Survey: Violence warning signs often go undetected

Study shows need for more education and training

Experts claim that workplace violence rarely strikes without warning, but according to a new study on the issue, the majority of the work force does not recognize potential warning signs. This is one of many compelling findings from a recent study commissioned by the Atlanta-based American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Inc. (AAOHN), indicating the need for employee education and training on workplace violence.

"Our study found that nearly 20% of the entire work force claimed they have experienced an episode of workplace violence first hand, yet the majority still do not know what to look for when it comes to determining potential offender characteristics," notes AAOHN president Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN. "The fact that most people do not realize what some of the warning signs are critical; if you know them, then you can look at your potential responses."

AAOHN’s survey was designed to gauge employee knowledge around the issue of workplace violence and demonstrate the need for violence prevention education. To help ensure survey accuracy, experts from the FBI’s National Center for Analysis and Violent Crime, who currently are developing a workplace violence monograph available to companies later this year, were consulted during the development of survey criteria. Respondents to AAOHN’s survey were asked about their personal experiences, concerns, perceptions and overall awareness of the issue. Following are key findings from those questions:

• Recognizing the warning signs. The AAOHN survey found the vast majority of respondents did not recognize many of the key workplace violence warning signs, which have been identified by the FBI. In fact, when given a list of red-flag behaviors, fewer than 4% of respondents were able to identify some of the most common warning signs usually seen in potential offenders. These signs include changes in mood, personal hardships, mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety), negative behavior (e.g., lying, bad attitude), verbal threats, and past history of violence.

• Defining workplace violence — men vs. women. According to the FBI, workplace violence can be defined as any action that may threaten the safety of an employee, impact the employee’s physical or psychological well-being, or cause damage to company property. When survey respondents were given a list of examples and asked to flag what they perceived as actions of workplace violence, the majority of respondents were in agreement on what was and was not considered violence.

However, when answers were analyzed by gender, there was a significant difference between what men and women considered to be workplace violence, especially when it came to such actions as stalking, threats and intimidation, and sexual harassment:

Stalking: 73% of men and 94% of women agreed that stalking was a form of workplace violence.

Threats and intimidation: 76% of men, in comparison to 90% of women, agreed that threats and intimidation were examples of workplace violence.

Sexual harassment: 83% of men and 97% of women, agreed that sexual harassment is a form of workplace violence.

(Editor’s note: The AAOHN survey primarily focused on employee-on-employee violence.)

Implications of findings

Randolph says the findings of the survey carry significant implications for occupational health nurses. "It’s important to put a program together at your worksite now so you will have a planned approach to dealing with violence, rather than waiting until you have an episode," she advises. "With some of the work pressures employees face today, may of them are short-tempered and there are many different types of violent episodes possible at work."

To create such a plan, Randolph recommends putting together a multidisciplinary team of including upper management, security, legal, human resources, health and safety, and employees. "Once you have determined what should be included in the policy, the next step is education," she observes. "Teach employees about the factors that contribute to workplace violence, as well as the early warning signs." 

The AAOHN Workplace Violence Survey was conducted by International Communications Research in October 2003 and included 500 telephone interviews among full-time employees ages 18 and older. The margin of error for this study is +4.4%.

[For additional information, contact:

Susan A. Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, President, AAOHN, 2920 Brandywine Road, Suite 100, Atlanta, GA 30341. Telephone: (770) 455-7757. Web:]