Dr. Paul Viollis

Deflating the tires of a grounded passenger plane; a death threat over a potential merger; sabotage of a $400,000 piece of equipment. These are examples of workplace violence incidents that unfolded last summer. One of the above three was the precursor to murder. Can you guess which?

In July, Dennis White shot and killed his supervisor after being fired for allegedly taking wire cutters to a costly piece of machinery at a beverage company. That wasn’t your guess? Without evaluating the degree of each threat, preventing homicides in the workplace becomes a game of Russian roulette.

Even though homicides are down, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, an overwhelming majority of security and human resource executives believe workplace violence is on the rise. In a 2005 study commissioned by New York-based Risk Control Strategies, 82 percent of 602 respondents said workplace violence has increased in the past two years. Verbal threats, intentional downloading of viruses and product tampering are the new ways in which employees are expressing their frustration and continuing to wreak millions of dollars in damages, according to the results.

In the same study, 58 percent said senior managers at their companies had received verbal threats in the past 12 months; 17 percent said employees had intentionally and maliciously downloaded viruses; and 10 percent were plagued with incidents of product tampering. When isolated by size, larger companies are confronted with a higher number of incidents, according to the survey.

Doug Kane

Preceding signs

Because thousands of threats along the workplace violence continuum still need to be evaluated, the level of response necessary to prevent a workplace homicide remains the same. Experience has shown a violent act is often preceded by verbal threats and/or off-handed remarks to friends and co-workers revealing their intentions. Many times, the individual is not taken seriously or there is not a mechanism in place to capture this information and funnel it to the appropriate individuals.

Approximately 86 percent of past workplace violence incidents were visibly apparent to co-workers and had been brought to management’s attention prior to an incident occurring. Unfortunately, more than 75 percent of these incidents continued to develop as a result of management’s inaction or inappropriate actions.

Often, less experienced individuals find it difficult to decipher statements that on face value would not normally be of concern. “I know where you live,” “I saw you taking your child to school” and “I hope nothing bad happens on your camping trip” could all be interpreted as threats under the right circumstances. However, law enforcement is not going to take someone away in handcuffs based on these statements alone.

Security professionals agree that it is unfortunately much easier to deal with a physical act than a threat. There is no question when a homicide or assault has occurred. However, it often is difficult to prove a threat has been made since there is usually no physical evidence. This reinforces the need for a definition of what constitutes a threat to be outlined in the company’s workplace violence avoidance plan.

Evaluating the threats

When evaluating the nature of a threat, you have to evaluate the person making the claim, evaluate the threat itself and the credibility and viability of the intent to do harm. This is the first step in determining whether the threat is credible and imminent. The ultimate challenge will always be in cultivating the expertise and confidence to assess changes in human behavior.

Workplace violence is almost never spontaneous; therefore, many are foreseeable and preventable. All employees should be trained on who and what to look for. Historical research shows there are a number of consistent characteristics associated with a perpetrator, such as predominately male, between 25 and 40, does not handle stress well, manipulative, chronic complainer, among many others. However, since a large number of people who pose no threat at all could meet some of these criteria, they should be used in context with other red flags, including product tampering.

Controls must be in place to identify an employee’s increased level of aggression, which if left unchecked, will escalate along the continuum of violence. Open lines of communication between management and staff are imperative along with an effective threat management team, strong written human resources and security policies and training of employees.

About the Columnists

Dr. Paul Viollis and Doug Kane are founders of Risk Control Strategies, a threat management and risk assessment firm that specializes in workplace violence prevention, response and training. They can be reached at pviollis@riskcontrolstrategies.com and dkane@riskcontrolstrategies.com, respectively.