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Violence in the Workplace - Informational Material

  The following informational material provides tips and guidance on handling the following workplace violence issues: Coping With Threats and Violence; Under Armed Threat; Hostility; Reference Card; and Employee Relations.

To access OPM's Dealing With Workplace Violence - A Guide for Agency Planners go to

Coping With Threat and Violence - Why Threats and Violence Are a Problem

News stories about violent incidents appear every day on television and on the front pages of our newspapers. Some of these stories capture national or international attention because they are about assaults on United States Presidents, Members of Congress, or other public officials. But countless other Federal Government employees are vulnerable also. These employees are "on the front-line", dealing directly with the public every day--Social Security claims representatives, Immigration border guards, Internal Revenue Service agents. Because you work for the Federal Government is no guarantee that you're protected from or immune to threats or violence from "customers" or members of the general public.

People come into our Federal offices because they need our help. And, like customers anywhere, people who need the services provided by the Federal Government can become frustrated and tense. They may be nervous about their first visit to a Federal Government office. Sometimes they don't understand government procedures and regulations.

When all of these stress factors are combined, a person may commit, or threaten to commit, violence. Unless these emotional, angry, or frustrated individuals are handled properly, they may harm you, themselves, or other customers. Sometimes even coworkers--perhaps under a great deal of stress because of problems at work or at home--may become threatening or violent.

Many experts say there is no sure way to prevent acts of violence in a place serving customers. You, however, as a Federal "front-line" employee, can learn how to recognize the warning signs of a potentially threatening or violent situation and the specific steps to follow if you or a coworker become involved in such a situation. You and your coworkers also need to know about the enhanced security measures your office can adopt to bring your office and building up to higher standards of security and personal safety.

Under Armed Threat

Confrontations with an armed man or woman are the most dangerous of all situations involving violent persons and the most difficult for inexperienced people to deal with.

Shout, scream, or panic reactions are likely to frighten an agitated person into taking action that could harm people or destroy property. Instead, remain as calm as possible; saying or doing nothing is better than making a bad situation worse.

Dialing 911 or any telephone number in the presence of an armed assailant could frighten him or her into using the weapon.

Freeze in place and do nothing, letting the potential assailant make the next move. Avoid doing anything that could cause the potential assailant to take action. Simply standing still and letting the individual "talk it out" may be all you should do under these extreme circumstances. Don't try any heroics that could cause the individual to react violently.

Look the person directly in the eye. Keep talking to gain time and calm the gunman. Never feel entirely helpless. Federal front-line employees dealing with the general public should have access to a hidden alarm button under the service counter to alert a supervisor or building security.

Keep calm until security guards can disarm the man and remove him from the premises.

Don't try to disarm the potential assailant. Don't try to be a hero! Such a reckless move could seriously endanger everyone in the room.

When possible, write down the person's description--approximate height and weight, color of hair and clothing, age, race, and any prominent features. Estimate the number of people in the room. If there is a "safe room" in the office area, alert the person who is in charge of the room to be prepared for an emergency. As soon as possible, telephone GSA's Federal Protective Service (or the agency's building security guards or the local police). Describe the potential assailant, emphasize that if they have a gun, and estimate how many people are in the room and where they are--by windows, doors, along the wall. Give the private telephone number for the FPS or the police to call back.

Call GSA's Federal Protective Service, the agency security guards, or the local police immediately. Law enforcement officials can provide the expert assistance for the customers need. A well-managed office should have an emergency plan that has been developed in cooperation with the FPS, security guards, or the local police so that all employees know what procedures to follow until help arrives.

To avoid threats and violence, front-line employees must always take threats seriously and report them to their supervisors or the Federal Protective Service.

A manager should never leave a new or inexperienced employee alone in a public, front-line position. Nor is it good practice to leave only one clerk on duty, especially during the lunch hour when more people are expected to come into the office.

Consult the Federal Protective Service, agency security guards, or the local police about what to do if a customer ever becomes violent. The highest ranking Federal official within the agency or building should work out an emergency procedure plan with GSA's Federal Protective Service, building security guards, or the local police to be followed in dealing with an armed or potentially dangerous individual. Agency officials should also request a GSA Security Survey.

Reporting Incidents of Threats and Violence

The first time threatened--no matter how "minor", immediately report it to your supervisor and then call the Federal Protective Service, contract guards, or the local police. Incidents of threats or violence involving co-workers also should be reported--before they lead to a life-endangering situation. In addition, Federal agencies must report immediately any suspicious activities or criminal acts that occur on Federal property. Any incident should be reported to one of the following:

GSA Federal Protective Service control centers or MegaCenters, FPS personnel, contract guards, or GSA field office Managers.

If your agency has its own internal security reporting requirements and enforcement or investigative authority, send the Federal Protective Service an unclassified report describing the threatening, violent, or criminal incident. This is especially important when GSA provides physical security and law enforcement services for your Federal building. GSA will report crimes and incidents of threatening or violent behavior to the regional offices of the GSA Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and local police departments--where they have jurisdiction or direct control.

Victim Support

People involved in threatening or violent incidents can suffer adverse reactions to these traumatic events. That's when they need the support of coworkers and their supervisor and, perhaps, outside counseling.

A supervisor can recommend counseling for employees who are severely traumatized by an incident, or give them excused time off the job to relax and get over the experience. "Talking it out" with a fellow employee is another way of venting the strong feelings of fear or anger that occur under extreme circumstances.

Supervisors should make certain that the victimized employee does not feel "unprofessional" or take any "blame" for the incident. At the same time, the employee's suggestions in a debriefing about the incident can contribute toward improving physical security deficiencies in the office. A day or two after the incident, when everyone has had a chance to calm down, supervisors may want to have an employee meeting to talk about what happened, how the situation was handled, and how it might have been avoided.

When Hostility Turns To Violence - What Would You Do To Avoid a Violent Confrontation?

Respond early to an agitated state-- perspiring and red face, shaking hands. These are often the first warning signs of a person who could become threatening or violent. This is the time to remain calm and explain to the customer what the procedures are and why they are necessary. If the customer is still agitated, it may be necessary to call a supervisor over to talk to the customer. In an extreme case, alert a coworker to have the supervisor call the Federal Protective Service or the security guards.

The receptionist is usually the first person customers meet and may set the tone for interactions with other people. A receptionist should be courteous to everyone--but should stay alert and notice the actions of any customer in the waiting area.

In offices where customers have appointments, service representatives should consider giving the receptionist a list of customers and appointment times each morning. As the day goes on, the receptionist should be immediately notified of any changes or delays so customers can be told when they first arrive.

Follow office procedures and immediately tell the supervisor what's happening.

Call the FPS officers immediately. If the customer has become extremely agitated, the supervisor should notify the FPS (or building security guards or the local police) immediately.

The supervisor should give the FPS officer a brief explanation of what has happened to cause the problem. The customer should be accurately described, and the exact location of the office and building should be pinpointed. If there is a "safe room," the supervisor should tell the FPS officers how to get to the "safe room" without being seen by the customer.

Telephoned Suicide or Bomb Threats

From time to time, Federal offices receive telephone calls from someone who threatens to commit suicide or who says a bomb has been planted in a Federal building. What should you do? How do you handle these calls?

Print out the following card summarizing what you should do. Read and think about the procedures. Carefully tear out the card and tape or staple it to the inside front cover of your telephone directory--or put the card in another handy place where you can easily refer to it. Review the card frequently.

Everyone in your office, including supervisors and managers, should follow these same procedures. Make copies of the card if you need to so everyone will have his or her own.

  Reference Card


1. Keep calm. Keep talking.
2. Don't hang up.
3. Signal a coworker to get on an extension.
4. Ask the caller to repeat the message and write it down.
5. Repeat questions, if necessary.
6. For a bomb threat, ask where the bomb is and when it is set to go off.
7. Listen for background noises and write down a description.
8. Write down whether it's a man or a woman; pitch of voice, accent; anything else you hear.
9. Try to get the person's name, exact location, telephone number.
10. Signal a coworker to immediately call the FPS, a contract guard, or the local police.
11. Notify your immediate supervisor.


1. Stay calm. Listen attentively.
2. Maintain eye contact.
3. Be courteous. Be patient.
4. Keep the situation in your control.


1. Signal a coworker, or supervisor, that you need help.
2. Do not make any calls yourself.
3. Have someone call the FPS, contract guard, or local police.


1. Stay calm. Quietly signal for help.
2. Maintain eye contact.
3. Stall for time.
4. Keep talking--but follow instructions from the person who has the weapon.
5. Don't risk harm to yourself or others.
6. Never try to grab a weapon.
7. Watch for a possible chance to escape to a safe area.

Obscene, Harassing, or Threatening Telephone Calls

Obscene and harassing callers are primarily interested in generating fear and discomfort. The longer they keep you listening, the more satisfaction they derive from the call. Some experts say that the person who uses the phone to verbally harass or embarrass is not likely to follow up with a direct confrontation.

If obscene or harassing calls continue, keep a written record of the day, date, and time; the type of voice (male/female, pitch, and accent, if any); background noise; what was said; and whether the person gave a name. Then ask the Federal Protective Service for help.

The caller who makes personal threats to you or your family is another matter. Any threatening call should be reported to GSA's Federal Protective Service, agency contract guards, or the local police immediately.

See the printout card listing suggestions on dealing with telephoned suicide or bomb threats. This card should be printed and then kept near your office telephone for quick reference.

When Employee Relations Go Wrong - What would you do?

Based on attitude and behavior, have an open discussion with discreet, but probing, questions to get the information needed to recommend counseling. Tell them that unexcused tardiness, poor performance, and abuse of sick leave privileges could be grounds for a formal warning and, ultimately, demotion or dismissal. However, assure them that you want to find alternatives that will provide solutions to the problems.

Keep calm and let them continue to talk. Decide whether to refer them to the agency's personnel office. That office can tell them about various alternatives--counseling, medical examination, or a private organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Work up a plan of action, with a specific timetable and a commitment from employee to carry through on the plan and report progress at agreed upon intervals of no longer than once a week. Maintain a serious interest in and concern for his welfare and his return to his excellent level of job performance.

Coping With Stress

Job-related stress will never be eliminated, but it can be managed. If you're feeling stress constantly, or frequently "blowing up" for no reason, you should discuss the problem with your supervisor or with a counselor.

Many times, problems at home go with you to the office. Or your office itself may be causing you stress--a personality conflict with a co-worker, a heavy workload with no time off, or a noisy or disorganized environment.

If the problems cannot be resolved, you may want to think about transferring to another office or to another type of work.

Perhaps your supervisor can arrange for a room where you and your co-workers can "get away from it all" by taking short breaks. If you can't get away from it all at work, allow extra time by getting up earlier so you don't have to rush around to get to work on time.

Physical exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Try walking or jogging before or after work or at lunchtime. Take up a hobby or try volunteer work in the evening or on weekends.

Federal Employee Assistance Programs

Free, voluntary, and confidential short-term counseling is available for Federal employees through employee assistance programs sponsored by all Federal Government departments and agencies. Counseling is usually offered on a variety of problems: family and marital crises; mental and emotional stress; child or spouse abuse; problems with children; care of elderly or infirm relatives; money and credit management; and alcohol and drugs.

To find Federal employee assistance programs, contact the personnel office in your agency or call the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

If you require long-term counseling, you can usually find help in the community where you live through city, county, or State offices or through church or private organizations. Look in the government sections of your telephone directory for "health," "social services," or "counseling" and in the yellow pages for church or private organizations.

  Source: U.S. General Services Administration

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