Emerging Issues in Security

The “Do Something” Dilemma in Workplace Violence Threats

Security practitioners can find themselves in a difficult position when they respond to workplace violence threats without a concrete plan, so that senior management can see how they will protect the organization from current or former employees; job applicants; current or former vendors or contractors; the domestic partner of an employee; or a stranger with no connection to the organization.

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While the United States is familiar with so-called “active shooters” and other mass attackers who have targeted our K–12 schools, colleges, and universities, malls, churches, military bases, and other public agencies and private-sector businesses, many of those perpetrators struck without warning the business or the people in it. As the U.S. Secret Service reported in its 1999 “Exceptional Case Study Project” report, “Some people make threats and some people pose threats.” Their research suggested we have more to be concerned with from people who do not threaten the target directly, than those who do. As the agency puts it, they talk to people who make threats to harm the president; they look for people who attempt to move close to where the president is or will be. This important difference often needs a thorough explanation from a security practitioner for their internal or external clients, as to why “no action” has been taken for a threat verbalized by an ex-employee to “come back and ‘go postal,’” or by an enraged customer who threatens to “make my name known forever to the company who ripped me off.”

The people on the receiving end of the security director or security manager’s advice want more than words that the threatener is unlikely to threaten and attack; they want actions. “Don’t just sit there! Do something!” is the plea. To which the security professional should answer, “I am doing something; in fact, many things; some of which are visible to you and some of which are not.” This could include surveillance, facility security improvements, or working with the police. In threat assessment, taking active measures makes some situations instantly better and some immediately worse. Getting and serving a civil stay-away or temporary restraining order against an ex-employee who has made no contact with anyone in the organization after his termination would be one example of an overreaction, which could cause him or her to contact the company in a new and threatening way.

What is often true in the threat assessment field is observing, and monitoring is quite a useful approach for a subject who has not made further contact with the victim or the target(s), and has not showed signs of being on a path from violent ideas to suicidal or homicidal actions. As longtime Los Angeles security consultant and author of the bestseller, The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker puts it, “Sometimes when you engage, you enrage.”

Threat assessment professionals who consult externally for an organization, or internally with their Security, HR, or Risk Management departments, owe their often fearful clients explanations as to how and why they have chosen to respond to the threat event as they have. Explaining their methodology and the range of approaches they can or will or will not use can go a long way toward minimizing the concern that they aren’t doing enough.