Motive Doesn't Matter
ROBERT MACK WAS FIRED from General Dynamics in San Diego in 1992. He subsequently shot both his boss and the HR supervisor handling his termination, paralyzing the former and killing the latter. I interviewed Mack in prison while researching my 1994 book Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace. In retrospect, the Mack case illustrates errors we see in current media coverage of workplace and school shootings—an attempt to answer the question of motive. From the U.S. Post Office shootings in the 1980s through Columbine and Virginia Tech to the January shooting outside Tucson that gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), the coverage of such incidents often centers on a search for an understandable motive.
Possible motives include revenge for a perceived bullying incident, anger over a disciplinary action or a termination, jealousy stemming from a former spouse’s relationship with a coworker, religious conviction, or political beliefs. But what I now realize is that the search for a motive is an exercise in futility, and it does not help to answer the important security question: How do we stop a would-be shooter?
The U.S. Secret Service discovered in its research that many successful shooters were on a path from ideas to action. So the focus should be on interrupting the opportunity for would-be shooters to proceed along that path and carry out their plans.
We must redirect attention away from violence as a solution and read problematic behavior more accurately. Remember that we are not predicting violence, we are assessing dangerousness. We must also handle subjects, their potential targets, and the facility in ways that minimize the potential for harm.
Following is a set of tools for your security toolkit. They include hiring carefully, constantly improving security, creating a security culture, training, evaluating behavior, conducting terminations carefully, emphasizing consequences, using threat assessment teams, implementing safe rooms, and managing courageously. When these tools are used effectively and early, they can help an organization intervene in cases involving threats from people inside or outside the facility.
If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then we need to do a better job of prescreening the people we allow behind our corporate walls. The applicant should be asked to sign the requisite waivers and permissions so that there can be a thorough background check, including contacting former employers and obtaining copies of past performance evaluations. Applicants should also be asked questions not just about technical competencies but about their previously demonstrated ability to fit in with a team and work with others at all levels.
Many big security changes are made in the aftermath of an incident, but companies need to be better at making smaller improvements and enforcing compliance with rules over time. It’s not necessarily the installation of an expensive CCTV system that will keep the facility safe. Often, it’s that all of the main card readers work and that employees are trained on security procedures and reminded not to break the rules, such as by propping open the facility’s side doors. Small changes and security upgrades over time can more easily gain senior management approval and can reinforce the idea that a protection mindset is always in place.
Senior managers must encourage a corporate culture that values security. Every employee should feel that he or she is in charge of keeping the facility safe. There should be visible rewards—public praise, time off, or even gift cards—for employees who report physical security problems. There should be support and an immediate response to employees who report behavioral problems, threats, or criminal activities involving coworkers, customers, or strangers. Companies should be careful never to make employees regret a decision to speak up. Shooting the messenger who brings bad news is the fastest way to discourage cooperation.
If your employees deal with customers, vendors, or members of the public who have the potential to become enraged, you must provide workers with the tools to handle potentially violent confrontations with confidence. This includes what could be called “psychological self-defense” training for reception and front-desk personnel, call center employees, and others who are the public face of your firm.
Employees who deal with the public or with clients and customers should know how to set personal and professional boundaries, such as not allowing angry callers to swear at them, for example. Employees should be trained to use high-stress communication tools to calm people, to bring in more help from staff or supervisors when necessary, and to report security problems early when they are small and manageable and not wait until after an incident to say they saw warning signs.
Dr. Fred Calhoun and Steve Weston have done significant research, training, and writing to support their groundbreaking model that some people howl—make overt threats, draw attention to themselves, frighten others intentionally—and some people hunt—develop a hidden plan, acquire the tools to harm others, work in stealth, and attack with little or no warning.
Hunters do not directly confront the people they target because they do not want to be stopped. They may, however, rant on Web sites or via other relatively anonymous venues. These rants may go undiscovered until after an attack.
Organizations are often overly responsive to the attention-seeking howler. For example, some organizations evacuate their facility for a phoned-in bomb threat when they have no other details and no suspicious devices have been found during the first security search. Meanwhile, firms may be unaware of or unconcerned by an angry employee who uses quiet menace instead of verbal threats.
The exception to the hunter-howler threat dynamic is when the victim and the suspect have had a previously intimate or sexual relationship. When the suspect says, “If I can’t have her, no one else will either,” security should take that threat very seriously, as it is the mark and sound of a hunter even if it is made loudly or overtly.
Many companies strive to get rid of problematic employees as soon as possible. This may be intuitive and legally sound, but it can also create the possibility of revenge and, thereby, increase the potential for violence down the road.
For that reason, some organizations see the wisdom of a humane HR approach and use the concept of benevolent severance pay. This concept means that the terminated employee who has been fired for threatening behaviors is given a parting package that may involve severance pay, continued medical benefits, access to continued employee assistance, outplacement help, and a single point of contact in the HR office to manage his or her needs.
The point of this benevolence is not to reward threatening or dangerous behavior; it is to assist the former employee by helping to manage his or her exit from the organization in a way that minimizes the likelihood that feelings of revenge will create a reason to lash out.
If there are no consequences for bad behavior, managers can expect that behavior to continue or escalate. There must be consequences for employee behaviors that put the organization at risk.
Howlers need to be managed so they are not disruptive. The company can do this by suspending the howler or moving him or her to another area where he or she cannot bother the target. Security should also enforce company rules and policies to try to eliminate or minimize outbursts.
If a hunter comes to the attention of security, he or she should be watched closely, assessed regularly, and managed more assertively. Law enforcement should be informed and mental health professionals consulted.
HR can do its part by supporting frontline supervisors and department heads and by stressing the use of coaching as a first step in addressing minor behavioral issues. In coaching, managers use warnings, boundaries, and reminders about policies to improve behavior. HR should also encourage a progressive discipline policy that suggests the company is firm, fair, consistent, and proactive.
Both HR and security have a responsibility to document their actions and the behaviors of the current or former employees in question. If an employee has been acting out for years, this must be reflected in the employee’s personnel file. Failing to document bad behavior should not be tolerated.
There must also be consequences for not following security protocols. As an example, some guards stationed at entrance points fail to ask for identification from visitors who look familiar or don’t fit the guard’s image of someone who might cause harm. This kind of thinking ignores the reality that workplace violence perpetrators might not fit a certain profile. They might be either gender, young or old, and be wearing business attire. So guards should be disciplined if they do not follow protocols consistently.
The key to safety and success when responding to any threat of workplace violence is the use of threat assessment teams (TATs). By gathering the stakeholders into a room or via conference call, companies can devise a viable plan relatively quickly. The TAT should include representatives from HR, security, legal, and employee assistance. Other groups that might be invited include mental health professionals, threat management consultants, local law enforcement, union representatives, safety and facility directors, and the employee’s direct supervisor.
Not every person needs to attend the entire meeting. Some people can come in, provide a key piece of information, and leave, so the core TAT can then take every piece of gathered knowledge to create a list of potential solutions.
The use of safe rooms, also known as shelter-in-place protocols, in school shootings and workplace violence incidents has been proven to save lives. Safe rooms could include a break room, restroom, training classroom, conference room, supervisor’s office, storage closet, or any other windowless room that can be locked or barricaded.
The best response to an active shooter in the building is to evacuate to a place of safety outside the facility. If that isn’t possible, then the safe room offers the next best solution. Employees can hide in the safe room until police response teams arrive.
Companies should schedule an annual safe room drill, which would involve an active shooter simulation to allow employees to practice going to their nearest safe room location and locking themselves in.
Of course, the use of safe rooms is imperfect. Most shootings occur without notice and do not allow employees time to get to a safe room. If employees are located in an open-space, cubicle environment, they may only be able to get under a desk or out of sight. And if the shooter is or was an employee of the company, he or she might know the location of any safe rooms.
All of the previous nine tools are useless without buy-in from management. Business owners, executives, directors, department heads, and frontline supervisors need to have the courage to respond to any potential workplace violence threat. There is a tendency in these cases to ignore the situation and hope that it will go away. Unfortunately, the reverse is usually true—the threat escalates.
Managers should be responsive to threatening behavior that might put their people and organizations at risk. By reducing the emphasis on motive and turning instead to preventing threatening acts, security can better mitigate violent incidents.
Steve Albrecht, CPP, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, trainer, and consultant on high-risk HR and security issues. He holds a doctorate in business administration, an M.A. in security management, and a B.S. in psychology. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. His 15 books include Contact & Cover, Streetwork, Surviving Street Patrol, and Fear and Violence on the Job.