Warning signs: One size does not fit all

But they can point to trouble

It is quite true that there are common warning signs that can indicate potential workplace violence problems, says Eugene A. Rugala, supervisory special agent for the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA. There even is a profile of the typical offender. However, he warns, when training employees it’s important to also remind them that every case is different.

Rugala knows whereof he speaks. He has been involved with workplace violence prevention for more than 10 years, and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime includes profilers who get involved in serial crimes and sexual assault murder, but also with threat assessment, stalking, and school violence.

In June 2002, his unit brought together a multidisciplinary group to look at workplace violence from both behavioral and law enforcement perspectives. Participants included occupational health professionals, lawyers from labor and private industry, mental health professionals, academia, the military, and victim witnesses.

Based on his own experience, as well as input from the group, Rugala says there are a number of behaviors employees should be taught to look for:

  • past violent behavior — this does not necessarily mean criminal behavior; it could include actions like belligerence on the job, throwing things, or punching inanimate objects such as walls.
  • individuals who blame others or who hold grudges;
  • hypersensitivity to criticism;
  • a loner — someone who tends to talk to him or herself;
  • mental health issues;
  • individuals who are easily frustrated;
  • individuals who make threats;
  • preoccupation with violent themes or recently publicized violent events;
  • remarks about homicide or suicide;
  • substance abuse;
  • depression;
  • fascination with weapons;
  • recent acquisition of weapons;
  • obsession with others or unwanted interest in a co-worker (stalking);
  • someone who is distrustful of others.

In terms of profiling offenders, "generally, it is a white male, 30-50, argumentative, disgruntled, unhappy," says Rugala. "But every case is individual in nature, so you can’t get too focused on the profile."

None of the factors listed above means that an individual will definitely act out violently, he continues. "You have to look at a totality of factors — behavior, what’s happening in the workplace, what’s happening at home," he explains. "These things are best viewed once a case comes to your attention. The list can be used as a way to screen out employees."

Rugala explains that if a company has an employee it is worried about, they cannot contact the FBI directly. "They [can] call law enforcement, who in turn will call us," he says. "This is a service we provide only to law enforcement." However, he notes, a monograph is being developed from the group’s discussions, and once it has been completed (sometime this fall), it will be posted on the FBI’s web site (www.fbi.gov), and interested occupational health professionals will be able to download it.