Assessing and Defusing Workplace Threats of Violence

THE setting may have been unusual, but the situation was familiar enough. A disgruntled former employee, whose lawsuit against a colleague had been thrown out of court, donned a bulletproof vest and helmet, armed himself with automatic weapons, and returned to terrorize the place where he once worked. That happened to be an exceptional building--the business school at Case Western Reserve University, which architect Frank Gehry had topped with huge free-form ribbons of stainless steel. But the damage inside was grimly typical: 93 people trapped for hours, two injured, and one killed.

For a decade or more, companies and managers have been broadly aware of the issue of workplace violence. Most large companies now have procedures in place to deal with threats of violence. But the need for this sort of preparedness, unfortunately, is not going away. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the state of the economy and the incidence of threatened violence. So as the U.S. economy remains weak, triggering additional layoffs and other stresses that affect the population, continued threats of violence are to be expected. Ongoing vigilance and improved expertise are called for in order to keep such threats from escalating into deadly acts.

During the past 10 years, "best practices" for responding to workplace threats of violence have emerged. Crisis consultants have become increasingly sophisticated at handling two key aspects of this problem:

  • assessing the likelihood that a person who makes a threat of violence might really act on it; and
  • responding in ways that simultaneously defuse the threat and protect vulnerable people, while companies engage in appropriate job actions or other protective procedures.

When managers become aware of threatening situations, they typically respond with some or all of the following measures: putting additional security in place; calling law enforcement; seeking a temporary restraining order against the person who poses the threat; and, if that person is an employee--sometimes even if he is a terminated employee--referring him to an Employee Assistance Program. These are certainly logical measures to take, but such actions aren't always effective. If a person is determined to commit violence, none of these measures is likely to stop him. Consider these limitations:

  • Added Security: How long will the added security remain in place? A week? Two? What prevents the person who made the threat from reappearing once security is no longer in evidence? What rationale should you use for discontinuing security?
  • Law enforcement: Though they may be sympathetic, law enforcement will rarely consider a verbal threat, however menacing, grounds to make an arrest, absent a pattern of behavior amounting to criminal harassment or other conduct aimed at carrying out the threat. Of course, they are not so constrained once an act of violence has been committed--but it is precisely such an act that a company wants to avoid.
  • Temporary Restraining Orders: In some states, TROs are most easily pursued by an individual; companies may have the option but are not given express authority by statute and must meet stringent common-law standards that do not always meet their needs in these situations. Regardless, in practical terms, a TRO's greatest value is in providing the assuredness of an arrest that has been authorized by court order in advance if certain proscriptions are violated (e.g., the subject's being within 300 yards of the workplace). For purposes of actually preventing a determined individual from committing violence, they are of limited value. In that case, the TRO's effectiveness is only as strong as the respect it is given. An irrational person who truly wishes to do someone else harm is unlikely to be restrained by a mere court order.
  • Employee Assistance Programs: Useful as they are in many circumstances, EAPs must work within constraints related to threatening situations. EAPs are hired to be employee advocates under strict confidentiality guidelines. "Duty to warn" laws permit some disclosure to the company about threatening remarks but limit the amount of personal information that can be given. Additionally, most EAP professionals are generalists, with little specialized training or expertise in handling these potentially explosive cases. Typically, EAPs utilize a medical model in threat management cases (e.g., counseling, psychological fitness-for-duty evaluations, or hospitalization). In any case, makers of threats-- typically, angry men who feel unjustly treated--will rarely sit down to chat with a counselor about the sources of their stress. Having a combination of pre-screened professionals who specialize in threat management (legal, law enforcement, and specially trained mental health consultants) is vital.

Assessing the Propensity for Violence
The majority of people who make threats do not end up acting out violently. When there is a threat of violence on your premises, the sky is probably not falling. But the consequences of an act of violence, however unlikely it may be, are potentially severe. Additionally, the perception of an unsafe work environment by employees requires appropriate management action. Thus, it is your obligation, as well as a matter of common sense, to do everything within reason to make sure violence and the perception of imminent violence do not occur. The negative effects on your company's three core assets--its people, its finances, and its reputation--could be significant.

Therefore, it is crucial to gauge whether the person who makes a threat is likely to carry it through. Unknown to most, there is no psychological test or clinical interview technique that can accurately predict who will behave violently. The common fitness-for-duty evaluations by mental health providers are of limited predictive value. Still, there are several things you can do to learn more about the person who has made a threat and assess his probable behavior.

First of all, it is essential to find out exactly what the threatening behavior consisted of, including the precise words the person used. Phrases such as, "You'll be sorry" or "You'll pay for this," however angrily and menacingly they may be delivered, are not exactly death threats, and they are improbable commitments to an act of violence. However, when people make death threats, it increases the likelihood violence could occur.

The single best predictor of future violent behavior is past violent behavior. This is especially true when a person has a history of having been reinforced for violent or threatening behavior--whether formally, for example through gang membership, or informally through simply being allowed to feel powerful, manipulate people, or get what he wanted.

Ways to Uncover Past Behavior
If the person making the threat is an employee, there is usually a wealth of information available about him right within your organization. Co-workers, supervisors, and former supervisors can be invaluable sources.

Seeking information from people in your organization is not risk-free, however. Informants will understandably want to be assured of confidentiality and protection; they will not want to become new targets of the threatening person's ire. Likewise, you will want to be sure you can count on such informants to keep the fact of your inquiry quiet, rather than feeding the rumor mill; you certainly do not want any quiet investigation to get back to the subject.

Supervisors are generally less risky as informants, though they may not have as intimate an experience of the person under investigation as co-workers would. In any event, an investigation is typically advisable so that you have done your due diligence in assessing the subject's past behavior and can seek advice from those with expertise on the pending threat and how to address it most effectively. Additionally, such an investigation is often important in establishing the foundation for an adverse employment action against the subject, which you may need to rely on later if that individual pursues employment-related litigation or charges. Ensuring an investigation plan that meets all of these concerns, preferably with the advice of experienced legal counsel, is best.

Another way to look into a threatening person's past behavior is by doing a criminal background check. Arguably, you may need the written consent of the subject before receiving such a background check report. Most employers likely do not follow this interpretation of potentially applicable consumer reporting laws, opting to suffer the risk of potential litigation on that front rather than taking the risk of either not having the vital information or infuriating the subject by requesting the background check. Of course, once the subject is in an angry and threatening frame of mind, consent is not likely to be forthcoming. One easy way to resolve this situation is to ensure prospective written consents to background checks from all job applicants and employees. State and federal law compliance is an issue in this context and needs to be addressed squarely with legal counsel and your background-check agency.

Ways to Assess a Threatening Employee's Frame of Mind
Sending a threatening employee to talk with an EAP counselor or a psychologist may begin the process of defusing his anger, but as noted above, the confidentiality of such sessions limits their usefulness to you as a manager of a threat situation. Additionally, most seriously threatening individuals are not going to comply with mental health treatment in the heat of a threatening situation.

A supervisor can be used to assess or defuse the subject but is less likely to be trained to make best use of such a conversation; in particular, supervisors are unlikely to have the skill it takes to avoid further provoking the person. For a number of reasons, then, the most effective encounter with the maker of a threat can be that of an outside workplace violence consultant who has a mental health or other background and special expertise in defusing threats.

Typically, establishing communication and rapport with the threatening individual is the single best way to assess and defuse potential violence. This means opening a dialogue in a manner where the threatening individual feels heard and understood. Provided correctly, this dialogue and established relationship with the threatening individual yields highly successful resolution to the threatening situation.

Too often, companies opt for increased security, calling law enforcement, and restraining orders to deal with threatening individuals. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these options, but they do nothing to defuse the anger and hostilities the threatening individual feels. Other methods notwithstanding, communication should be an important assessment and defusing component of your Threat Response Team's tool kit.

Some consultants who are experienced in assessing threats are also often skilled in an especially useful technique called Scientific Content Analysis, or SCAN. SCAN analyzes the words people use and the ways they use them to reveal whether they are being deceptive or omitting information. A professional skilled in using SCAN and defusing threats can unearth an enormous amount of information about a threatening person's intentions and truthfulness, while simultaneously engaging him in a conversation that helps cool him down.

Defining Your Desired Outcome
While you are assessing the seriousness of a threat of violence and before you take action to head it off, you must reach a decision about where you want the process to end. If the hostile individual is your employee, for example, you must know whether your goal is to keep him in your organization--after providing the necessary counseling--or whether you want him out of the picture.

When a situation of domestic violence shows up at work, in the form of a vengeful husband or boyfriend for instance, your goal may be to protect the woman. To do that you may need to keep them apart. And to accomplish that, there could be a number of possible tactics: have her not come to work for a while; move her to a different work location; change her shift; see that she is escorted to and from her car; provide her with a cellphone for emergencies; and so forth. An outside consultant may have strategies to defuse the threatening individual, as well.

If your assessment of a threatening employee shows the underlying problem is drug- or alcohol-related, perhaps you will make a referral for treatment before taking any other action. If you determine the presence of a psychiatric disorder, your tactics might similarly speak to stabilizing the person. In each such case, you need to set a strategic goal (e.g., terminate or maintain employment) for the situation before you devise and apply the appropriate tactics that will get you there. If you simply apply a tactic, outside the context of knowing your goal, you can make the situation worse or take dead-end actions that are ineffective.

Actions That Should Be Standard Operating Procedure
No matter what the specifics of a threat of violence situation may be, there are some aspects of your response that should be considered standard.

  • Use a multi-disciplinary team approach for threat management with trained and skilled people. Potential membership for your Threat Response Team may include internal or external representatives from legal, HR, security, mental health, law enforcement, or others you may choose.
  • Think actions through in advance. What will you do--exactly--if the subject escalates the situation? If you have decided to fire him, for instance, think tactically about the room in which you will give him this news. Who should be present? Where should they sit? Should security be alerted and stationed nearby? Should there be a means of communication, such as an intercom, with people outside the meeting? Signals? Consider contingencies by asking "what if questions," such as, What if the employee runs out of the room toward his work unit when being terminated from employment?
  • Document your decisions and actions in a defensible manner and maintain those records through the direction of your attorney.

Here's an example, from one company's experience, of thinking through the way to handle a seriously threatening employee. The man had been exhibiting aberrant behavior and was in need of psychiatric care. It was decided to confront him, so we planned in advance for every contingency we could foresee. We called him to a meeting and told him that his behavior was causing deep concern, he needed to do something about it, and we wanted him to see a psychiatrist so the employer could gauge whether to let him go or get him stabilized. Because the subject was an African-American man, we specifically picked an African-American psychiatrist--and we actually had the psychiatrist waiting outside the meeting room. A security presence was pre-arranged, though out of sight, in the form of armed, plainclothes sheriffs. The psychiatrist evaluated him on site. Transportation, through law enforcement, was in place to take the subject to a hospital, where his precertification had already been arranged and a bed was waiting.

You won't always need to go that far, but in this matter, the company was ready for a seamless referral from the factory floor to confrontational management meeting, to psychiatrist, to the hospital without the company's ever losing control of the potentially violent individual or his location.

Documenting What You Do
Be careful to fully document what you do in response to a threat of violence. Accurate, objective, and detailed documentation that reflects a reasonable multi-disciplinary approach is your ultimate defense in the event a person who threatens violence brings a legal action against you for how you responded.

  • Write down the fact pattern as it emerges. What exactly has each involved subject said, and to whom? How do you know these things? If there are pieces of the pattern that are unsubstantiated, document them as such.
  • Write down your decisions and actions, including the reasoning behind them. Why? So that if the matter ever comes up in court, what you did will pass the "reasonable person test." If based on what you knew, your decisions appear to have been reasonable ones--to a judge, a jury, and the public--then you are in a defensible position and can vigorously defend, and hopefully dismiss, any later charge of negligence.

How to Disengage
Finally, your disengagement from the situation must be purposeful. You must clearly know and document the reasons why you feel it is safe to stop dealing with the person who made the threat. Perhaps you will feel enough time has passed so the person has calmed down; or that he is now receiving appropriate treatment; or that the threat was not real in the first place. Maybe he has disappeared, moved away, found a job elsewhere. Document the reasons why you are ready to disengage and your notification of all potential victims, who should also be assured that if the threat should in any way be raised again, your response team will immediately take action.

Unfortunately, you cannot prevent disturbed people from making threats of violence. But you can carefully analyze the nature of every threat and the propensity to violence of everyone who makes a threat. You can clearly establish the goal you desire in relation to the threatening person. And you can take careful steps to assess and defuse him. If you do so, you will prevent tragedy and preserve your organization's three most important assets: your people, your finances, and your reputation.

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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