Threat Assessment: A Key Step in Preventing & Mitigating Workplace Violence

“If I lose my job, the site manager and his supervisor need to watch out.”

When a suspended employee of an industrial trades company returned to the work site, he threatened his managers. The company found itself dealing with a workplace violence situation for which it had neither a plan nor the expertise to handle; it sought help from threat assessment professionals to navigate the situation toward a positive outcome.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that more than 20,000 private industry workers experienced trauma from workplace violence in 2018.1 More alarming, though, is that 20% required 31 or more days away from work to recover.2

The financial impact of workplace violence along with loss of productivity, low employee morale, damage to company reputation, and loss in confidence in a safe workplace are undeniable. Threat assessment is an effective approach to lessen the risk of workplace violence and supports employee wellness.

Companies have a responsibility to protect their employees and others by understanding the rising risk factors (such as the contentious issue of wearing or not wearing protective face coverings), identifying concerning situations of violence, and intervening to prevent a situation from escalating. 

What Is Workplace Violence?

ASIS International describes workplace violence as a spectrum of behaviors, including overt acts of violence, threats, and other conduct that generates a reasonable concern for safety from violence.3 It is important to know that workplace violence includes threats, harassment,intimidation, and disruptive behavior. Incorporating threat assessment into company practices can help companies deal with these concerns.

What Is Threat Assessment?

Threat assessment is a behavior-based inquiry process that helps organizations respond to a threat of targeted violence and identify those who may be moving toward an intentional harmful event; it is a multi-disciplinary approach to identifying, assessing, and mitigating concerns of intentional violence (Exhibit 1).

Threat assessment brings together various stakeholders and perspectives to help investigate, assess, and manage threatening situations. Company management, human resources (HR), legal, risk management, occupational safety and health, and law enforcement and security professionals have unique perspectives that can provide a well-rounded view.

The concept of threat assessment is not new and has been used to help protect the president, elected officials, and others. Also, many large businesses have instituted threat assessment protocols into their operational risk management practices.

Threat assessment is based on the core principles that those who decide to commit a violent act do so based on an understandable and often detectable thought process and behavior. Threat assessment professionals assert that such violence results from the interaction of the attacker, the victim, stressors, and the attacker’s current situation. Identifying this constellation of indicators and working to problem solve is key to resolving the potential for violence.

In the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin article, “Threat Assessment Teams: Workplace and School Violence Prevention,” Dr. Steven Albrecht said, “More than focusing on warning signs or threats alone, assessment involves a unique overall view of changing, relevant, and related behaviors of concern.”4

As depicted in Exhibit 2, threat assessment is a dynamic process that relies on understanding the interplay among the people involved, the circumstances of the situation, and the aggravating (and mitigating) factors of their personal and professional lives.

Threat Assessment in Action

Let’s look at an example of how one company incorporated the threat assessment process to mitigate a threat of violence.

A construction company employee made a verbal threat that he would kill a coworker and then take his own life. The target was informed of the communicated threat against him, and the company began working with law enforcement to understand the risk of violence to its employees and customers.

The company not only conducted an internal risk assessment, but also consulted with threat assessment professionals. A threat assessment investigation helped the company understand the risk and implement mitigating factors to address the concern for risk of violence. Several approaches toward the physical security for the company’s offices, employees, and possible physical surveillance of the subject were discussed.

The company worked with the employee’s union and ultimately terminated the employee. The threat assessment investigation helped the company develop a course of action for the termination that helped the employee move on without harboring resentment toward the company. Local law enforcement worked with the target of the employee’s threatening statement to ensure his safety.

What Is a Threat Assessment Team?

A threat assessment team develops prevention, mitigation, and response plans to counter perceived threats of violence in the workplace. This diversity of thought allows the company to better understand the contextual behaviors of concern and dynamics from many perspectives.

This team focuses on behaviors, stressors, and mitigating factors. A key factor for consideration in violent ideations is how stress impacts a person’s ability to cope with the current conflict. As a person’s resilience to stressors decreases, they begin to see fewer realistic solutions and pursue ones that are not acceptable. Despite perceptions, people don’t typically just “snap.” Rather, a perceived grievance festers into a fixation for justice. A decision is then made that violence is an acceptable resolution to their current challenges. Individuals who may pose a future risk of violence demonstrate behaviors over time that may be visible to others.

Historically, in workplace violence incidents, concerning behaviors were present as patterns (or histories) of past behavior, as these behaviors from stressors are observable. In a study of pre-attack behaviors of active shooters, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit found that active shooters typically experienced multiple stressors in the year before they attacked, and that, on average, each active shooter displayed 4-5 concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others.5

Another key finding is that the most frequent concerning behaviors were related to the active shooter’s mental health, problematic interpersonal interactions, and leakage (the intentional or unintentional revealing in some manner of intent to do harm) of violent intent.6 Persons struggling with heightened stressors may likely maintain elevated stress levels and will not immediately go back to a normal baseline. These persons may struggle with work and personal life stressors that collectively influence their violent ideations.

Preparation & Prevention: Train Your Team & Spot It Before It Happens

In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted a nationwide survey to learn employees’ thoughts about workplace violence.7 One key finding of the survey is that while organizations have processes to identify potential employees with a violent history, many lacked programs to prevent or train workers on how to respond to workplace violence.8 The study found that only 45% of those polled knew whether their company has a workplace violence prevention program. That means 55% were either not sure or not aware of their companies having programs9 – an unacceptable vulnerability that is easily overcome. 

What is even more concerning is that when those polled were HR professionals, 64% were either not aware or not sure if their company has a workplace violence prevention program.10 There are essential steps organizations can take to protect the company and their employees.

An effective workplace violence prevention effort begins with the organizational leaders recognizing the issue of workplace violence and embracing an attitude that the company can take proactive actions to prevent it; that mindset will flow down to the staff. Moreover, an organization does not need to be a government entity or a large company to incorporate threat assessment practices. 

As an example, consider the opening story. Several months before the suspended employee threatened his coworkers, another employee was murdered on company property, which resulted in a heightened concern about the new threat. The company reached out to threat assessment professionals, and a threat assessment team comprised of third-party experts and the company’s resources developed a threat management strategy that allowed it to terminate the employee in such a way as to not aggravate the situation. In fact, the employee left thankful for how respectfully the company treated him. 

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About the Authors

Cal Beyer

Cal Beyer, CWP, is Vice President of Risk, Safety & Mental Wellbeing for ethOs, a Holmes Murphy company.

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Sheldon Beddo

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