Putting an end to violence

After a tragic incident, you almost always hear the same reactions from the neighbours. “He was a bit strange, but he was an amiable guy,” one will say to the media. Or, “He looked average,” says another, perhaps a resident in the same apartment building. “You’d say hi. He’d say hi. But he wasn’t very outgoing.”

That’s how the people who knew — or thought they knew — Michael McDermott described him to the reporters afterward. He was a study in contrasts, they said: a surly, sarcastic man who nonetheless remembered to send out Christmas cards.

McDermott hadn’t lived in this particular neighbourhood long, but after his arrest, the local media descended like a hungry hoard, eager for the usual scraps of insight and professions of disbelief from shocked neighbours.

The descriptions that came from his coworkers were no more revealing. They said he was “soft-spoken,” “a loner,” “kind of antisocial,” “quirky” and “peculiar.” While such terms don’t suggest a guy who was wildly popular among his coworkers, they also gave no indication that on Dec. 26, 2000, McDermott would get up from his desk at Edgewater Technologies Inc. in Wakefield, Mass., and, wielding a semiautomatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a pistol, go on a shooting rampage that would take the lives of seven coworkers.

But in the days that followed the massacre, it became clear that this violent event, however random it seemed at first blush, was not entirely unpredictable. McDermott had been upset about an Internal Revenue Service request to garnish his wages for back taxes. Only a week before, he had had an angry outburst in the company’s accounting department — where two of his victims were shot — and had lambasted the company for not taking his side against the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

The company had granted him a grace period on garnishing his wages until after the holidays, which made the day after Christmas bitterly meaningful for him. Looking back on the Edgewater environment, one coworker even confessed, “Of all the people that I thought could have done this…it was him.”

Workplace violence is seldom the freak episode that the media portrays it to be. Neighbours and relatives may claim to be shocked, but the people who once worked in close proximity to the individual often admit in retrospect to a suspicion that something wasn’t quite right. Employees who act out in violence often have a history of aggression, absenteeism, rule-breaking, antisocial behavior and problems with authority. The one incident that gets everybody’s attention is usually preceded by dozens of smaller episodes that managers and employees write off as “Fred being Fred” or “Bill just blowing off some steam.”

As one of the world’s foremost forensic psychiatrists, Dr. Park Dietz has researched workplace violence for over 20 years, interviewing the perpetrators and examining the causes of such events. (He is also president of Threat Assessment Group, or TAG, a workplace violence training and consulting company, and a forensic psychiatrist for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.) Dietz was the government’s expert witness in prosecuting John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Erik Menendez, Ted Kaczynski and Andrea Yates.

One of Dietz’s earliest findings in researching the subject of workplace violence was that shootings, harassing letters or parking lot brawls are never how problems begin. “Threats were not how a case started; threats were how it almost always ended,” he says. And it’s that discovery that lies at the root of the TAG program — called Supporting a Nonviolent Workplace — which he helped research and develop with 3M.

While lots of companies have crisis management plans that kick into gear in an emergency, far fewer have examined what they could do to head off these security crises in the first place. “You have to develop methods of preventing threats instead of waiting until you have a threat to prevent the violence,” says Dietz.

The argument is often made that an obsession with guns and violence as entertainment makes the United States a ripe breeding ground for these kinds of events. That may be true, but workplace violence encompasses much more than the gunman who commits a multiple-victim shooting.

The FBI defines workplace violence to be any action that could threaten the safety of an employee, impact an employee’s physical or psychological well-being, or cause damage to company property. That encompasses everything from stalking, threats, intimidation, violence as a byproduct of a robbery or other crime, bullying, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

When the full breadth of workplace violence is measured, data from the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency focused on human and labour rights, shows that the United States actually has one of the lowest rates of workplace violence in the industrial west. The far more common forms of workplace aggression such as threats, bullying and intimidation are universal trends that other countries have a far greater problem with than the United States.

“The rates in Canada are significantly higher than in the U.S., and France and Argentina are off the charts,” says Dietz. But that data is roundly ignored abroad, and CSOs of multinationals are likely to find that their foreign counterparts are unenthusiastic about instituting a workplace violence program. However, if you use terms that sound less American such as a program to prevent “bullying,” “mobbing” or “rude behavior,” they will admit to having those problems.

Domestic violence might seem out of place among other forms of workplace violence — it’s often considered to be a problem that exists within the domain of an employee’s personal life — but arguments at home frequently overflow into the workplace. A woman staying with friends or in a shelter at night to escape an abusive relationship is still at her job from nine to five every day, and her estranged spouse or boyfriend knows just where to find her.

The most recent statistics about workplace violence appear encouraging, but experts caution that they track only a small facet of the problem. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workplace homicide decreased by about five per cent from 2001 to 2002, the lowest level since 1992.

Unfortunately, the BLS stats might suggest to senior executives that the number of violent incidents has dropped, when in reality the risk at most corporations is in constant flux. Workplace homicide is just one way to benchmark the threat level in corporate America.

Much harder to measure are environmental factors such as stress, conflict, fear over job security, organizational change and general uncertainty that all increase the likelihood of an incident occurring. And a company that tries to assess its risk by looking at the national averages is basing its evaluation on statistics that have little or no relevance for its own circumstances.

While homicides have decreased from 1980 to today, the next tier of violence — robbery, rape and aggravated assault — has increased. And for more common problems such as threats, verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation, there is no national data. There are only the records of individual corporations (and few keep them) to tell the tale.

Still, there are some important ways to recognize a volatile employee and keep violence at bay. Here are five tips for ensuring a safer workplace.

1. Get executive buy-in

How do you begin to put a workplace violence prevention program in place? Whether you are following TAG’s recommendations or designing a plan of your own, the first step is to get executive buy-in. Convincing management of the problem’s urgency, however, can be challenging unless the company has recently experienced an incident itself or has witnessed an outbreak of media coverage on the issue. The best tack for the CSO, then, is to start gathering information about incidents that have occurred at the company (many of which the CEO may not even be aware).

At Boise Cascade, for example, Director of Corporate Security Jim Ashby has experienced a number of workplace violence incidents, “although never — knock on wood — a big one,” he says. He’s had situations where shots were fired in the parking lot, where an employee received threatening packages —one had a little flag that popped up and said, “Boom. See how easy it would be to blow you up” — as well as stalking and domestic violence.

Keeping detailed records of incidents is also a crucial component of workplace violence prevention. At American Express Co., former vice-president of worldwide security Richard Lefler’s early intervention program was so effective that it reduced the need for senior management to be involved in situations that the response team was tackling. Managers began to question whether the program was even necessary. They saw only the cost, not the benefit.

Lefler tackled the challenge of executive buy-in in two ways. He created an annual report that informed management of the number of workplace violence issues with which he was dealing. And he worked closely with business management at each office location. These managers became extremely supportive of the response team concept because it prevented disruptions and enhanced their ability to deliver on their performance goals.

2. Build a team

Once you have the executive team on board, you should form a response team to track, manage, investigate and document incidents as they occur. This team is usually made up of representatives from security, the general counsel’s office, human resources and the employee assistance program. They will form the backbone of your program, and as the team members get to know one another and build a cross-functional information-sharing network, they will help solve one of the most common problems contributing to workplace violence within the corporate structure: lack of communication.

“I was once brought to a scene of a workplace shooting in California where one of the employees had come in and shot three people,” says Dr. Robert Butterworth, a psychologist with International Trauma Associates. “Everybody said they kind of knew something was going on but didn’t know who to talk to about it.”

To demonstrate the magnitude of the communication gap issue, Dietz recalls a training session with the top executives at a prestigious company. He asked the executives to describe internal cases with which they were familiar so that the group could discuss them. However, the executives seemed embarrassed, edgy and concerned about whether they should be talking about these incidents so openly with fellow executives.

In an effort to get them to open up, Dietz introduced “the doctrine of constructive knowledge,” meaning that a court will assume that a company’s supervisory authorities are aware of the facts of any case that has occurred at their company. The executives reluctantly agreed to talk about the cases but stipulated that the employees involved should not be named.

The vice-president of human resources spoke first, describing an employee that his predecessor had warned him about. The employee in question had been a problem for years and would continue to soak up a great deal of his time, the former HR executive had cautioned.

The general counsel jumped in. He knew exactly who the HR exec was referring to because the company had had litigation surrounding the man for years. At this point, the head of security interrupted, saying he also knew who the employee was because years ago he had confiscated a knife from him when he tried to stab someone. “It’s a dramatic example,” says Dietz, “of how a malignant employee can manifest across a company and cost them many times his salary year over year, all because people remain isolated in their silos.”

That example also dramatizes another important point about problem employees: They seldom just go away. Employees have come back to a company to commit an act of workplace violence as long as nine years after being terminated. A company that doesn’t track problem individuals and the ripple effect they have across the entire company is tacitly condoning their behavior at its legal and physical peril.

3. Find outside help

CSOs can also take advantage of auxiliary members of the response team. The first is the external workplace violence consultant who can act as an on-call adviser to assist the regular team. Companies should also consider forming ties with the local police, who can consult on cases to provide the law enforcement perspective.

Ashby has used both Dietz’s group, TAG, and law enforcement in concert to deal with incidents at Boise Cascade. “We’ve gone as far as consulting with police and prosecutors ahead of time to make sure we’re getting a person locked up and not just rubbing salt in the wound by having them out there on the loose and mad at us,” he says. “On one occasion, Dietz helped us get the maximum sentence for an offender because he had a prior history. That helped (the individual) have a cooling off period.”

But Dietz also notes that a mistake companies frequently make is to call in the authorities too early; companies panic and escalate a low-level problem that could be handled internally. Dietz suggests you do some investigative work before making that call.

Companies may want to bring in a mental health professional because violent, antisocial behavior can be the manifestation of mental health issues instead of deep-seated aggressive tendencies. “Some people have severe mental health problems and don’t take their medication,” says Bob Hayes, a former CSO at 3M and Georgia-Pacific who works as a security consultant.

“Schizophrenia, paranoia, depression — these conditions include other behaviors. The individual might stop taking baths, stop combing his hair, become overly defensive, overly argumentative. Supervisors are familiar with the behavioral indicators of employees who are high on drugs or alcohol, such as slurred speech or unsteadiness. Well, it’s the same tactic for workplace violence.”

4. Formulate a policy

Once your team is in place, conduct an audit to get a sense of where the threats are. Risks vary from industry to industry. In fields such as retail, health care and law enforcement, the threats are typically external in the form of unruly customers, patients and offenders.

But don’t dismiss internal issues, Hayes says. “If you’re hiring people, you’re going to hire trouble,” he says. “You can’t screen every one out. Sometimes people become violent.” Best to start with a base-level understanding of the risks unique to your business.

The next step is for the response team to formulate a policy on workplace violence and determine how to respond to various situations. Remember that not all situations should be treated equally.

In general, the response team should investigate each incident and do a risk assessment, but that doesn’t necessarily require a long process. If an employee is accused of making a threatening comment, questioning witnesses could reveal if the accusation is legitimate.

At AdvancePCS, a health management services provider, director of corporate security Milt Brown advises adjusting your response according to the severity of the circumstance. In cases where an employee is using intimidation, explain the company’s zero-tolerance policy to him. Other situations may require immediate intervention.

On Halloween 2003, an employee in one of the AdvancePCS’s Southern offices came to work in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The employee meant it as a joke, but management found it tasteless and moved quickly to isolate her from the rest of the employees. She was then promptly terminated. “She could have really incited something,” says Brown. “It was just stupid.”

Zero-tolerance policies have gained currency in school systems and companies, but executives must take some time to consider what zero tolerance really means at their companies. Should an employee be terminated no matter the severity of the problem?

Eugene Rugala, supervisory special agent with the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, suggests that zero tolerance needs to have some flexibility built into it. “Sometimes companies overreact and terminate somebody before all the facts are in. It’s important to take all threats seriously. Look at what may have caused that to happen,” he says. “The final consequences have to be flexible. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all strategy.”

5. Educate and train

“The stereotypical profile of a workplace shooter is a 25-year-old male who lives with his mother, wears combat boots and likes guns,” says Hayes. “But many people have those attributes and never commit a crime.” A more effective way to identify an employee in trouble is by marked changes in his behavior. Is a previously happy employee suddenly withdrawn and surly? Does he feel victimized, or is he willing to break the rules?

At Sony Electronics, vice-president of corporate security Ken Wheatley and his direct reports attend Dietz’s training programs, and Sony requires managers to attend four hours of in-house workplace violence training and employees to attend an internal session that lasts several hours.

An important part of educating the workforce is teaching employees to ask for help. “An employee may feel uncomfortable intervening, may be intimidated, and if there’s a union, there may be environmental influences that cause them not to report things to the proper people,” says Brown. “I want them to buy in to our process.”

Often there’s already plenty of expertise available through HR and employee assistance programs or corporate security and legal departments. Their purpose is to reinforce the idea that employees shouldn’t feel timid about asking for help and to ease their burden of having to make a judgment about how to handle a situation.

Asking employees to volunteer information about their private lives is also tricky but necessary to ensuring the safety of everyone in the workplace. Employees at AdvancePCS are asked to make their managers aware if they have taken out a restraining order so that corporate security will know that the individual is not allowed on the property.

“We make it clear that we respect your privacy, and we want you to be safe and happy and performing to the best of your ability as often as possible,” says Brown. “We maintain their confidence, we don’t spread gossip, and we give them some counseling and suggest some changes in behavior so that they leave feeling better able to cope and grateful that they came forward. As word spreads, more people are willing to talk to us.”

Finally, employees should be taught to trust their instincts. At Procter & Gamble, Ed Casey, director of worldwide corporate security, tells his managers, “If you feel something is not right, if your gut tells you it’s not healthy, then involve the multifunctional team.”

As companies take their workplace violence prevention programs forward, they face a number of ongoing challenges. But the largest by far is keeping workplace violence training current in an ever-changing employee population. “The churn of people in the workplace is a challenge,” says Brown. “You can build a team that’s really knowledgeable and six months later its all changed.”

Brown notes how four years ago, he took all of his senior managers, including the CEO, to Scottsdale, Ariz., for one of TAG’s workplace violence seminars. “Only one person is left out of that group,” Brown says. “A new company has purchased us, and this time next year the team will have changed again.” That means he has to go through the process of reeducating his workforce on workplace violence and convince management again that this is a worthy investment for corporate funds.

To help expedite the training process, Brown plans to move the training to a CD-ROM and to the company’s intranet. The handbook and policy will be available on the intranet as well, and new supervisors and managers will take a workplace violence test online to assess their understanding of the problem and the company’s policies. Every two years they have to take a refresher course and pass the test.

If your program works effectively, workplace violence prevention will change more than the overall safety level. It will change the corporate culture in important and perceptible ways. A good program will create a culture that says certain kinds of behavior are not acceptable, thus making a more comfortable place for everyone.

Casey suggests that corporations should take a lesson from airport security. “You know you can’t walk on an airplane and joke about having a bomb,” he says. “Nearly every time, the employee (who has made a threat) says, ‘My God, that’s not what I meant!’ but the fact is that these kinds of words are not acceptable in the workplace.”

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