Risky Business: Surviving a Violent Coworker

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  • Do call security or 911
  • Do keep your cool
  • Do engage in dialogue
  • Don't embarrass him or her

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a job that paid me enough to justify working with a violent, or potentially violent, coworker. Never. But you can survive this experience and I’ll tell you how. Which reminds me of when I was in college and looked like I hadn’t shaved or cut my hair in a year and went to pick up a friend at a train station. While I was waiting, a guy in an old tattered coat came over and asked for a cigarette. I smiled at him and said, “Sorry, man, I don’t have any.” The guy glowered at me, then walked away. A few minutes later he returned, holding out a smoke. “Here,” he said, “you look like you need it.”

Which just goes to show that even the people you expect the least from can surprise you. And that’s probably true with your coworker. For tips on how to handle him, I turned to Workplace911 reader Larry Chavez, a hostage negotiator and police sergeant in Sacramento, CA. The tips are particularly timely because-believe it or not-according to government statistics, homicide is the second leading cause of death at work. You’ll find more suggestions on his web site: http://workplace-violence.com/. But a lot of his advice doesn’t just apply to dealing with a violent person, except for the 911 part, it’s great advice for dealing with anyone. I’ve adapted his tips below.

DO call security or 911. As soon as you sense a situation could turn violent, call the pros.

DO keep your cool. Displays of anger, fear or anxiety are like blood in the water to a potentially violent person. Talk in a calm voice, lower and slower than his (sorry guys, but violent outbursts are still mostly a guy thing). But be careful not to talk down to him.

DO engage in dialogue. People generally become violent because of some “triggering event.” If they’re given a chance to talk (or yell) about the triggering situation, they often calm down. So ask the guy what’s bugging him. Then listen attentively, maintaining full eye contact, while he responds. Give him a chance to solve the problem that triggered his anger. It’ll help him calm down, and you may gain a useful solution.

DON’T embarrass him or her. Helping the person preserve his dignity often helps defuse a potentially violent situation. Find ways to communicate to coworkers about the situation, and to punish the perpetrator if necessary, that will be the least humiliating to him.

Should you worry about getting killed at work? No: workplace homicide claims twenty victims a week from among the many millions of people who are employed. But the fact that it’s the second leading cause of death at work means that your plans for handling a violent situation should be of the first order.

911 Pulse: How concerned are you about violence at work?

  • I worry about it a lot, 10.6%
  • It never crosses my mind, 41.2%
  • I think about it once and a while, 48.1%

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