Potentially violent workers hard to detect

How can you know if a disgruntled employee is a risk to the workplace?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/05/2015

It's the one headline no workplace wants to be a part of: “Two shot and killed by disgruntled former employee.” But that was the tragic circumstance at a TV station in Virginia when two journalists were fatally shot this August, during a live broadcast. 

The two were shot by a former colleague at the station, Vester Lee Flanagan, who broadcast under the name Bryce Williams, according to the Guardian. He took his own life shortly after the shooting. 


Flanagan had a history of office disputes and complaints of racism and mistreatment — his employment was terminated in 2013.

Every workplace has some degree of conflict. The challenge for employers is determining when an employee’s behaviour is more or less harmless, and when it could present a potential risk, said Glenn French, president and CEO of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence in Toronto.


“The dilemma for employers is if you have somebody who’s made threats, it’s a little clearer on what you can do… (but) how do you establish whether or not you should be looking deeper on individuals who haven’t quite crossed that line yet, but are behaving in a way — or making veiled kind of comments — that it causes you concern?” 


Policy as a starting point

When we think about workplace threats or risks, very often we think about mechanical risks or external risks. It’s a bit more uncomfortable to consider employees themselves as a potential risks. But the best starting point is creating a solid, clear policy, said David Hyde, security expert at David Hyde and Associates in Toronto.


“When it comes to inside threats, obviously one of the first things we want to do is… have a culture where this kind of behaviour isn’t condoned. There are very clear policies in place, very clear training and guidelines, and all the employees know that certain types of behaviour that cross certain lines are strictly prohibited.” 


The policy needs to be very clear and straightforward about what types of behaviour are unacceptable, and employees and managers all need to be trained on how to identify unacceptable behaviours, said Hyde. 


And the rules don’t only apply when employees are at the office.


“The workplace, of course, extends beyond bricks and mortar to the field, to business trips, to other work-related activities as well,” he said. “That’s very important to set the right geographical context to that. Sometimes, people can feel a little bit more prone to act up when they’re away from the actual bricks and mortar workplace — but the rules still apply.”


Identifying a threat

When there’s no subtlety — the employee is acting violently or making straightforward threats — it’s very clear what the employer response must be, said Hyde. 


“If threats have been made, that’s a criminal offence. There’s a certain line where we have to involve police, we have to involve professionals that can actually assess this threat.” 


But where it becomes more difficult to assess is when the employee is less direct. 


“If it’s just unusual behaviour, if it’s just things that are making people feel uneasy but it’s not direct threats of violence, discussions about weapons — when that line’s crossed, we need to immediately bring in professionals and the authorities. But before that line’s crossed, HR is going to do that triage. They’re going to look at the behaviour, look at the incident and do an assessment. And that’s very important, and HR needs to be training in workplace violence risk screening or threat screening,” he said. 


Some things to look out for? A fixation on guns or weapons is one, as is being unusually angry or frustrated, sad Hyde. 


“But it wouldn’t just be a couple of comments, it would be something that would be unusual. It would start to build up over time.”


On a psychological level, workplace aggression often has a lot to do with perceived personal control, said French. 


“An important construct in any kind of aggressiveness at work is based upon whether or not the individual feels that they have control of their circumstances,” he said. “That perceived personal control can erode over a period of time — it doesn’t always happen right away.”


Many perpetrators of workplace violence feel the workplace has been unfair to them and mistreated them in some way. This is especially true of people who “are what they do,” said French. 


“Their whole life is wrapped up (in their job) — they’re overly identified in their work,” he said. “The kinds of things you would start to think about there are individuals who have really marked job dissatisfaction, where they have a lot of grievances, a lot of complaints, a lot of allegations that they’re making about mistreatment on the job, people who are combative.”


Also, they may be feared by other people in the workplace. 


“Because tragedies don’t happen very often, we have a tendency to say, ‘Well, that’s just how Joe is — he’s just having a bad day.’ But if people are starting to complain about concerns about the individual, and they’re becoming more and more socially isolated in the workplace, that’s a red flag,” said French. 


On a high level, employers should look for marked changes in a person’s emotional state, said Peter Martin, Toronto-based CEO of AFIMAC Canada  — or significant, negative changes in people’s personal lives.


“(That could be) some type of traumatic event that tells us that we need to have a higher level of concern for the person. And not from a suspicious standpoint, from a support standpoint. We really need to understand that the emotional health of our employees is just as important as the physical health,” he said. 


At the same time, an awareness of any risky personal issues is important.


“If you look at some of the most high-profile issues that we’ve had in the workplace, sometimes they’re not even initiated by the person, by the employee. So if you have someone perhaps in a very volatile relationship… where there is a high level of violence, if they were to terminate that relationship, that violence can carry over into the work life,” said Martin. 


Those things need to be flagged, and addressed by a central group such as HR, said Hyde. 


“You can’t assess and deal with a threat unless you identify it.”


Reluctance to report

That brings up another critical point — the importance of reporting behaviour of concern. 


“Very often, what you find in mass shootings is that the behaviour of the individual that did it has been objectionable for some time, but no one brought it forward. Or maybe it was only brought forward in certain ways or discussed in back halls, but no one brought it forward formally,” said Hyde.


“We also have to train supervisors on how to deal with this. Very often, supervisors are in a position of authority but they haven’t been told what to do if they get a complaint of harassment or threats in the workplace. (If) they don’t know what to do, they can bury it.” 


Employees also really need to understand how important it is that they speak up, said Martin. 


“People always think, ‘I don’t want to tattle on somebody.’ We’re raised as children to mind our own business, to just focus on ourselves. And what we need to do is we need to establish a process by which we can report behaviours that are concerning without employees feeling that they are shining a light on individuals or crossing a boundary,” he said. 


“The employee has to have a real reasonable confidence that the employer has a proper process for handling these types of inquiries or these types of situations without the fear that the person who reports (could become) ostracized in the workplace by individuals.”


The next part of any reporting program is there has to be follow-up, said Martin.


“If I, as an employee, have a concern about a fellow employee, I need to understand that my concern’s not going to go into a black hole. 


“I need to know: Was this employee confronted or not? Was my name used? Is my name going to be used? Am I going to be expected to provide further information? And what is going to be delivered back to me to give me a reasonable sense of confidence that I was heard?” 


And follow-up doesn’t end once the person walks out the door, said Martin. 


“The bigger question is… how to you properly detach an employee from a place of employment so that place of employment does not become the focus of aggression?”

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