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Five Red Flags from Problem Employees

1. Grievance collecting.  The person who collects grievances is the individual most likely to assault or kill former coworkers.  A single complaint may be legitimate, but those who become obsessed with people and situations and memorialize their anger can be dangerous. Vester Flanagan, the shooter in the on-air deaths of two WDBJ reporters in Roanoke, Virginia, filed a collection of grievances over time via social networking, in court documents, and through discrimination complaints.

2. Reputation. In the Roanoke shooting, WDBJ Station Manager Jeff Marks acknowledged that coworkers of the shooter noticed he was patently unhappy; he had changed his name and complained that he was the victim of discrimination because of his weight gain and sexual orientation. Marks said, “He quickly gathered a reputation of someone who was difficult to work with. He was looking for things he could take offense to. Eventually, after many incidents of his anger, we dismissed him. He did not take that well. We had to call police to escort him from the building.”

3. Humiliation. Even bullies should be treated with respect and dignity. After Flanagan was fired, one of his coworkers, Adam Ward, filmed Flanagan’s exit. Ward was one of the two people Flanagan shot and killed. The filming may have contributed to a sense of humiliation and certainly played a role in the shooting of Ward. When an angry person feels humiliated, the exposure to retaliation increases by at least 38 percent, according to our research.

4. Work history.  A checkered career and long breaks in employment history merit a deeper look upon hiring. Flanagan had worked at five television stations prior to his hiring at WDBJ, had filed wrongful termination suits against a former employer, and had numerous ongoing personality clashes with coworkers. Use the probationary period to remove someone who is a poor fit before they blossom into a workplace threat.

5. Manifesto.  Oregon college gunman Chris Mercer left a racist manifesto with one of his victims following the murder of nine students and teachers in October. Manifestos are not new, but they are increasingly common as violent offenders seek validation for their crimes. The most complicated and prolific author was Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, but LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner was more public with an 11,000-word Facebook post detailing his plans. When separating a provocative person, increase the monitoring of social networking sites, as well as e-mail and voice mails made to executives and compliance hotlines.  


Larry Barton is the Threat Assessment Specialist and Professor of Management at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania