Proceed with Caution
I almost didn’t write this chapter because I wanted to avoid perpetuating any of the several myths about those who commit workplace violence. Perhaps the most dangerous myth is that it is possible to identify by profiling and pre-screening those who are most likely to commit violence in the workplace, and simply not hire them. There is no data to support this myth, and in fact the research supports the opposite conclusion: It is simply not possible to pre-screen your way to a violence-free workplace. Another problem with this false expectation is that the traits I describe in this chapter would be nearly impossible to identify in any sort of employment pre-screening. Instead, they are likely to be observed only after the worker had been employed for some time. This, of course, is not to discount due diligence in hiring and screening practices. By all means, applicants must be pre-screened for a history of violence and other very obvious problems in their background. But relying on screening practices to keep violence out of the workplace is simply not adequate or wise.
The Mental Illness Myth
It’s commonly held that mental illness is a factor in the majority of workplace violence perpetrators. This is not surprising, given the propensity of the media to link violent acts with mental illness, specifically depression. The purpose and scope of this book, however, does not permit a comprehensive treatment of that myth. Suffice it to say that most people who are mentally ill do not commit violence, and most people who commit violence are not mentally ill.
The Friendless Loner Myth
There is a persistent myth that most perpetrators of workplace violence are socially isolated. That’s also not supported by research. Steven Reiss, an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University, writes: “”There is really almost no correlation between how friendly and social someone is and how potentially violent and vengeful they are. If being a loner was related to violence, we’d have a lot of trouble in the monastery.”
So, What Can We Do?
Reiterating the cautions of the preceding paragraphs, it is not possible to predict and screen out those who might commit workplace violence. However, examinations of violent incidents after the fact have yielded several general personality traits that have been common in those who commit workplace violence. Just to be clear, people may have all these traits and never commit workplace violence, and people who don’t have them may still become violent. For a supervisor, however, the observation of these traits in workers can guide an extra measure of subtle awareness to the right place. This may facilitate the timely recognition of the more acute warning signs identified in Chapter Seven.