Most workers cannot recognize the potential warning signs of on-the-job violence, according to a new study commissioned by the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses, Inc. (AAOHN).

"Nearly 20 percent of the entire workforce claimed they have experienced an episode of workplace violence first-hand, yet the majority still do not know what to look for when it comes to determining potential offender characteristics," says AAOHN President Susan A. Randolph.

Most Americans feel that their current work environment is safe from threats of workplace violence. Only 12 percent of respondents indicated a level of concern that they will experience an act of workplace violence in their current work environment.

Key workplace violence warning signs have been identified by the FBI. When given a list of "red flag" behaviors, less than four percent of respondents were able to identify some of the most common warning signs: changes in mood, personal hardships, mental health issues (depression, anxiety), negative behavior (untrustworthy, lying, bad attitude), verbal threats and past history of violence.

According to the FBI, workplace violence can be defined as any action that may threaten the safety of an employee, impact the employee's physical or psychological well-being, or cause damage to company property.

When survey responses were analyzed by gender, there was a significant difference between what men and women considered to be workplace violence, especially when it came to such actions as stalking, threats and intimidation, and sexual harassment:

  • 73 percent of men compared to 94 percent of women agreed that stalking was a form of workplace violence.
  • 76 percent of men compared to 90 percent of women agreed that threats and intimidation were examples of workplace violence.
  • 83 percent of men compared to 97 percent of women agreed that sexual harassment is a form of workplace violence.

The AAOHN survey primarily focuses on employee-on-employee violence, which is the most common source of threats or assaults on the workplace violence continuum. Other important types of workplace violence stem from domestic disputes that spill over into the workplace; robberies or other crimes; or violence committed on an employee by a non-employee (customer, client).

Most respondents could identify certain behavioral traits as possible warning signs for acts of potential workplace violence:

  • Use of alcohol or drugs (75 percent);
  • Expressing anger regularly in the workplace (71 percent);
  • Loud and aggressive nature (53 percent).

Yet most respondents failed to recognize some of the most common signs that the FBI identifies as possible traits for offenders:

  • Quiet, keeps to themselves (30 percent);
  • Passive in nature (21 percent);
  • Negative behavior, lying (3 percent);
  • Change in behavior or mood (2 percent);
  • Personal hardships (2 percent);
  • Past history of violence (2 percent);
  • Mental illness, bipolar, depression (1.7 percent);
  • Verbal threats or abuse (1 percent).