When one hears of a mass shooting at a workplace, it’s not uncommon to overhear the following from a neighbor or coworker of the assailant: I can’t believe this happened. He was such a quiet person and never caused any problems.
In the workplace, it’s virtually impossible for management to identify early warning signs of potential violence, prior to it blossoming into a threatening incident. Are you of the belief that violent individuals just snap? The reality is these types of individual rarely suddenly break.
Also, there is not one demographic profile of a potentially violent individual. In actuality, the perpetrator provided various clues prior to acting out, but those clues were missed or shrugged off. The problem that we’re facing today is that if managers rely solely on demographic profiling, they’ll miss various warning signs of impending violence from someone who didn’t quite fit our stereotypical beliefs.
A tragic workplace violence incident occurred in the late ‘80s at Electromagnetic Systems Lab in Sunnyvale, California. Richard Farley, an unassuming employee, asked out his coworker Laura Black on several occasions. Black refused Farley’s advances and Farley then mounted a campaign of stalking behavior, such as secretly attending Black’s aerobics classes and sending threatening and inappropriate letters to her. Although there were periods when the letter sending would cease, Farley managed to send about 200 over a four-year period. He was subsequently terminated for his actions, but he continued to call Black and harass her at work. On February 16, 1988, Farley went to ESL armed with two handguns, two shotguns and a rifle, and killed seven people, wounding three others, including Black. In this case, warning signs were flashing, but nobody could imagine the horror of a shooting spree at work.
Incidents such as the ESL shooting have had a significant effect on corporate America. In addition to lost lives and injuries, these episodic tragedies have cost companies in lawsuits, damage to reputations, and may have contributed to the demise of the companies themselves.
The ESL incident, and others like it, provided the catalyst for change in how corporate America has started to address workplace violence. Instead of a reactive approach, companies across the nation began implementing proactive management training programs to help management and employees recognize warnings signs of potentially threatening individuals and to form threat-assessment processes.
But not every company is prepared to protect itself against workplace violence. The warning-sign theory is countered with the argument that strange behavior by an individual doesn’t necessarily mean he/she has the specific intent to act out violently in the workplace. Admittedly, profiling is an imperfect science.
While some corporations have addressed these issues with adequate preventive policies, others have ignored the training needed for HR professionals, managers and leadership to identify early warning signs of a potentially dangerous employee. Also lacking are plans for how to manage the workplace or affected individuals who might be involved in an incident.
So the million-dollar question for companies, educational institutions, public agencies and other organizations continues to be how best to identify, assess, intervene, and manage potential violence in their organization.
THREAT ASSESSMENT TEAM
The best practice for identifying and managing all forms of violence, including stalking in the workplace, is through the formation of a multidisciplinary threat assessment team. It is recommended that the team consists of corporate representatives from HR, security, and legal. The purpose of the team is to identify early warning signs of violence, assess any threat, and make proactive recommendations for managing the individual and ensuring the physical security of the workplace.
Recommended Team Members and Roles:
• HR professionals are present because they’re best-suited to deal with the myriad of employee issues.
• The security professional is trained to make recommendations for the protection of employees and the physical workplace.
• Legal counsel advises the team on legal issues and keeps the process protected by the attorney-client privilege.
• The manager who supervises the business unit where a problem exists should sit on the team as an ad-hoc member.
The team should be familiar with available outside resources, such as threat assessment experts, law enforcement agencies, and mental health professionals. These outsourced professionals can help the team understand the scope and severity of the threat and help implement overall security of the workplace.
Comprehensive training for threat assessment team members, supervisors, and management should be conducted within the organization—with occasional refresher courses, particularly for newly hired team members. The curriculum should include classroom instruction and tabletop exercises.
In the event that an incident could not be prevented, the company should have in place appropriate emergency management plans. Similar to the requirements of the threat assessment team training, the existing plans should be updated and tested on a regular basis.
Along with up-to-date business continuity and emergency management plans, organizations should have a security professional physically conduct a security survey annually. The scope of this survey should include an examination of the structure’s perimeter, access controls, alarms, cameras, lighting levels and security operations procedures, including but not limited to, security guard post orders.
All too often upper management will make the decision not to review existing physical security, business continuity and emergency management plans, or will fail to train management in these areas because their misguided belief is it won’t happen here. Sometimes it’s a matter of simply not wanting to invest the money. But those reasons won’t hold up post a horrific workplace tragedy, especially when victims and their families question why prevention measures were not pursued.
It is our mission to get corporate leaders on board to recognize the need for alignment of the proper resources to help mitigate the risk of potentially dangerous individuals. In this, they would protect their most valuable assets: their employees.