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HR Handled Right

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going postal

September, 2012. A newly fired employee brings a pistol into Accent Signage Systems in late September, killing six people doing work there at the time. Gunman Andrew Engeldinger, who family members said struggled with mental illness, then took his own life.

October 2012. Days after hairstylist Zina Daniel Haughton obtained a four-year restraining order against her husband she planned to divorce, he stormed into the upscale Azana, killing her and two of her coworkers (and wounding four others) before killing himself.

November 2012. Lawrence Jones, a meat-packing employee who had been discharged from parole six months previously, methodically shoots coworkers at a Fresno, California plant, killing two instantly and critically wounding others. When his ammunition runs out, he goes back to his truck, reloads, and kills himself.

A Different Meaning of Workplace Safety

Many of us still think of faulty equipment or dangerous job assignments when we think of worker fatalities. However, the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that nearly 1 in 5 workplace deaths are due to intentional violence, not accidents. In fact, thousands of employees are harassed, intimidated, threatened or physically attacked each day. And, just as employers can face fines and penalties for not following OSHA safety standards, so, too can they suffer financially if they fail to take steps to protect their employees from a potentially dangerous coworker.

In fact, employers who fail to conduct a workplace investigation when faced with a threatening situation often lose any claims or lawsuits brought by the employee or their families after a violence incident occurs. The average out-of-court settlement is over $500,000.00.

What is a Threat?

Mass murders, while horrific, are rare events. Much more common are the threatening or bizarre behaviors that precede it – the veiled threat, talk of suicide, intimidating interactions, or angry or erratic responses. Dealing with threats and/or threatening behavior—detecting them, evaluating them, and finding a way to address them—may be the single most important key to preventing violence. Webster’s Dictionary defines a threat as “a statement or expression of intention to hurt, destroy, punish, etc., as in retaliation or intimidation.” But who determines when an intention to hurt has been expressed?

On the one hand, a purely subjective determination—a threat is whatever makes someone feel threatened— doesn’t help much, since different people can respond differently to the same words or acts. Employers need to provide some guidelines on what behaviors can reasonably be perceived as alarming. On the other, employees can and should be held responsible for a reasonable regard for the feelings and concerns of coworkers and others in the workplace, and employers properly have an obligation to make sure employees do not feel frightened or intimidated. The best definition of a threat must provide explicit standards of behavior and as well as a respect for the employee’s feelings.

Assessing the Threat

The goal of threat assessment is to assess the likelihood that the threat will be carried out and, based on that determination, plot an appropriate course of action. It involves both an evaluation of the threatener as well as an assessment of the threat itself. Here are five of the main areas I evaluate during a workplace threat assessment and some of the questions that help me find the answers I need:

  1. The exact nature and context of the threat and/or threatening behavior.
  • Has the offender spoken of homicide or suicide?
  • What has been said to others, i.e. friends, colleagues, coworkers, etc., regarding what is troubling him?
  1. The identified target (general or specific).
  • Has the offender identified a specific target?
  • Has he communicated with others his thoughts or plans for violence?
  • Is he obsessed with others or engaged in any stalking or surveillance activity?
  1. 3. The threatener’s apparent motivation.
  • Why has the offender threatened, made comments which have been perceived by others as threatening, or has taken this action at this particular time? What is happening in his/her own life that has prompted this?
  • Has he received unfavorable performance reviews or been reprimanded by management?
  • Is he experiencing personal problems such as divorce, death in the family, health problems, or other personal losses or issues?
  • Is he experiencing financial problems, high personal debt, or bankruptcy?
  • Does he feel he is being treated fairly by the company?
  • Does he have problems with supervisors or management?
  • Is he concerned with job practices and responsibilities?
  1. 4. The threatener’s ability to carry out the threat.
  • Is there evidence of substance abuse or mental illness/depression?
  • Has the he shown an interest in violence through movies, games, books, or magazines?
  • Is he preoccupied with violent themes; interested in publicized violent events; or fascinated with and/or recently acquired weapons?
  • Does he have a past criminal history or history of past violent behavior?
  • Does the offender have a plan for what he would do?
  • Does the plan make sense, is it reasonable, and is it specific?
  • Does the offender have the means, knowledge and wherewithal to carry out his plan?
  1. 5. The threatener’s background and personality.
  • The threatener’s work history, criminal record, mental health history, military history, and past behavior on the job.
  • How does the offender view himself in relation to everyone else?
  • Does he feel he has been wronged in some way?
  • Does he accept responsibility for his own actions?
  • How does the offender cope with disappointment, loss or failure?
  • Does he blame others for his failures?
  • How does the offender interact with coworkers?

The Bottom Line

In spite of the increased awareness of workplace violence, many companies tend to treat threatening situations internally. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than half (only 44.2 percent) of violent victimizations that happen at work are reported to the police. This is alarming given the risk that these smaller incidents can escalate into more violent ones. By failing to utilize external resources trained to assess workplace threats, employers are rolling the dice with their employees’ safety.

Fortunately, the odds are in their favor; most workplace threats don’t lead to mass murder. However, the stakes are unacceptably high. it only takes one lapse of judgment for a manageable threat to lead to homicide.