Is it virtually impossible for management to identify early warning signs of potential violence prior to it blossoming into a violent incident? Isn’t it true that violent individuals just "snap"? And shouldn’t organizations be looking at the "profile" of a potential workplace shooter, such as a white male in his 40s who lives with his mother and is a loner?
In reality, it is a myth that potentially violent individuals just snap. And there is no one demographic profile of a potentially violent individual. The reality is that in most workplace violence incidents, the perpetrator did provide various clues to others prior to acting out, but those clues were missed or shrugged off. And if managers rely solely on demographic profiling, they will miss various warning signs of impending violence from someone who didn’t fit the stereotype.
In the case of the recent Virginia Tech University shootings, Cho Seung-Hui did not neatly fit the stereotype of a mass killer, but he did show the warning signs of threatening behavior. According to newspaper accounts, Cho’s actions concerned university officials a year and a half before he went on the shooting spree that took the lives of 32 students and faculty members. News reports have described Cho as a loner who was on anti-depressant medication, had harassed classmates with text messages and had written plays laced with explicit violence, including violent fantasies of stalking women and committing murder.
Another workplace violence incident that resulted in tragedy after an organization detected warning signs occurred in 1988 at Electromagnetic Systems Lab in Sunnyvale, California. Richard Farley, an ESL employee, had on several occasions asked out Laura Black, a co-worker. Black refused Farley’s advances, and Farley then mounted a campaign of stalking behavior that involved occasions where he would secretly attend Black’s aerobics classes. He also sent threatening and inappropriate letters to her. Although there were periods of time during which the letters would cease, Farley managed to send about 200 of them over a four-year period. He was subsequently terminated for his actions, but 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. He killed seven people and wounded three others, including Black.
Incidents such as the ESL shooting, although rare, have had a significant effect on corporate America. In addition to lost lives and injuries, the incidents have brought companies costly lawsuits, damage to reputation and may have caused or contributed to the demise of the companies themselves.
The ESL incident and others like it provided the catalyst for change in how corporate America addressed workplace violence. Instead of a reactive approach, companies across the nation began implementing proactive management training programs to recognize the 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 that he or she has the specific intent or the willingness to act out violently in the workplace. Profiling is an imperfect science.
While some corporations have addressed potential workplace violence with adequate preventive policies, others have ignored the training needed for human resources professionals and other managers to identify the early warning signs of a potentially dangerous employee. Nor have they planned for how to manage the workplace or the 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 multidisciplinary threat assessment teams in organizations and corporations. It is recommended by threat assessment and management experts that the team consist of corporate representatives from human resources, security and legal counsel. The purpose of the team is to identify early warning signs of violence, assess the threat and make proactive recommendations for managing the individual and the physical security of the workplace.
Each member brings specific expertise to the team. Human resources professionals are present because they are best suited to deal with the myriad employee issues. The security professional is trained to make recommendations for the physical protection of employees and the workplace. Legal counsel’s job is to advise the team on legal issues and to keep the process protected by the attorney-client privilege. The manager who supervises the business unit where the problem is occurring should sit on the team as an ad hoc member. The team should be familiar with outside resources that are available, such as threat assessment experts, law enforcement agencies and mental health professionals. These professionals can help the team understand the scope and severity of the threat, and the 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.
For example, in a domestic violence tabletop exercise, the team would receive pieces of information from the manager such as "Jane Smith is frequently arriving to work late and is constantly wearing sunglasses in the office" and "She has been crying uncontrollably at her desk and seems upset." The team would analyze the threat and would make recommendations such as having the manager talk to Jane to find out the situation, which could lead to more details: Jane’s husband has been beating her, she’s living in a shelter, and her husband has been aggressively trying to contact her.
Again, the team would respond by providing recommendations from all areas of the team to make decisions about the physical security of the office, relocation options for Jane and calling the police. Then the team would receive more information about the situation: The office receptionist has been receiving hang-up calls and Jane’s husband has been spotted driving through the parking lot. More action items would be recommended based on the escalation of threats.
This process would continue, forcing team members to react to information in real time and analyze and recommend ways to mitigate the risk for various workplace scenarios. It also reveals holes in the threat management system itself and, as a result, lends itself to finding solutions in a structured environment rather than during an actual incident.
In the event that an incident cannot be prevented, the company should have in place the appropriate business continuity and 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 physical security professional conduct a security survey on an annual basis. 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.
"It won’t happen here"
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 they feel that "it won’t happen here." Sometimes they simply don’t want to invest the money.
But those reasons don’t hold up well after a workplace tragedy, when the victims’ families, friends and the community at large question why prevention measures were not pursued, and point out the response tactics that seemed inadequate. We saw this in the Virginia Tech shootings and, sadly, we may see it again in the not too distant future.
These incidents underscore the importance of implementing concrete plans to proactively and reactively handle a threat to employees and the business. Corporate leaders need to align the proper resources to help mitigate the
risk of potentially dangerous individuals to protect their most valuable
assets: their employees.