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Preventing Workplace Violence Begins With Recruiting

By: Phil La Duke

Author’s note: The following is an updated excerpt from my book Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Prevention.

Everywhere I go these days employers have the same lament—nobody wants to work. While that might have a modicum of truth to it, the more likely scenario is that job seekers are being more judicious about the type of employment, compensation, and employer that they will accept.  Aging Baby Boomers forcefully removed from the workplace by COVID-19 shutdowns have acclimated to life as a retiree and aren’t particularly interested in returning to a job while a pandemic still rages.  Younger workers aren’t interested in working for companies who don’t pay a living wage or that expect workers to take on a side hustle (which they realize is corporate greed-speak for a second job) just to make enough money to live above the poverty line.

We are in the midst of a labor shortage—several markets and restaurants that I frequent are closing two or more days a week simply because they don’t have sufficient staff to keep their regular hours. This is more than a temporary inconvenience. In fact, a labor shortage often encourages employers to hire less than desirable candidates because they “need bodies”. Employers have yet to accept that the end of the pandemic (when it comes) won’t mean that the workplace will go back to the way it was before the pandemic.

Recruiters must eliminate the “we need bodies” mentality if we are going to make a dent in workplace violence.  A good way to avoid a workplace shooting is to avoid hiring people who are unstable and/or who demonstrate a pattern of violent behavior. In this day where people blithely post sometimes outrageous and ominous threatening statements on social media that provide a hidden glimpse into their personalities making it easier than ever to legally gain information on an individual’s mental state and volatility. Even as individuals try to conceal embarrassing posts it is still possible to gain important insights. Here are some potential red flags that are worth considering, as you read through them remember there are two conditions for which you are screening:

  1. someone who is at high risk of committing workplace violence, and
  2. someone who is a likely victim of workplace violence: (Note: a company shouldn’t dismiss a good candidate simply because of the presence of a single red flag—then again these red flags should be strongly considered before hiring (or even interviewing) a candidate:
  • Hate Speech. This should be fairly obvious, but it can be surprisingly common for an individual to post an overt, or thinly veiled, racial slur, ethnic insults, or negative comments indicating bigotry toward one or more subpopulations. This isn’t a call for people to be politically correct to a nauseating extent, but if a candidate is comfortable enough to attack a protected class in public posts, he or she probably lacks the judgment that God gave geese, and ultimately these bigotries will likely manifest in the workplace. A person who allows his or her contacts to post hate speech comments unchallenged on his or her posts is also a red flag, as the adage goes, birds of a feather flock together.
  • Belligerence. Some people enjoy provoking others; I do, for example, but that is a major part of my job. I have to use provocation to move people out of their comfort zones (the irony of this particular bullet point is not lost on me) so that they can change. But the accounting clerk that you are considering probably isn’t being belligerent to make the math work, so a belligerent tone or a pattern of belligerent posts should be weighed against the job and its requirements.
  • Volatility. Even a saint can be pushed to the breaking point and post or say something that he or she wished he hadn’t, but what can be really telling is when a person shifts from mildly argumentative to the post equivalent of a screaming frothy rage. This “flick a switch” going from zero to raging gaping maniac (not my first choice of word) is a strong red flag. Even though we know that people often act in a way online that they would never act in person, they still secretly or silently harbor these feelings strongly enough to post them in a public forum and the right stimuli could set them off.
  • Obsession with guns. This might seem obvious to some and unfair to others. I have a social contact who almost exclusively posts photos of automatic weapons. Another is a self-described gun nut. In and of themselves these two would seem to be people you don’t want to hire. In fact, one of them is in ROTC and the other is an artist that draws weapons for a popular single-shooter video game and requires the guns for research for his job. Neither of them is belligerent or exhibit any violent tendencies; again these are indicators and have to be considered in a larger context with the other red flags.
  • Obsession with Violent Events. Whenever there is a high-profile single shooter event the social networks are littered with posts relative to the event. But there are also individuals who post memes, articles, or statements that form a pattern that suggests if not an obsession with violence a keen interest in it. Personally, I would also steer clear of people who post pictures of their cats dressed in holiday costumes—they may not be dangerous or violent, but I’m not going to share a cube with these cat-fanciers.
  • No social media presence. In an age when grandparents have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts it is practically unheard of for someone under the age of 70. If someone doesn’t have a social media account, it may indicate that they have deleted the account or are using a pseudonym. This is hardly damning; the person may merely want to get rid of the public displays of youthful indiscretions. Personally, I don’t see why my Facebook page is festooned with posts of me drinking, spewing obscenities (some of which I made up (patent pending…fingers crossed)) and dubious check-ins. But I like people to have a good idea who they’re dealing with, plus as an author who is known for his poison-pen and tongue dripping venom, I get away with a lot more than most. As for your average candidate, again, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker but should be considered another possible indicator. If you were considering bringing me aboard when you started reading you probably have since changed your mind.

Again, none of these things in themselves identifies a dangerous individual but it provides an important piece of the puzzle that you really need when you hire a person, and you need that information BEFORE you bring the person in for an interview.

As I have said, a recruiter shouldn’t make a hiring decision based on these criteria alone, but assuming you find an otherwise qualified candidate, there is no harm in asking questions about the posts during a preliminary interview.

Of course, there are many other factors to consider but that’s why I wrote a book instead of a single article. I will close with this: it’s far easier to avoid hiring a mentally unstable and potentially violent candidate than it is to fire this person once they move from candidate to employee.  So be careful about “looking for bodies”; you might get exactly that (only dead) and you will regret the approach that led you to hire a killer.

About The Author

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 2,500 works in print. He has contributed to Authority, Buzzfeed, Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global, and many more magazines and is published on all inhabited continents. He is the author of three books and a contributor to one more. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His second book Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention which deals with workplace violence, particularly directed at women, is listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands was recently released and will be followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in December. La Duke also contributed a chapter of  1% Safer, a not-for-profit book written by the “top game-changers and global thought leaders.” Phil is a noted expert in workplace violence prevention and frequently speaks public and private forums.

​Follow Phil on TwitterFacebook, or read his weekly blog. In addition to his extensive writing, La Duke is currently employed as a COVID Compliance and Production Safety Consultant for the film and television industry.