The morning commute in New York City was interrupted Friday with word that a gunman opened fire outside the Empire State Building. Jeffrey Johnson, a fashion accessories designer who was laid off last year, shot and killed a former colleague, Steve Ercolino, police said. Then he reportedly fired at the police on the scene, according to news reports.
The shooting follows a string of mass shootings in the U.S. And while crime overall has dropped in America, some experts say that the recession is driving an increase in workplace threats and violence. (Read more about that here.)
With the front pages now occupied by a shooting apparently stemming from a workplace dispute, an unavoidable question for all workers is: How can you tell if a colleague is dangerous?
And what should you do if you believe a co-worker is a threat?
There's no typical profile of a co-worker who might snap, according to Steve Kauger, the founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, Calif. But there are warning signs that a co-worker may be dangerous, says Larry Barton, the president of the Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based American College, who teaches at the FBI on how to identify potentially violent individuals in the private sector. In an interview with AOL Jobs, Barton outlined these red flags:
1. A co-worker's personality changes profoundly. When a worker goes from being social to being sullen or withdrawn, the transformation could be a sign of a deeper problem. Of course, such a transition doesn't mean that he will become violent, but it is a reason to take notice.
2. A colleague seems to be unusually angry and frustrated by one individual. "Beware of the grievance collector," said Barton. Yes, it's normal for workers to get frustrated on the job, but when someone directs his anger only at a specific person, as opposed to office politics or other external issues, that may be a warning sign.
3. There has been a negative milestone. Three types of events can push people to the edge: job loss, divorce and child custody issues. To be sure, millions of people experience these events without getting violent or threatening, but if you see these other signs -- fierce anger directed at one person, for instance, about a layoff -- then this could be a red flag.
What should you do if you are concerned that a worker might pose a threat? Barton recommends the following:
1. Trust your intuition. After settling into a job, people tend to let down their guard. And while that sense of comfort can have positive consequences for your working life, you have to remember that you are working with strangers. If you sense something is off, don't ignore your hunch.
2. Take advantage of Employee Assistance Programs. Through so-called EAPs, human resource departments will provide confidential support services for workers. Typically, you can make reports anonymously, but the company will be obligated to reach out to law enforcement if the company believes that the threat is real.
3. Notify the security department. Security officers don't just swipe badges. They are trained to deal with potentially violence situations, and can help keep an eye out on a potentially dangerous worker.
4. Show compassion. If you have a close relationship or some kind of rapport with a worker who is showing troubling behavior, a little compassion might go a long way.
5. Remember that threats from ex-employees need to be reported. If you hear about a former colleague who is out for revenge and perhaps has even made threats on Facebook, contact your security department and law enforcement.
6. If a co-worker has a violent outburst at work, it's vital not to dismiss him or simply tell him to "calm down" or "everything is going to be OK," Michael Staver, an executive coach, told Forbes. The person feels he has a legitimate gripe, and so anything that could come off as demeaning might only compound his anger.
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