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workplace shooting

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.

You’ve seen him in movies on TV; the veteran who returns home a loose cannon, unpredictable and violent. You’ve read about him in the news; the soldier who goes berserk and kills 16 innocent civilians or mows down his comrades. And now you’re worried he (or she) might show up at your office for the next job interview.

Hidden Fears of Hidden Wounds

An estimated 17 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eight out of every 100 civilians also suffer from it. So we can look at the glass as half-empty or half full; the vast majority of returning soldiers don’t have PTSD, or combat veterans are twice as likely to have it in comparison to non-military peers.

The unemployment rates for veterans suggest that many hiring managers prefer to err on the side of caution. Their average jobless rate in 2010 was 11.5 percent compared with 9.4 percent for nonveterans. Younger veterans fared even worse — 20.9 percent compared with 17.3 percent for nonveterans.

In some respects, employers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hiring returning combat veterans. On the one hand, most of us feel grateful to our brave soldiers, who have been on the front lines fighting to preserving our freedom. In addition to the patriotism than can lead employers to favor hiring veterans, we also recognize the character traits military service builds that can make them excellent employees.

On the other hand, this same sense of gratitude and duty can work against our returning veterans by making employers reluctant to seek out accurate information; after all, who wants to question the mental health of our military? All too often, this means ignoring the elephant that’s already in the room. In an anonymous June 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half (53%) of responding HR professionals said they didn’t know if workers with PTSD are more likely to commit violence in the workplace. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were “less favorable” toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders

Let’s be honest; with weekly news stories about employees “going postal,” is a hiring manager who’s uncertain about the link between PTSD and violence going to take that chance?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Violence

First of all, the majority of people who experience a traumatic event don’t develop ongoing psychiatric problems. Those who do experience symptoms do so to varying degrees. These symptoms include severe anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, social isolation, emotional numbness, irritability and a feeling of being on guard. A key symptom: The individual relives a traumatic event when confronted with reminders or thinks about it when trying to do something else.

Among those who do experience post-traumatic stress disorder, the link between is unclear and indirect. For instance, a new study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found a correlation between some of the untreated symptoms of PTSD and criminal misbehavior. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the PTSD diagnosis per se that was related to criminal arrests but rather PTSD sufferers who had a high degree of unaddressed anger and irritability. Similarly, there are plenty of pre-existing factors that can muddy the waters when trying to clarify the relationship between PTSD and violence; growing up in a violent home and a prior history of substance abuse increases the risk of aggression in veterans and civilians alike.

In reality, violence is uncommon among people with mental illness, and the rare instances that do occur are most often associated with other factors, such as active substance abuse or refusing to take medications. There are also protective factors that significantly decrease the likelihood of violence, such as effective mental health treatment, stable employment, and a strong support system.

The Bottom Line

Most veterans don’t develop PTSD, and the minority who do have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident. Furthermore, it is treatable and rarely leads to violence. Employers who let their fears guide their hiring decisions are missing out on a wealth of talent (and may act counter to the law, a topic for another article). The best gift we can give our returning heroes is to hire those who are qualified for the job (not out of pity or indebtedness), assume they are mentally healthy (unless we are told or have evidence that suggests otherwise), and, if problems arise, focus on the behavior at issue rather than a diagnosis.

There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t said something in the heat of an argument that s/he didn’t really mean. Often times it’s a threat; a parent threatens too big a consequence or a spouse threatens to leave. Issued too often, these empty threats can certainly undermine a parent’s authority or a spouse’s credibility. However, all parties involved usually know the likelihood – often very slim – that the threatener will actually follow through.

But when threats enter the workplace, it’s a whole new ball game. There are jobs at stake, potential lawsuits to ponder, and two sides to every story. Over-react and you could lose a good worker (or a better lawsuit); under-react and you could lose lives.

Verbal Threats: When are They Serious?

The most serious verbal threats are those that are genuine, credible, and directed specifically at someone in the workplace; in fact, immediate termination should be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the best response to these kinds of threats. However, evaluating the seriousness of even the most direct threats requires something of a judgment call.

For example, threats accompanied by specific plans about how the employee will carry them out are serious. Obviously, for an employee to provide that kind of detail suggests that this is not a spontaneous remark; this is someone who has thought this through. Similarly, threats of violence that are directed at, or include, members of the intended victim’s family are not the kinds of statements you would expect from a generally even-keeled worker.

Of course, it’s not only what workers say but how they say it. Threatening gestures add power and credibility to verbal threats. Telling a coworker, “I’m going to bash your head in” is going to feel a lot more threatening when uttered while waving a hammer. It’s also important to consider the worker’s track record; courts typically give normally well-behaved workers the benefit of the doubt while workers with a history of conflict or violence get less slack for a threatening comment. The same should be true of employers.

Err on the Side of Caution

When in doubt, it’s always better to take a threat seriously than not. No matter what the circumstances (family problems, history of mental illness), employers are not required to tolerate threats in the workplace and, in fact, can be held liable if they do.

Practically, this means taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure employees are safe. When immediate termination isn’t warranted, employers still have a lot of leeway in terms of ensuring a safe work environment. For example, as a condition of continued employment, an employee can be required to attend counseling, allow the employer to relate to the counselor what the work behavior has been, allow the counselor to confirm that the employee is complying with treatment, and sign a last change agreement. (The last chance agreement should spell out the communication between the employer and counselor, the expected behavior, and clearly state that dismissal for repeated behavior is not negotiable. You can also require a fitness for duty certification from the counselor, just as you would a medical doctor for a medical illness.

Teach Your Employees How to Report

HR often complains that employees don’t report workplace threats until it’s too late. Employees complain that managers, and HR professionals, don’t take their reports seriously. One way to bridge this gap is to educate your work force, not only on what behaviors should raise concern, but what information will be useful to HR in terms of deciding upon the appropriate response. As a minimum, threatened employees should report:

) When, where and at what time the employee received the threat;
2) What was the exact wording, if possible, of the threat;
3) What was his/her initial response to the threat;
4) Have there ever previous incidents with the threatening employee; and
5) Has the employee ever made any other threats?

The Bottom Line

Preceding the 2 million workplace assaults each year are 6 million instances of employees being verbally threatened. Clearly, being threatened by an employee is not that unusual; an effective response can ensure that the violence ends there.