Over the past year, security personnel across a wide swath of sectors have reported that threats are increasing in volume, severity and/or in urgency. And many organizations are trying to figure out how best to handle this spike in threats. For some supervisors and C-suite leadership, their inclination is to immediately fire an employee who had made a threat — taking a zero-tolerance type of approach.      

It’s a natural instinct. But, it may actually make things worse. 

Most violent incidents in U.S. workplaces and schools are perpetrated by people in crisis — including people who are actively suicidal or who feel hopeless, such as due to intense stressors or major losses. Simply put, abrupt disciplinary measures may exacerbate their feelings of hopelessness and leave them feeling that violence is the only option they have left. But one little-known tool that can help enhance safety and reduce risk in these situations is empathy.  

Resistance to empathy

Across the board, organizations feel a responsibility for the safety of people, and rightfully so. The increasing personal liability that many executives face in the wake of major incidents does not diminish their desire to take immediate action. 

And empathy can be a big “ask,” because by the time a company moves to terminate someone, goodwill may be hard to come by. In a professional setting, an empathetic approach may require security leaders to acknowledge that a person is having personal problems at home, it may call on them to indulge complaints against a person’s supervisor. It may require offering a negotiated resignation or paying a severance in cases where the organization would typically fire an employee for the same policy violations. Rather than thinking of these scenarios as “rewarding bad behavior,” in fact they are a purposeful approach to reducing risk by helping to reduce stress on the employee.

For example, while there are situations where organizational leadership may have to terminate employees who have threatened violence in the workplace, they can still look for ways to make it a “soft landing termination”. This could mean allowing resignation instead of termination, or giving the employee several months of continued access to health and mental health benefits (paid for by the company), referrals to paid career counseling services and/or a few months of severance.  

Ultimately, having empathy isn’t about being a pushover. It is about remembering that most people who threaten violence do so because they are in crisis and looking for ways that security leaders can help them solve that crisis or ride it out with support.

Building a program to prevent workplace violence

Using empathy should be part of an organization’s larger efforts to develop and operate a behavioral threat assessment program in the workplace. Here are elements that organizations should consider in building their own workplace violence prevention program:

  1. They adhere to standards and best practices, such as those put forth by the ASIS International Standard for Workplace Violence and Active Assailant – Prevention, Intervention and Response. The ASIS standards provide appropriate benchmarks for most organizations. For health care organizations however, note that standards from The Joint Commission took effect in January 2022. 
  2. They train their employees in de-escalation tactics — especially those in public-facing positions and those who may encounter experiencing high-stress events. When employees are trained to defuse a situation, the potential for violence is reduced. 
  3. Their efforts are multidisciplinary in nature. Workplace violence prevention teams and behavioral threat assessment teams need members with a wide range of expertise. Too often however, these teams consist entirely of security and human resources personnel. Looping in IT teams can accelerate discovery of unauthorized computer use. Finance, legal or compliance teams might help identify other potential risk factors. 
  4. They encourage reporting and have pathways to do so. People planning violence often announce their plans well in advance, also known as “leakage.” Too often, in the wake of an incident, security leaders find that a perpetrator has made comments, whether to friends or family or online indicating that they had a violent intent — comments that went ignored. An organization’s threat assessment or management team can work most effectively when it receives reports of threats or other troubling behavior as soon as possible. As the saying goes, “If you see something, say something.”
  5. They provide resources for early intervention. Employee assistance programs can provide off-ramps from the stressors that often put people on a pathway to violence — such as drug and alcohol dependency, depression or family strife. 

The good news is that violence can be prevented. But it requires comprehensive planning backed by buy-in from stakeholders across the board. A dose of empathy doesn’t hurt either.