The deadly shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others on Saturday, killing 6, (including a 9 year-old) should be a startling reminder to all public officials and employers to be vigilant regarding the warning signs of potentially violent behavior.

Although the motive for the shooting is still unclear, according to neighbors and acquaintances Arizona gunman Jared Lee Loughner  was a troubled young man whose disturbing behavior started to flare up in just the last few years, with campus police run-ins, a college suspension and a rejection from the Army for admitted drug use. Saturday’s actions were likely preceded by a major precipitating event that catapulted Mr. Loughner to this devastating action.

The good news for employers (if there can be any good news in these situations) is that almost all violent behavior begins with warning signs. So, what should you look for? Employees who exhibit  the following:

  • Fascination with violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Sense of entitlement – “The world owes me”
  • Pattern of complaints, litigation, unfounded whistle-blowing
  • Making hit lists
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Narcissistic rage
  • Severe stress
  • Violent history
  • Severe changes in psychological functioning
  • Decreased or inconsistent productivity
  • Social isolation and poor peer relationships
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Drastic changes in personality

Based on witness descriptions, Mr. Loughner exhibited at least 5 of these characteristics. Perhaps if someone had chosen to get involved this could have been prevented.

Experts generally agree there are three stages of violence:

Stage One — Early Violence Potential – the employee or perpetrator exhibits signs such as:

  • Objectifying and dehumanizing others
  • Challenging authority
  • Regularly becoming argumentative
  • Alienating customers and clients
  • Originating and spreading lies about others
  • Swearing excessively; using sexually explicit language
  • Abusing others verbally
  • Sexually harassing others

Stage Two — Escalated Violence Potential – The behavior escalates resulting in:

  • Frequent arguing with greater intensity
  • Blatant disregard for organizational policies and procedures
  • Stealing from the company or other employees; vandalism (property destruction)
  • Verbal threats
  • Conveying unwanted sexual attention or violent intentions by letter, voice mail, or e-mail
  • Refusal to accept responsibility for actions (blaming others)

Stage Three —Realized Violence Potential – Escalation continues to actual violence

  • Fights (or invitations to fight)
  • Displaying weapons (guns, knives, pepper spray, etc.)
  • Committing or attempting to commit assault, sexual assault, murder, arson, or suicide.

Employers should remain alert and vigilant and constantly monitor their workplace for potential signs of violence. If any signs are detected, employers need to take proactive measures to avoid escalation. Mr. Loughner provided warning signs, but no one was listening.

Proactive steps employers can take to help avoid such a tragedy:

  • Develop a Violence Prevention Policy – including a definition of violence
  • Initiate a Violence Prevention Team
  • Provide employees and leaders with violence prevention training
  • Leverage outside help for additional expertise

We offer our condolences to all the victims and their families who are dealing with unimaginable suffering because of the actions of a deranged man. We pray that through our vigilance and determination these actions won’t ever be repeated in the future.

There will always be disturbed people in our society, but with proper planning and vigilance, you can take appropriate actions to avoid these deadly situations.  Don’t let your workplace become a statistic, step up your preventive actions today.