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Communicating to Defuse Potentially Violent Behavior


  • Project calmness: move and speak slowly, quietly, yet confidently
  • Be respectful
  • Be an empathetic listener, encourage the person to talk and listen carefully and patiently (this can be hard when a person is ranting). Focus your attention on the person
  • Sit close to the door, don't get right in front of the person, maintain a relaxed posture
  • Acknowledge the person's feelings. Indicate that you see the person is upset. You can validate the feeling without condoning negative acts. (I understand you feel______, and it's not ok to _______)
  • Form some bond/connection
  • Use delaying tactics to help person calm down. (Offer a drink of water in a paper cup)
  • Be reassuring and point out choices. Break problems into smaller, more manageable pieces
  • Call Security or local police if you feel threatened

Do Not:

  • Be cold, apathetic, condescending robotic (going strictly by the rules without human factor)
  • Reject all of the person's demands from the start
  • Pose in challenging stances (hands on hips, crossing arms). Try to avoid physical contact, finger-pointing, staring, invade space
  • Make sudden movements that could be seen as threatening, remember to move and speak slowly
  • Challenge, threaten, belittle or dare individual
  • Criticize or act impatiently toward agitated individual
  • Attempt to bargain with a threatening individual
  • Make false statements or promises you can't keep
  • Downplay the seriousness of the situation
  • Try to focus on technical or complicated information when emotions are high
  • Take sides or agree with distortions

A Checklist: Early Warning Signals of a Potential For Violence in the Workplace

Experts caution that there is no definite profile from which an employer can determine whether an individual will be more prone to violence in the workplace than another. However, the same experts agree, and our experience confirms, that there are a number of signs often exhibited by employees in a pattern of escalation leading to violence in the workplace. Having one or even several of these signs does not mean that the employee will be violent but should be used to heighten concern. Conditions in the workplace can also suggest an increased potential for violence. The most commonly mentioned warning signals are the following:

  • Any history of violent behavior before or after employment with the current employer.
  • An extreme interest in or obsession with weapons, e.g., paramilitary training, weapons collections (often including semiautomatic weapons), and compulsive reading and collecting of gun magazines. If this behavior starts spontaneously or is out of character for the employee, it should be considered.
  • Excessive discussion of weapons at work, carrying a concealed weapon or flashing a weapon to test reactions.
  • Making either direct or veiled verbal threats of harm (i.e., predicting that bad things are going to happen to a co-employee or supervisor).
  • Intimidating others or instilling fear in co-employees or supervisors. (This can be physical or verbal intimidation.) Harassing phone calls and stalking are obvious examples.
  • Having an obsessive involvement with the job often with no apparent outside interests. (Usually outside relationships fail or are strained.) The workplace becomes the person's sole source of identity. (Please be advised that this characteristic may apply to many of your best employees, including those who would never commit a violent act.)
  • Being a loner with little involvement with co-employees, with the possible exception of a romantic interest in a co-employee. This interest will often be so intense that the co-employee will feel threatened and may report the unwanted attention under a sexual harassment policy.
  • Being paranoid, panicking easily and often perceiving that the whole world is against the employee.
  • Not taking criticism well, holding a grudge, especially against a supervisor, and often verbalizing a hope for something to happen to the person against whom the employee has the grudge. A classic example is to hold a grudge over being denied a promotion, transfer, etc.
  • Expressing extreme desperation over recent family, financial, or personal problems. Giving up statements, threats to quit, depression.
  • Fascination with other recent incidents of workplace violence and approval of the use of violence under similar circumstances.
  • An escalating propensity to push the limits of normal conduct, with a disregard for the safety of co-employees.
  • Failure to take consistent disciplinary measures against threats of violence or minor incidents of violence (e.g., pushing or touching which may or may not be associated with a sexual harassment complaint).
  • Workplace events generating great stress such as layoffs (downsizing), terminations, labor disputes, transfers.
  • Workplace locations and activities which expose employees to the threat of violent behavior from non-employees entering the workplace.

The Santa Barbara Community College District has the following administrative guidelines for dealing with workplace violence.  They serve as a helpful guide for all faculty.  


Workplace homicide is the third leading cause of death on the job according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "An estimated 1,400 people are murdered at work in the United States annually... (and) as many as 7,000 fatal work-related injuries occur each year as well" according to a National Traumatic Occupational Fatality Study. These numbers do not account for a myriad of other violent threats to security experienced by many employers. Whether these happen on or off the work site, there is no question that the cost to an employer, in human and business terms, can be substantial.

An Employer who learns that a current or former employee has threatened violence against managers, supervisors or other employees may have to take certain preventative steps under the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (Fed-OSHA) and its state counterpart (Cal-OSHA). These acts generally require employers to provide their employees with a safe and healthful place of employment.

While the law in this area is still unclear, it appears that employers who learn of threats of violence against their employees may be required under OSHA to take action to protect employees in the event that the threat is later acted upon. The best way to respond under the Act would be to address workplace security and provide training concerning violent situations pursuant to the employer's safety program; that is the objective of these guidelines.

Procedure for Reporting and Investigating Threats

Supervisors will immediately investigate any reported threat of violence to their employees in consultation with the Personnel and Security departments. The supervisor will advise the alleged victim of the right to file a police report which could result in a criminal complaint being issued.

The supervisor should assure the employee that a thorough and prompt investigation will occur, and should ask whether he/she has any suggestions for minimizing the risk of a violent act.

The supervisor conducting an investigation should interview the reporting party and obtain information regarding the threat which would include: (a) who made the threat; (b) against whom was the threat made; (c) the specific language of the threat; (d) any physical conduct by the threatening party which would tend to substantiate that the individual intends to follow through on the threat; (e) the names of any other witnesses to the threat or violent conduct; (f) the time and place where the threat or violent conduct occurred; (g) threats or violent conduct by the alleged perpetrator before this incident; and (h) any other pertinent information.

The supervisor in consultation with the personnel and security departments should decide how to approach the accused individual. Fairness and due process will require that the perpetrator's side of the story be told. Where the allegation of a threat of violence or violent conduct is believed to be genuine, the interview with the alleged perpetrator could occur in the presence of district security personnel or, under unusual circumstances, in the presence of local police officers. Depending on the circumstances of the allegations and the status of the evidence, it may be appropriate to suspend the alleged employee perpetrator pending conclusion of the investigation. The Personnel Director shall be consulted before this is done.

Upon conclusion of the investigation, the supervisor will review the case with the appropriate Vice President, Security Director and Personnel Director and will make an appropriate recommendation (finding of no threat, recommended disciplinary or other action) to the Superintendent/President.

The supervisor should report back to the complaining party as to any planned action.

Defamation Claims:  Supervisors are asked to proceed with the investigation in a cautious manner, working with the Personnel Department for legal assistance due to possible claims of defamation by the accused. Defamation occurs when a statement which is communicated to another individual is false, unprivileged, and the cause of injury. For this reason, the supervisor should work closely with the Personnel Department for legal guidance.

Suggested Emergency Response Procedures

The following are suggested steps that the supervisor/administrator should take when dealing with an emergency violent situation:

  • Call security and police (911).
  • If incident involves a gun, lock down classrooms and/or office if necessary and order students to lie flat on floor.
  • Secure the immediate area.
  • Provide first aid.
  • Notice and remember participants and witnesses.
  • Direct participants and witnesses to administrative office.
  • Secure written statements that are signed and dated from those individuals:
    a. Statements should contain detailed facts, not conclusionary statements;
    b. Statements should describe participants' actions, so witnesses should be asked to describe the event act-by-act.
  • Advise victims of right to file police report which could result in a criminal complaint being issued.
  • Notify spouses or families of victims and participants, Superintendent/President and others with a need to know, i.e. Personnel Dept., College Information Officer, College Nurse, Workers' Compensation carrier.
  • After the incident, provide for mental health counseling referral as needed for participants.
  • Consider suspension or expulsion of participants.
  • Prepare reports or other administrative actions.


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