A History of Grievances
By most accounts, they did everything right. Their new reporter had demonstrated concerning behavior, so they'd brought him in to discuss it. They had monitored his progress, and when he didn't improve, they mandated professional services. And when that didn't work and complaints continued to come in, they terminated him, and they had him escorted by police from the building. Employees were instructed to call 911 if they saw the former reporter near the facility.
Yet, nearly two years later, Vester Lee Flanagan II tracked down two of his former colleagues at WDBJ and shot and killed them on live television in a horrific act of violence that shocked the world.
In the aftermath, questions remained: What drove Flanagan to murder his former colleagues? Could he have been stopped? And if the unthinkable happens, how should companies respond?
With unparalleled access to memos and personnel data from lawsuits Flanagan filed, Security Management spoke with experts to answer those questions.
Flanagan, who went by the name of Bryce Williams on air, was hired by WDBJ—a Roanoke, Virginia, television station—as a multimedia journalist in March 2012 for $36,000 per year. He had nearly 10 years of experience, with positions as a communications director, production assistant, news writer, reporter, anchor, and producer in California, Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.
Almost immediately after arriving in Roanoke, his behavior at work concerned his colleagues. Some of them reported a "heated confrontation" with Flanagan in a broadcast vehicle on April 28, 2012, that left them feeling threatened and "extremely uncomfortable," according to a memo included in a civil lawsuit filed by Flanagan against the station.
Weeks later, on May 30, Flanagan's photographer reported another disagreement while the two were out on assignment shooting B-roll. When the photographer finished, Flanagan told him, "…the shaky video isn't going to work," and told an interview subject who was present that the photographer's work was "completely unusable." The incident ended with Flanagan storming off in anger.
This type of behavior would be repeated numerous times during the 11 months that Flanagan worked at the station. These moments were indications that Flanagan had the potential to be a dangerous person: a grievance collector.
Dr. Larry Barton, a threat assessment specialist and professor of management at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, says anyone can have a grievance at work—a change in hours, a change in shift, a daycare issue because their hours have changed, and so on.
"A grievance is in many ways a benefit because it allows us to know you're upset," he explains. "The key here is to get onto that concept of the collector. This is the person who will not let this go. And so instead of one complaint, they have six complaints….and they truly will not let it go."
Grievance collectors also engage in repeated behaviors. They keep very specific journals, like chronicles, of names of people, names of those in a meeting, and notes on who said what.
"They tend to write very long and, often, elegant letters," Barton adds. "In other words, they're not scattered; they're actually often people who spend hours to write an e-mail that's very well crafted because they're upset and they're moving in that space of 'I am right; there is no gray in this, and you, employer, are wrong.'"
Within the letters, they often refer to God because "they believe that God is on their side, righteousness is on their side," Barton says. The letters are then sent to employers, politicians, federal agencies, and more, "to do whatever it takes to ensure that their cause is heard."
Often, these communications are shared during off hours—late at night or on weekends. "It shows that it's not just at work. They're willing to give up their entire weekend, and they're willing to write at two o'clock in the morning," Barton says. (Barton discusses the other top 5 red flags from problem employees in "The List" in the December 2015 issue of Security Management.)
Flanagan did this by documenting his grievances in a manifesto sent to ABC News and by filing a lawsuit, alleging a hostile work environment, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, mental anguish, and credit card debt caused by his eventual termination from WDBJ.
"Your Honor, what I encountered while employed at WDBJ-7 was nothing short of vile, disgusting, and inexcusable," Flanagan wrote to District Judge Francis Burkart, III, in 2014 when he filed his suit representing himself. "I realize this is the ultimate David vs. Goliath scenario, so to speak. However, I am neither intimidated nor fearful. While I may not be an expert with regards to case law and legal terms, I AM an expert when it comes to integrity, character, and the difference between right and wrong."
Flanagan also said that he would not rest until the matter was resolved. "I am a very, very persistent person and will utilize every resource I have to achieve justice and stand up for the rights of others at the same time."
Identifying grievance collectors is crucial because "once a person crosses that threshold, it's very hard to get them off that track," Barton says. To help identify these individuals, Barton says employees should be encouraged to use their natural sense of intuition that something is not right, that something seems wrong with what a coworker is saying or doing.
"Pay attention to intuition because so much of the focus today is on analytics, forensics, and what people are writing on the Web," Barton adds. "And all of that is important, but we have to come back to some of the fundamentals…the real opportunity, which is that it just doesn't seem right."
When an employee notices that a coworker is depressed or anxious, they should take a partner and talk to the person they are concerned about. They should ask that person how he or she is doing before requesting a formal investigation.
"Sometimes we make it worse, and we love to throw around this phrase of 'we're going to conduct an investigation,'" Barton says. "The words we use, when you take a person who's just struggling, can make them feel like a criminal."
What's crucial, though, is to identify issues while they're small problems and address them—before they've had a chance to turn into something bigger, says Jay Hart, executive director of Force Training Institute.
For companies that don't already have them, Hart recommends creating a safety committee that brings together people who see different risks or concerns within the organization, such as legal, HR, security, and those who are passionate about safety in the organization as a whole.
When someone acts out of bounds, it can be brought to the committee to address the behavior right away and determine if it is a credible threat and whether it's imminent. If it is, such as an employee overheard threatening to hurt someone at work, the committee can call in outside resources or law enforcement to address it.
However, if the committee decides it's not an immediate threat—such as an employee bullying a coworker—it can suggest mental first aid first, like emotional counseling through an employee assistance program. The committee can then monitor the employee's progress, make regular check-ins, and document the process.
"There are defibrillators everywhere; if somebody gets hurt, you go, 'Hey, take that off the wall and help them,'" Hart says. "Well, we need to start thinking about mental first aid. If somebody does have some type of issues, they may need some psychological help. And because your company or organization does have resources, they can get people the help that they need."
This approach gives employees the impression that their colleagues care about them, but it also lets them know that if they begin to pose a problem or a threat—to themselves or others—it may cost them their job, Barton explains.
As Flanagan's employment with WDBJ continued, he had regular meetings with News Director Dan Dennison to discuss his behavior. In a memo that was included in Flanagan's lawsuit, Dennison told Flanagan to work on the "tone of your interpersonal relationships and exercise great care in dealing with stressful situations or disagreements and your response to them."
Dennison also encouraged Flanagan to bring any concerns he had about his coworkers to his direct supervisor or members of the management team, and to seek help from the employee assistance program if he thought it would be beneficial.
"Any further incidents of inappropriate behavior or situational response that is not professional or leaves a co-worker feeling threatened or uncomfortable will lead to more serious disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment," according to the memo.
However, Flanagan's behavior did not improve, even after contacting WDBJ's employee assistance program. In January 2013, everything came to a head in numerous incidents where Flanagan verbally clashed with his superiors and colleagues, creating an uncomfortable work environment.
Dennison and others called Flanagan to a human resources representative's office on February 1, and explained that he was being terminated due to unsatisfactory job performance and inability to work as a team member. Flanagan was then presented with a severance letter, which he said was unacceptable.
Instead, Flanagan demanded that WDBJ provide him with three months' severance, and said "you better call police because I'm going to make a big stink. This is not right." He insisted on speaking to Todd Schurz, CEO of WDBJ's parent company, then said he had to go to the bathroom, storming out of the office and slamming the door.
However, Flanagan did not go to the bathroom but instead went to his desk to collect his things and look for Schurz's phone number. He was interrupted, though, when Dennison and two police officers came into the room and told him he needed to leave.
One of the police officers attempted to take the phone that Flanagan was using, causing Flanagan to say: "Take your hands off me. Leave me alone." Other staff members observed and recorded the incident.
One of the employees recording the incident was Adam Ward, a WDBJ photographer. When Flanagan saw him, he told Ward he needed to "lose your big gut" and flipped him off.
Flanagan then gave a hat and small wooden cross to Dennison, telling him he would need them, and police officers removed Flanagan from the room. WDBJ employees were then informed that if they saw Flanagan on company property, they were to call 911 immediately. Management also made arrangements to have an off-duty police officer on premises from 6 a.m. to midnight that following weekend.
Separations like this are why it's critical for security to partner with the HR community within their organizations: it is common for security to get a call from HR saying, "We need you to walk out somebody because we're going to have a provocative separation; we think this guy could be violent," Barton says. "And what that does immediately is not only place the security officer in harm's way, but it really creates tension."
Instead, HR needs to tell security why this individual has raised concerns. Based on that information, security can help determine whether there's a more discreet way to terminate the person to avoid embarrassing him or her.
"The big issue, the overwhelming issue, is humiliation," Barton explains. "When people are embarrassed, it plays a role in retaliation, and that's why managing people in terms of how they exit that company is so critical."
And, Barton says, often companies fail to complete the termination process with integrity. "Sometimes because of the speed or because we're just not comfortable or we're not sure what's going to happen with this person, we don't treat them with dignity," he adds, which can lead to retaliation.
Additionally, when someone is terminated and is considered potentially dangerous—either to the facility or staff—companies need to have a method of communicating that with employees, despite concerns that it might make employees nervous.
"If we don't tell them, then we're at more risk because nobody knows," Hart explains. Instead, companies need to craft a message that communicates to employees appropriately, and that doesn't scare them but shows that the company cares and wants them to be safe. This message should include "influential" information about the issue and what employees should do if they see an emergency situation.
Hart explains what he means by "influential" information: "When you're communicating to your employees about a subject as sensitive as a terminated employee, it's important that the message is based on influence versus just information," Hart says. "Sometimes we can get legalese on it and be very calculated…and then what happens is it starts this wildfire of rumors throughout the organization that starts to take off and the message gets out of control."
Instead, Hart says companies should write messages that reassert that the company cares about its employees and include general information about what the threat is, how the company is handling it, and what employees are expected to do about the threat, such as calling 911 if a former employee is seen outside the building.
"It's really important when you are crafting that message to start off with the fact that you care about your employees—they're the most important asset," he explains.
Employers also need to identify whether they need to monitor a former employee once he or she has been terminated if they believe that individual presents a threat. There are various methods that companies can use, Hart says, but one of the easiest and most effective is to monitor the former employee's public social media activity.
For instance, Flanagan had a public Twitter account that he began using approximately two weeks before shooting his former colleagues. However, since his account was suspended, it is unclear if he used it to post threats prior to the incident.
In June 2014, less than a year after he was fired, Flanagan filed his lawsuit against WDBJ. The initial filing is revealing, showing Flanagan's belief that WDBJ's photographers sabotaged his efforts in an attempt to get him fired.
"There was a carefully orchestrated effort by the photography staff to oust me—a conspiracy," Flanagan wrote. "The chief photographer, Lynn Eller, even told the photographers to 'roll on me' if they caught me doing something wrong. Why did one of the photographers go to HR on me after working with me ONLY ONCE. There was nothing to report! That, Your honor, is just plain wrong."
He also accused Dennison of coercing and intimidating him, and claims that WDBJ broke the law by not paying him for overtime hours. Additionally, Flanagan explained incidents involving his former colleagues where they allegedly attacked him, verbally assaulted him, displayed a watermelon as a racist symbol, and sent "egregious" text messages.
A district judge, however, dismissed the case in July 2014, and Flanagan did not file another. Instead, as we now know, he began plotting to murder his former colleagues.
A year after his lawsuit was dismissed, Flanagan ambushed reporter Alison Parker and Ward on August 26, 2015, while they were interviewing Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, as part of the station's morning show.
Flanagan shot Parker and Gardner on air, then turned his gun on Ward while his camera continued to roll, showing the horrific chain of events to Parker and Ward's colleagues in the control room at WDBJ and to viewers on live television. The footage was broadcast on social media around the world.
The reach of the shooting escalated when Flanagan began posting his own updates on his Twitter feed and Facebook page—which have since been taken down—of video footage he'd taken of the attack and grievances against Ward and Parker.
Flanagan then fled the scene and was apprehended five hours later when his car ran off Interstate 66 after being pursued by law enforcement. He shot himself and was transported to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, where he died from his injuries at approximately 1:30 p.m., according to The Roanoke Times. Parker and Ward also died from their injuries, but Gardner survived.
Remarkably, WDBJ continued to report the news that day, coming together with support from executives, staff members, the Roanoke community, and other media outlets. WDBJ held a memorial service for Ward and Parker, and provided staff with access to a grief counselor and a pastor.
The incident served as a stark reminder that along with working to prevent workplace violence from happening, companies also need to develop reaction and recovery plans to respond to incidents when they do happen. Kevin Doss, CPP, PSP, president and CEO of Level 4 Security, a security consultancy, says there are two parts of response: organizational response and individual response.
The organizational response is to protect those under the company's duty of care, such as employees, guests, or visitors, and should begin with how to determine what the threat is, where it is, and how law enforcement can neutralize it.
Additionally, organizational response includes communicating with those under duty of care that there is a threat, how to evacuate the building, and where individuals should go for the reunification process so law enforcement can screen and debrief them.
Organizations also need to think through how they will prepare for press coverage of the incident and communicate what's happening to stakeholders outside of the facility that's under threat. There needs to be a plan in place, Doss says, to have a designated spokesperson who will be responsible for giving timely updates to the media.
When it comes to individual response, companies need to teach their employees what to do if there is an active shooter or threat in their facility. One method Doss likes is the Run.Hide.Fight model, which can allow organizations to build their policies and procedures around whether employees can run away from the threat, need to hide from the threat, or need to fight back. This ensures that the company is "doing its part to help the individual employee make their decision," he adds.
After the initial response and the elimination of the threat comes the recovery phase, or reacclimation, as Barton calls it. Reacclimation is like a soldier who has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, say, who goes through acclimating to society, he explains. "They take them first to Germany and kind of get them to think about pizza and life, and their families, and doing more Skype calls, and kind of ramping it up…well, the same has to do with the workplace."
When an incident happens, whether it's a shooting, or a fight, or a fire, there's a lot of rumors and people don't want to come back to work. They are worried that another incident will happen, or their spouse is concerned about their welfare at the office.
To help begin the reacclimation process, Barton says that organizations need to acknowledge that there's been a tragedy by memorializing the victims and making senior leaders visible throughout the process.
"Don't push this down to HR. Your CEO and your president need to speak to the issue," Barton explains. "This is a homicide at work; it requires dignity, and it requires…that you speak from your heart as to this tragedy."
For instance, after Ward and Parker were killed, WDBJ created a Web page to remember their work for the station and to memorialize them. It remains regularly updated, with reports on charity efforts and scholarships created in their names, options to leave condolence messages, and updates on Gardner's recovery progress.
After the initial acknowledgment, the company should require that the victim's immediate work group attend a counseling session with a professional counselor, such as a trauma counselor from a local hospital.
"Everyone on that shift who knew that person should attend," Barton says. "Even if they sit there with their arms crossed, it allows them to think about and process change and grief. And a lot of people will speak up and a lot of people will be silent. But it's a really important part of this whole process."
Hart concurs with this, and recommends planning an organizational response that includes agreements with local counselors and therapists who can provide services if an incident does occur.
"You're starting to see mental health advocates, mental health organizations that are run by the state, the county, the government, starting to take a more active role in the private sector in giving them resources to address these issues," he adds. "And I think that's where we're going to see the next steps taking place, addressing this mental health issue ahead of time."
However, Barton cautions that workplace homicides are not spiraling out of control; he points out that the number has remained static for about 15 years, with an average of one person killed per day at work in the United States by a coworker or a former coworker, according to his research.
"So remain vigilant, not paranoid," he says. "Stick with the facts, don't be alarmists, and know that people do want to be informed. Our kids are getting this training in first grade, so we can talk about it at work."