A growing body of research suggests that serious acts of workplace violence are frequently precipitated by “warning signs” (i.e., less serious incidents and/or observable “behaviours of concern”). Perhaps the most famous example in the cultural consciousness is the continuing signs of mental instability exhibited by Seung Hui Cho for a number of months prior to perpetrating the mass shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (“Virginia Tech”) in April, 2007.
In Canada, the recent shooting of four armoured car guards by a fellow guard at a major Canadian University appears to have been foreshadowed by disturbing comments posted by the perpetrator on social media sites, such as Facebook. The assailant in the more recent mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatrewas a university student who had reportedly exhibited concerning behaviours referred to, but seemingly not followed up by, the institution’s Threat Assessment Team.
A common question permeating the intense media coverage accompanying each sensationalized workplace violence incident is, “could this tragedy have been prevented”? The answer to this question often boils down to how well an employer or property owner is prepared to identify the early indicators of aggressive behaviour, and the extent to which identified threats are then assessed and managed before manifesting into serious acts of violence. This process is commonly known as “threat management”.
What is threat management?
In the context of violence prevention and intervention, threat management is defined as:
Actions taken to identify, assess and manage threats of violence whether such threats are:
- directly reported/received
- observed first hand, or,
- discerned from the problematic or concerning behaviours/actions of individuals which can reasonably be interpreted as early indicators of future violence or threatening behaviour”
The objective of threat management is to allow the organization to identify potential threats of violence at the earliest possible stage to:
- facilitate action aimed at defusing threats before violence occurs, and
- enable a more effective response in the event of a violent act
The first step in threat management is the early identification of actual or threatened violence, as well as any problematic behaviours that could portend future violence. In order to bring threatening conduct to the attention of senior managers, the organization should develop practices and protocols to maximize the reporting of possible danger signs and troubling behaviours. In this regard, employees need to know what to report, when to report, how to report, and to whom to report incidents, complaints or concerns.
In many cases, incidents and behavioural concerns can be reported to a direct supervisor. However, provisions should be made to provide additional reporting lines in the event an employee wishes to report his/her concerns elsewhere within the organization. In its excellent resource guide, Workplace Violence: Issues in Response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (2004: 24) sums up the importance of having a clear avenue for reporting:
To encourage reporting, employers can create a climate in which safety is accepted as a common goal for workers and management and all employees….feel free to report disturbing incidents or possible danger signs. [A] designated office or person to whom complaints are directed….can provide a concrete and clear venue for reporting.”
Workplace violence prevention and intervention policies should clearly define workplace violence as well as identify violent, threatening and disruptive actions/behaviours that will not be tolerated in the workplace. Taking this step will ensure that employees know what is not allowed and can be guided in the required action to be taken if they witness any of the prohibited acts or behaviours.
Organizations should implement the most appropriate system to facilitate timely and consistent reporting and recording of information. To the extent possible, all complaints and reports should be received in writing. The adoption of a centralized electronic database to record all violent acts, threats, behavioural incidents and complaints will ensure that the required information is captured in a manner that facilitates the ongoing identification and tracking of patterns of workplace aggression.
In addition to clear reporting practices and protocols, employers should also prioritize employee training. The training provided to front-line employees and non-supervisory personnel should address threat identification and reporting responsibilities, including:
- Relevant excerpts from the workplace violence prevention and intervention policy
- Identification and recognition of prohibited actions and behaviours
- Conflict resolution, crisis diffusion and/or verbal de-escalation techniques, as applicable
In addition to receiving the basic employee training, supervisors and managers require additional training including:
- How to respond to violent or threatening incidents
- How to respond to complaints from employees
- When to come forward to senior management with behavioural concerns that fall outside of the normal performance management and disciplinary process
Once a threat has been identified the next step is to evaluate the potential for violence. The objectives of the threat assessment process are twofold:
- To evaluate the nature and extent of the threat itself
- To evaluate the person(s) who may pose a threat to workplace safety
The combined result is a fact-based, risk-proportionate judgement identifying the level of dangerousness posed by the threat source and the type of intervention, if any, most appropriate in the circumstances. Arriving at such an informed judgement is perhaps the most challenging aspect of any workplace violence prevention and intervention strategy.
In its recently-enacted standard, ‘Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention’ the Society for Human Resources Management (“SHRM”) and ASIS International (“ASIS”) identify the establishment of a “Threat Management Team” as an essential cornerstone of effective threat assessment and violence prevention/intervention (ASIS/SHRM, 2011: 15).
In environments such as higher education and healthcare, such teams are commonplace in the wake of many high profile shootings and violent incidents. In other environments, however, the thought of an organized threat management team (or similarly named group) is often a foreign concept and this can hamper workplace violence prevention and intervention efforts.
Threat management team
A threat management team is defined in the ASIS/SHRM (2011: 3) standard as:
A multi-disciplinary group of personnel selected by an organization to receive, respond to and resolve reports of problematic behavior made under the organization’s workplace violence prevention policy.”
Broadly speaking, the threat management team is focused on three core objectives:
- To effectively identify, evaluate and manage a range of problematic or concerning behaviours (ranging from ‘inappropriate’ to ‘violent’)
- To bring together the appropriate tools and resources (including external stakeholders) to form a systematic, multi-disciplinary approach to threat management
- To actively coordinate, monitor and evaluate threat management activities across the organization
Many managers and senior leaders are wary of implementing or serving on a threat management team. Some senior managers are concerned about the liability they perceive to be attached to internal judgements about workplace violence threats. Other managers feel they are unsuited or unqualified to assess “violence-prone behaviour”. Whilst both of these viewpoints are understandable to some extent, they are not based on a clear understanding of the role of a threat management team and the potential consequences to the organization of failing to address threat management in a structured, defensible manner.
Threat management teams are typically comprised of management individuals from Human Resources, Security/Operations, Legal Department and other applicable stakeholders. Some larger organizations may have additional internal resources to act as team members such as health and safety professionals or counseling staff. In some small to mid-sized organizations the team could be comprised of two people.
The threat management team should be supported by a clear governance and operating framework that sets out the team’s mandate, authority and operating protocols. In addition to developing policies and procedures the threat management team should also be formally trained in threat identification, threat assessment and violence risk management. Such training should include:
- Understanding of roles, responsibilities and lines of authority
- Objective threat assessment techniques, including violence risk screening
- Intervention and threat/incident management strategies
- Case management and reporting requirements
- Information-sharing practices
Incident (threat) management process
Once a report of an act/threat of violence or behavior(s) of concern is received (i.e., under the workplace violence prevention policy), the threat management team should gather to establish an incident management strategy. An essential step to be taken at the outset of the incident management process is a “violence risk screening”. The ASIS/SHRM (2011: 3) standard defines a violence risk screening as:
The investigative and analytical process followed by a Threat Management Team to make a gross and general determination of whether particular behavior should be viewed as generating a concern for possible violence and therefore should be treated under an organization’s threat management protocol.”
As stated within the ASIS/SHRM (2011: 27; 29) standard, the violence risk screening is undertaken to assist the threat management team in determining the exigency of the threat and the appropriate initial actions required to counter any danger posed. The initial risk screening should provide answers to the following questions:
- Is a concern for violence unwarranted, so that the incident can be handled (when involving an employee) within normal human resources, disciplinary, or employee relations protocols?
- Is some concern for violence warranted but not significant or urgent, so that the Team can continue with additional fact-gathering and its Incident Management process?
- Is a concern for violence urgent, so that emergency or urgent action should be taken, such as immediate consultation with a violence risk assessment professional or law enforcement?
Complaints and behaviours that are determined not to constitute a threat of violence can be addressed under the regular performance management or disciplinary process. If the threat is determined to be “non-urgent” the threat management team should gather initial information, conduct a violence risk screening and implement preliminary action based on the nature of any risk posed. Once such initial steps are taken, the threat management team should then perform a more thorough, continuing investigation and additional incident management steps should be taken as applicable.
In the case of an “urgent” threat that poses an imminent risk to personal safety, emergency response personnel and police authorities should be contacted and emergency response procedures should be implemented by the organization (ASIS/SHRM, 2011: 26).
A number of threats, once preliminarily screened by the threat management team, are found to fall somewhere between “urgent” and “non-urgent”. In many of these cases, an organization can benefit greatly from consulting with an external threat assessment professional to obtain a formal “violence risk assessment”. The ASIS/SHRM (2011: 3) standard draws a clear distinction between the internal violence risk screening and the external risk assessment. A violence risk assessment is defined in the standard as:
“The investigative and analytical process followed by a professional qualified by education, training or experience to determine the nature and level of risk of violence presented by a person and the steps that could be taken to respond to, manage and mitigate the risk.”
The use of tabletop exercises by the threat management team to test the effectiveness of current or proposed threat management strategies and approaches is highly recommended. Organizations should also develop a process for auditing the continuing effectiveness of its threat management program. Such a review can help to ensure the policy and procedures meet the evolving needs of the organization, its employees and community stakeholders.
History shows all too clearly that violent workplace incidents are commonly foreshadowed by some type of warning sign(s). Developing a capacity for the early identification and assessment of violence, threats and emerging aggression in the workplace provides the best opportunity for threat management and overall violence prevention. The recently issued ASIS/SHRM (2011) standard ‘Workplace Violence and Intervention’ is an excellent resource to support the development of an operationally-viable and legally-defensible workplace violence program incorporating a robust threat management process.
David Hyde, M.Sc., CPC
David Hyde and Associates
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