Assessing and Defusing Workplace Threats of Violence
- By Bruce T. Blythe, Teresa Butler Stivarius
- Feb 01, 2004
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.