Violence connected to the workplace takes many forms. Dangerous or threatening behavior may come from a coworker, student, patient, a family member involved in an abusive relationship, or from someone who has no business relationship with the workplace. Events of workplace violence may include threats in person, by note, telephone, fax, email, or social media. A threat may be observed in written or oral form, and/or by a gesture that could be interpreted by a reasonable person to convey intent to cause physical harm to person(s) or property.

Potential Triggers of Workplace Violence

Pay attention to common situations that may trigger or motivate workplace violence. Violence can be triggered by any number of experiences or perceived events in a workplace setting. Some of these workplace events may include:

  • Job layoff
  • Termination
  • Relationship conflict
  • Domestic dispute
  • Job performance counseling or disciplinary action
  • Job stress, unfair working conditions, or not knowing work expectations
  • Harassment
  • Racial, ethnic, cultural, gender, or lifestyle conflicts
  • Poor management styles (e.g., inconsistent discipline, reprimands in front of others)
  • Exhaustion

Warning Signs of Potential Workplace Violence

The following are some warning signs of potential violence that may be observed in the workplace. People have their own normal behavior patterns. Observation of behavior that is at the extremes or outside of the normal expected behavior range may signal a problem. Recognizing potential workplace violence requires observation, information, and judgment. The behaviors listed below may help you to determine the potential for violence, help you think before you act, and help you assess your own feelings about an employee in question. Pay attention to:

  • Personal life stressors (e.g., financial, marital, or family issues)
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Increased frustration with one's circumstances
  • Increased belligerence
  • Obsession with a supervisor or coworker, perceiving unfair treatment
  • Recent marked decline in work performance
  • Less concern for appearance or personal hygiene
  • Changes in personality, mood, or behavior
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism, confrontational, easily provoked, unpredictable
  • Excessive crying
  • Preoccupation with weapons, antisocial behavior
  • Direct or veiled threats to harm self or others
  • Implicit threats such as "You'll be sorry" or "This isn't over"
  • Preoccupation with other workplace violence events
  • Chronic blaming with no sense of personal responsibility
  • Disregard of behavioral boundaries at work (e.g., such as excessive emails, phone calls, and/or social media contacts)
  • Face-saving, attention-getting, manipulating, and/or retaliating behaviors

Potential Relationship Violence & the Workplace

Relationship violence has an alarming rate of occurrence in the workplace. Studies suggest that approximately 25 percent of women and 7 percent of men reported that they had been assaulted by a current or former partner. It is estimated that 18,700 incidents of workplace violence in the U.S. per year are related to relationship violence. Victims may feel safer in the workplace, but may be harassed by frequent phone calls, texts, emails, or unannounced work visits from partners. Here are some signs of possible relationship violence:

  • Visible signs of injury
  • Emotional episodes of anxiousness, crying, and/or depressed mood
  • Over-reactions to stimuli
  • Excessively leaving work early, being late, or missing entire days of work
  • Excessive phone calls or emails from family
  • Poor memory, concentration, and judgment
  • Unannounced and disruptive personal visits from partner
  • Fluctuating work performance
  • Signs of stress such as heart palpitations, hyperventilating, excessive tiredness, and/or panic attacks
  • Observed as a loner, isolating from peers and social activities


Be prepared for the conversation when you suspect relationship violence. Feel free to speak with a counselor at PAS about your concerns for your employee.

  • Keep information that a victim of domestic violence shares with you confidential; share only on a need-to-know basis.
  • Encourage the employee to speak with PAS. Provide a private office and telephone for them to use. Suggest to the employee that it may be helpful to provide a picture of the abuser and a copy of any paperwork to the Duke Police at 919-684-2444 and any other appropriate Police agency.
  • Encourage the employee to let you know in advance if he/she cannot meet a deadline or is unable to handle a specific assignment due to personal safety concerns (e.g., answering the telephone when there is the possibility an abuser will call at work). By temporarily adjusting work assignments, you demonstrate your support and may avoid a potential performance problem.
  • Be as flexible as possible in accommodating the employee's needs for leave or work schedule adjustments.
  • If the employee needs to relocate for safety reasons, discuss the situation with your HR representative to determine what assistance may be available to help the employee identify alternate employment.

What to Do If There Are Concerns of Workplace Violence

Direct Threat Behaviors

Direct threat behaviors are prohibited and include acts in which one threatens violence, harasses or intimidates others, interferes with an individual's legal rights of movement or expression, or disrupts the workplace and the ability to provide service to the public.

Examples of a direct threat include:

  • Fighting
  • Destruction of property
  • Person makes a statement that they are suicidal or homicidal
  • Person makes a statement that they will harm someone
  • Person displays a gun, knife, or other instrument that could cause harm
  • Person makes a statement that they will go get a weapon
  • Person is out of control by yelling, screaming, flailing arms, or throwing dangerous objects

If you are presented with a violent situation, you should have an idea of what actions you will take. If you are able to rehearse your strategies, you will be better prepared to handle the situation in a calm and thoughtful manner. Rehearse and have an open dialogue with employees or a colleague and, if possible, have a joint plan as to how to handle a pending violent situation. For more information, go to the Duke University Emergency website and read, 'How Can You Be Prepared?'.

Be observant of early warning signs:

  • Observe cautiously and document appropriately (see Warning Signs of Potential Workplace Violence)
  • Report questionable or concerning behavior to the appropriate supervisor

Actions to take when there is an emergency or potential threat:

A situation is considered an "emergency" if an injury has occurred or if there is an immediate threat of physical harm or injury. In an emergency, the staff member should consider his or her personal safety first; the staff member should then adhere to the following steps:

  • Immediately find safety for yourself and others.
  • Remain calm and have a plan in mind as to what you will do.
  • Do not attempt to challenge or disarm an armed and dangerous person.
  • Call 911 or 919-684-2794 on Duke telephone system to reach Duke Police. Call Durham Police at 919-560-4601.
  • Give the dispatcher detailed information about the direct threat (e.g., Who is involved? What, when and where did it happen?).
  • Give the location or last known location of the person making the threat.
  • Cooperate with security/law enforcement personnel and give your contact information.
  • Contact your supervisor/manager and provide details of the incident.
  • Contact PAS for support.

Actions to take if there is no direct threat but only suspicious activity. This is known as a "Non-Emergency":

A situation is considered a non-emergency if no injury has occurred or if there is no immediate danger, but the words or gestures of one person have induced fear of physical harm in another person. See "Warning Signs of Potential Violence". Take the following actions:

  • Respond quietly and calmly.
  • Do not ignore the person who may be doing something hurtful or harmful. Try to interrupt the behavior and redirect that person into doing something else.
  • Gather information related to the suspicious activity.
  • Document and discuss the suspicious activity with your supervisor or manager.
  • Call the Duke Police at 919-684-2444 to report the suspicious activity.
  • A staff member who communicates a threat must be evaluated by Employee Occupational Health & Wellness (EOHW) prior to returning to work. Supervisors should call EOHW at 919-684-3136.
  • Contact PAS for support as needed.
  • Become familiar with the "Workplace Violence Education Program" through the Duke Police Department.

What to do if you are a supervisor of an employee who has been threatened or feels a threat:

  • Immediately deal with the threatening situation. Do not ignore evidence of possible violence.
  • Discuss with the employee and document detailed information about the threat.
  • Determine the level of threat and the support needed to handle the problem.
  • Determine what level of assistance the employee needs to feel safe.
  • Ask yourself: “Can I get others to a safe exit, if necessary?”
  • Think before you act, avoid confrontation, use common sense, and be reassuring.
  • Encourage the employee to receive assistance from PAS.
  • Alert your supervisor about the threatening incident.

How to Discuss Violence Prevention in the Workplace

It is important to maintain an open dialogue and conversation on violence in the workplace. For more information, visit the Duke University Emergency website and read, 'How Can You Be Prepared?'

  • Make time to review and discuss Duke's Workplace Health & Safety policies and procedures. For example, no weapons are allowed on Duke property; if anyone is seen with a weapon, notify Duke Police immediately.
  • Create a supportive environment for employees to reinforce the message that no one will be penalized or face retaliation for seeking help for themselves, their families, or coworkers in need.
  • Be sensitive to cultural beliefs and values. People from different cultures have varied comfort levels for talking about family or personal difficulties with those outside of their community.
  • Respect an employee's reluctance to talk about personal matters, but do not ignore evidence of possible violence, such as frequent injuries and unusual explanations for them. Express concern.
  • Review with employees the potential warning signs of workplace violence. Enforce and make it safe for your employees to report threats, obscene or harassing phone calls, letters or e-mails, and report crimes and suspicious persons immediately.
  • Distribute articles to your staff on violence prevention.
  • Invite Duke Police, Duke Human resources, PAS, and/or other community resources to discuss violence in the workplace.
  • Develop, implement, and regularly review a departmental safety plan that details how to respond to violence in the workplace.
  • Make time for group discussion whenever a report of violence on campus or in a workplace makes the news.
  • Talk to your staff about how to handle potentially violent situations and encourage them to suggest ways to make a safer workplace.
  • If there are safety concerns about a particular work area, make a request of the Duke Police to conduct a safety assessment.
  • Supervisors and/or employees can call PAS at 919-416-1727 to discuss concerns and seek guidance.

In the event of an emergency, the Duke Emergency Website will be updated frequently with instructions and information about the incident, as well as campus services and resources available to the Duke community.

Important Contacts