or on workplace property, confronts an individual with a personal relationship outside of work. Personal relations include a current or former spouse, lover, relative, friend or acquaintance.

Assailant's actions are motivated by perceived difficulties in the relationship or by psycho-social factors that are specific to the assailant. This category includes victims of domestic violence, assaulted or threatened, while at work.

What Can You Do?

Many workplace violence incidents are foreseeable and/or preventable. However, management is often untrained and ill-equipped to recognize a developing situation and therefore unable to take appropriate action. Complete an assessment of your current plans versus best practices.

Although workplace violence can often be unforeseen, it may also be the ultimate outcome of ongoing issues involving employees and/or management. Either way, there are steps to take to prevent workplace violence and to protect employees. Having a system to report workplace violence threats or signs of such is one way that organizations can intervene before a situation culminates into full violent incident. Eliminating violence in the workplace before it happens should be a top priority for every employee. Organizations should establish a workplace violence policy as part of their overall Business Continuity Programs.

Preventing violence calls for more than a routine approach. Organizations and working conditions will vary from one company to another, as will the risks and challenges to employee safety. Not all organizations will have the same resources. Not all management teams will have the same knowledge and experience on violence issues. Every organization should have general principles to guide toward a successful approach to workplace violence prevention.

A comprehensive Workplace Violence Prevention Program requires cultural change, not just the incorporation of the latest security technology. Policies, procedures, and people are the key building blocks to an effective program and safe environment. Workplace Violence Prevention should integrate with an organization's existing business continuity plans, processes, and procedures, to mitigate damages caused by a predicted or unforeseen crisis. Your organization must address procedures for safeguarding employees and property against workplace violence incidents such as theft, sabotage, vandalism, and acts of terror.

Responsibility for workplace violence prevention and response is not exclusively a security issue, a human resources issue, an employment law issue, a behavioral issue, or a management issue. Instead it touches on each of these disciplines. Determining who in an organization will be responsible for dealing with the many aspects of workplace violence is not a simple matter. The most effective response requires a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on different parts of the management structure, with different tasks, perspectives, areas of knowledge and skills.

· Human Resources: Leadership role in development of violence prevention strategies; screening tools and systems during the hiring process
· Legal: Safeguards the organization from legal liability
· Operations: Management of hiring and termination
· Security: Contacted first if violence or threat of violence occurs

Following an Incident of Workplace Violence
It is very important to respond appropriately, i.e., not to overreact, but also not to ignore a situation. It may be difficult to determine the severity of the situation. Supervisors/Managers should discuss the situation with your in-house Workplace Violence Prevention Oversight Committee to get help in determining how best to handle any situation.

Employers should encourage all employees to report and log all incidents and threats of workplace violence. Following any act of violence against personnel at the workplace, employers should:
· Provide prompt medical evaluation and treatment to any affected employees immediately after the incident.
· Report violent incidents your organization's Workplace Violence Prevention Oversight Committee.
· Advise victims of their legal right to prosecute perpetrators.
· Ask witnesses to the incident to remain on the property until a statement can be taken independently from each of them. Each employee's statement should include what they saw, what happened, who was involved and any other relevant information. Provide these statements to those conducting the investigation.
· Discuss the circumstances of the incident with staff members. Encourage employees to share information about ways to avoid similar situations in the future.
· Offer stress debriefing sessions and posttraumatic counseling services to help workers recover from a violent incident.
· Investigate all violent incidents and threats, monitor trends in violent incidents by type or circumstance, and institute corrective actions.
· Discuss openly the risks and signs of employee violence during regular employee meetings.

So, What Happened?
Back to my story of the suspended employee's angry spouse showing up unannounced after shift. While I was all alone at my print center, I was very fortunate to have been on the phone with another manager who was able to coach me along through the incident. That manager calmly told me to tell the spouse that employment law prohibited me from discussing his wife's employment circumstances with anyone other than her. He begrudgingly accepted that information and left after a half hour of sitting in the parking lot staring at the front door, now locked but that "Tazmanian Devil" tattoo on his shoulder is something I have never forgotten.

Don't wait until you have to figure out what to do in a crisis. Complete an assessment of your current plans versus best practices.

Dave Flora is a subject matter expert in Print and Mail Center Safety and Security, and a Principal at Firestorm, a national leader in crisis management, vulnerability analysis/threat assessment, risk mitigation and business continuity. Its unique Predict. Plan. Perform process is the foundation for a next generation suite of consulting services, tools and software that create resilient, disaster- ready organizations. For more ideas on developing a "culture of preparedness" in your organization, sign up for Dave's free newsletter at or to receive a Workplace Violence White Paper and Self Assessment email him directly at