'No one ever just snaps'

Identifying – and acting on – red flags may help prevent workplace violence

January 1, 2013


  • Perpetrators typically display warning signs before committing a violent act, and workers should be trained to recognize such behavior.
  • To be effective, a zero-tolerance policy must be consistently enforced.
  • In the event of a shooting, one informational video says to run, hide or fight. (Watch the video, page 2.)
Watch the Run, Hide, Fight vidio

This past August, an office dispute culminated in a fatal shooting near the Empire State Building in New York. In September, a Minneapolis business became a crime scene after a worker who reportedly had just been fired went on a shooting rampage. The next month, a Connecticut man allegedly killed his brother before turning the gun on himself after being let go from the family business.

Although relatively rare, workplace shootings continue to capture headlines and raise questions about what could have been done to prevent the incident. Perpetrators usually display “red flags” beforehand, but disturbing behavior too often goes unreported, according to Paul Viollis Sr., CEO of Risk Control Strategies Inc., a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in threat management and risk assessment.

“Absolutely no one ever just snaps. There are warning signs,” Viollis said. Implementing a robust workplace violence prevention policy can help employees identify and report threats. “Lack of training produces an inability to recognize the defusable signs until it’s too late,” Viollis warned.

Under-addressed problem

Of the 4,609 workplace fatalities reported in 2011, 458 were homicides, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some threats come from outside the workforce, particularly in industries that deal with the public, such as health care, social services, law enforcement, retail and transportation. At the same time, employers should pay attention to threats in their own workforce.

“Companies really need to understand that we’re not just talking about preventing homicides, [which] are relatively infrequent, but we’re preventing all types of threats and violence that interfere with the employees’ ability to feel safe and be productive at work,” said Kristine Kienlen, forensic psychologist and president and founder of Minneapolis-based Minnesota Threat Assessment and Forensic Professionals Inc.

The wide-reaching impact of workplace violence was highlighted in a recent report from the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency in Washington that aims to protect the rights of federal workers. MSPB defines workplace violence as “physical attacks, threats of attack, harassment, intimidation or bullying.”

Released in September 2012, the report (.pdf file), based on a survey conducted by MSPB, stated that 13 percent of federal workers reported observing or experiencing workplace violence in the past two years. More than half of the incidents were caused by former or current co-workers.

In addition to affecting the victim and co-workers, workplace violence can lead to high turnover rate and decreased productivity, MSPB noted.

Viollis has found that despite the risks, many employers lack a functional workplace violence prevention policy and fail to provide adequate training to employees. He contrasted that with how organizations typically address sexual harassment – many have a sexual harassment policy and mandatory training that states certain behavior is not acceptable at any time.

“The only way to address this is to incorporate it into the corporate culture and give it the same weight and measure as sexual harassment is given,” Viollis said. “That’s really the core root of the problem – that it is not part of the corporate culture.”

Developing a policy

OSHA does not have a specific standard for workplace violence, but Viollis said preventing it falls under the General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards.

He advises employers to create a written policy and provide employees with professional training, which should consist of more than simply watching a video.

While expressing support for a “zero tolerance” approach, Viollis offered a word of caution: Some employers have that rule, “but then they let people get away with making verbal threats,” he said. “If you’re going to say ‘zero tolerance,’ then you have to practice zero tolerance.”

That means consequences should be clear and consistently enforced. For example, if an employee threatens a colleague – even if the person claims it was only a joke – he or she should be taken to human resources, written up, and suspended or fired, Viollis said.

In its report, MSPB suggests developing a workplace violence program and taking the following preventive steps:

  • Foster a culture that treats employees with dignity and respect, and encourages them to report violent behavior.
  • Screen applicants for a history of workplace violence.
  • Train supervisors in resolving conflict, accessing workplace violence resources and disciplining employees.
  • Respond quickly and consistently to reports of conflict. Try to resolve the issue before it escalates into violence.
  • Make sure programs such as performance evaluations are conducted fairly and do not overly stress employees.

After developing a policy, be sure to educate employees about it. As Kienlen said, “If the employees don’t know about the policies and that they need to report threatening situations, then nothing can be done to intervene.”

She recommends forming a threat assessment team, which is an in-house group of professionals from various departments who receive and assess threat reports. Make sure to include someone from human resources, a security/facilities management representative, and an in-house legal counsel or an outside employment attorney, Kienlen said, adding that team members should be responsible, calm and respectful; work well on a team; and receive training from an expert on assessing threat levels.

How employees view the policy matters as well. Kienlen said employers should assure workers that every complaint will be assessed and no one will be punished for reports made in good faith.

“A huge part of it is really developing the trust in employees and the awareness that incidents they report will be acted on, because I think one problem in some organizations is employees don’t report threats because they feel nothing will happen anyhow and it might make matters worse,” Kienlen said.

Warning signs

Part of training is teaching employees to recognize warning signs. Viollis identified a “violence continuum” – or levels of behavior that a person exhibits leading up to an act of workplace violence.

  • Indirect threats. John is mad at Jim so he goes to Tom and says, “If Jim does not knock it off, I’ll be waiting for him in the parking lot.” Viollis said the person is seeking attention and the situation can be defused at this level – if it is reported.
  • Loud outbursts. Again, this behavior is intended to generate attention.
  • Direct threats. Instead of griping to Tom, John confronts Jim directly.
  • Mood and behavior changes. These include uncharacteristic tardiness, absences, poor hygiene, and drug or alcohol use.
  • Withdrawal signs. For example: An employee taking down photos and packing up his desk even though he is still employed.

Citing a profile he developed based on interviews with offenders, Viollis said typical traits of a worker who commits an act of violence include being socially withdrawn, lacking interpersonal skills, frustration, chronic complaining and not taking criticism well.

Kienlen described behavior changes that might occur before an incident, including deterioration in work performance; lashing out or losing one’s temper; talking about suicide; exhibiting signs of depression, anger or seeking revenge; and becoming obsessed with firearms. Anything that raises concern should be reported so the situation can be investigated.

“We can’t ultimately predict all human behavior,” Kienlen said. “We can understand if risk factors are present, and we can assess if they are at a higher level of risk.”

Careful termination

Both Kienlen and Viollis said to exercise caution when terminating an employee believed to be dangerous. It may be appropriate to give the person a “soft landing” – such as an extension of medical benefits or severance package – to help the person cope.

For some of these perpetrators, their job is the core of their identity. “What that means, basically, is when you tell him he’s being fired, you’re not taking his job, you’re taking his life,” Viollis said.

He stressed the importance of planning out the termination and involving security early. Contacting security personnel two hours before the termination may not leave enough time to implement safeguards.

Kienlen agreed. She said a common mistake employers make is to terminate the employee and then worry about security. Instead, have the threat assessment team meet and plan out the process, and possibly put the person on leave in the meantime, she advised.

Run, hide, fight

The city of Houston has concise advice for how to respond to a worst-case scenario in which a shooting occurs: run, hide, fight.

The city produced a six-minute video depicting various responses to an active shooter. Funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter Event” was released shortly after the movie theater shooting last year in Aurora, CO.

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security for the City of Houston, said the idea for the video came after agencies practiced their response to a large-scale attack. They were satisfied with the preparation of first responders but concerned about citizen readiness. They wanted an easy-to-remember phrase similar to “stop, drop and roll” – hence, run, hide, fight.

“Preparedness is just a matter of having a plan, and sometimes a plan is just simple,” Storemski said.

The video shows a gunman entering a building. The first recommendation is to run and evacuate, if possible. Do not spend a lot of time trying to make others leave if they resist going with you. If running is not possible, hide in a room and lock the door. A shooter will usually look elsewhere rather than wrestle with a locked door, according to Storemski. As a last resort, the video says to fight, which means attempt to disarm the gunman.

The video has received more than 1.4 million views on YouTube, and Storemski said private corporations, universities and federal entities have requested copies.

Ideally, employers would like to catch a threat before it reaches that level. Regarding identifying dangerous employees, Kienlen said preparing the workforce “takes a lot of dedication and commitment on the part of the employer to do it right, to really invest in the idea that we’re going to have a great workplace violence policy and we’re going to do everything we can to raise awareness for employees so that they report incidents of concern.”

Addressing domestic violence

When a worker is being abused at home, she or he is not the only one at risk. Advocates warn that the worker’s partner may target the person at work, so employers should include domestic violence in their workplace violence prevention policy.

Preliminary Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that, in 2011, nearly 2 out of 5 workplace homicides in which the victims were women were committed by a relative, often a spouse or domestic partner.

“It’s a productivity issue; it’s a health care issue; it’s an absenteeism issue; it’s a workplace safety issue,” Wells said.

CAEPV recently hosted a webinar on developing a domestic violence policy for small businesses that attracted 450 viewers. Wells pointed to the large number of attendees as evidence of an attitude change among employers from “Why should I care?” to “I know I should care about this, but what should I do?”

Employers can start by developing a policy dictating protocol for dealing with employees in a domestic violence situation. Wells suggested partnering with local police and domestic violence groups to learn about the issue and other resources. Supervisors are not expected to be counselors, but they should be able to refer an employee to local resources if necessary, Wells said.

She recommends providing all employees with a list of resources on their first day and revisiting the issue with an individual if abuse is suspected. The idea is to create a culture in which workers feel comfortable coming forward if they are facing domestic violence, Wells said, so make sure they know they will not be fired for saying something.

If an employee is being victimized, some workplace changes can help protect her or him. Examples from Wells include allowing a flexible work schedule to attend court appearances, removing the worker’s phone number from external websites and ensuring the person’s workspace is not in an isolated location.

– AJ