Understanding Perception And Its Role In Workplace Violence

Perception is reality. You have probably heard that stated before, but may not have given it much thought. When incidents of violence occur, we often think, “How could a person do that?” Most of us can’t fathom the thought of killing another human, unless it’s in the context of defending ourselves or our loved ones.

Part of my research into workplace violence incidents involves sitting down with survivors and discussing their traumatic events. Besides trying to understand what helps people endure and overcome tragedy, I also strive to extract any clues, behavioral changes, or commonalities that can be found leading up to the violence. I remember interviewing a man who worked at a construction site when his supervisor was killed. He told me that his coworker-turned-murderer had a beef with the supervisor because he believed the supervisor was withholding money from him. His anger grew to the point of paranoia and he came to believe that his boss was “out to get him.” He even told his coworkers that he thought the supervisor was poisoning his Gatorade. My interviewee said “That was crazy. We all drank from the same Gatorade supply.” The man’s paranoia festered until it finally reached a boiling point. He finished working for the day and sat down to wait for the supervisor to return to the job site. When his boss arrived, the man strode toward him in a rage. My subject, a witness, tried to intervene. He told the man, “Stop. Don’t do this. You’ll go to jail.” He said his coworker only shoved him aside and told him to stay out of it. The violent man then proceeded to pick his supervisor up, screaming at him, “I told you not to mess with me,” and body slammed him on the ground six to eight times. Following his violent rage, the assailant sat down and waited for the arrival of the police. The supervisor was transported to the hospital, was in a coma for several months, and eventually died. His killer was charged with murder and is currently serving a life sentence.

While this incident doesn’t make sense to most of us, to the killer, it made perfect sense. Another man was withholding money from him and was trying to poison him. Whether or not he was due any money is unknown, but there was certainly no evidence that the boss was trying to poison him. What is important in this situation is that the man BELIEVED the supervisor was trying to kill him. His PERCEPTION was that he was being targeted. People who commit these crimes often believe they are treated unfairly, are targeted by others, are innocent victims who bear no responsibility for bad things that have happened in their lives – whether it be a divorce, demotion, loss of job, etc. Someone else is always to blame, and those people must be punished.

Employees and supervisors should be aware of pre-incident indicators that point toward potentially violent individuals. Sudden changes in personality and/or appearance, hypersensitivity to criticism, rage, paranoia, talk of suicide, veiled or blatant threats, and unnatural fascination with violent events are all warning signs that must be heeded. These behaviors, often coupled with a recent loss of some type – death of a loved one, termination from their job, revocation of child custody – must be taken seriously and reported. Every workplace needs a clear reporting structure, a threat assessment/management team, and awareness training at a minimum.

Always remember, those who commit these acts feel justified in their actions. Awareness and action can head it off before it escalates to the point of violence. We only know what we miss; we don’t always know what we have prevented.


Carol S. Dodgen is owner of Dodgen Security Consulting. She is a nationally recognized speaker who provides instruction on Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), Workplace Violence Prevention and Response, Robbery Prevention and Response, and Personal Safety. Carol can be reached at carol@dodgensecurity.com.

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