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Publicly Humiliating Events: A Precursor to Workplace Violence?

An employee opened fire in February 2019 during a termination meeting at a manufacturing plant in Illinois, killing five. Three months later in California, an automotive employee shot and killed two of his colleagues moments after being fired. In Nebraska in 2021, an employee was terminated from his job at a grain elevator. He left the facility, grabbed a firearm from his vehicle, and returned to shoot three former coworkers, killing two. Responding authorities shot the gunman, who later died from his injuries.

Sadly, these incidents are all too common. FBI research on active shootings has revealed that places of commerce—open and closed to the public—are targeted by active shooters more frequently than nearly any other venue. Of the 50 active shooter incidents the Bureau reviewed from 2022, 23 occurred in open spaces (23 percent) and 14 of them occurred in a commerce location (28 percent).

Unsurprisingly, businesses that are closed to pedestrian traffic tend to be targeted by active shooters who are employees (54 percent). The FBI’s data also reveals a troubling trend: former employees represent more than one quarter (26 percent) of the active shooters targeting businesses closed to pedestrian traffic.

Many of these active shooters were fired or laid off from their employer in the days, weeks, months, and, in some cases, years before carrying out their attacks. The change in their employment status appeared to serve as flashpoints or propellant.

Security and human resources (HR) professionals know well that terminations, disciplinary problems, and conflicts between co-workers (including interpersonal conflicts and bullying) can quickly escalate and amplify pre-existing feelings of animosity and rage. These events can cause an employee to feel publicly humiliated and isolated, fueling a potential attacker’s grievance against a company.

Given that many people who experience conflict or termination at work never become violent, it’s critical to understand why others respond so drastically and severely.

Researching Pre-Attack Indicators

In 2018, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) published The Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooter in the United States, which revealed that among the active shooters in the study (63 total), 49 percent experienced significant financial stressors in the year leading up to their attack and 35 percent experienced significant job-related stressors in that same timeframe.

The BAU subsequently published a report titled Possible Attackers? A Comparison Between the Behaviors and Stressors of Persons of Concern and Active Shooters. This novel research highlighted the role that public humiliation appears to play as a potential motivating factor for active shooters.

In comparison to persons of concern (POCs) who did not attack, the active shooters in the BAU study experienced publicly humiliating events far more frequently (four times as often). The humiliating events often occurred within two years of their active shooting attack and likely served as primary motivator in propelling the shooter towards violence. The research indicated that experiencing publicly humiliating events might serve as a pre-attack indicator and should be considered when assessing the likelihood of catastrophic targeted violence.

The Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BTAC, part of the BAU) focuses on the early identification of concerning, pre-attack behaviors which, if detected and reported, can support violence prevention efforts.

When a person begins demonstrating concerning—or disruptive—behaviors, it is essential for security and safety stakeholders to “engage as early as possible in the assessment and management process,” according to the BTAC guide Making Prevention a Reality.

There are numerous opportunities in workplaces for publicly humiliating events to occur: poor performance messaging, corrective conversations, negative relationships among coworkers, and disciplinary actions (such as termination of employment) can quickly evolve into situations where an employee feels humiliated, alienated, or even ostracized.

Some of these actions may inherently jeopardize an employee’s very core sense of self-worth, which for some becomes inextricably linked to community membership and status. A poorly handled termination notification or overly harsh performance messaging can spiral, spark the creation of a grievance, and—for some—serve as the springboard towards violence.

The BAU’s research serves as an alert for all corporate security stakeholders that significant efforts should be made to limit or minimize humiliation in day-to-day practices and work culture.

Experiencing publicly humiliating events might serve as a pre-attack indicator and should be considered when assessing the likelihood of catastrophic targeted violence.

Recognizing Humiliation at Work

Given the subjective nature of humiliation and the varying degrees of resilience demonstrated by employees when faced with negative events such as separation or disciplinary actions, how can corporate security professionals accurately recognize when an employee experiences feelings of public humiliation?

The first step is understanding what constitutes a publicly humiliating event. In Understanding Political Radicalization: The Two-Pyramids Model, Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko describe public humiliation as “the sense of being victimized by others in a manner where it is exposed in a public way that the person is somehow deficient, which then in turn involves the internal emotions of shame and anger.”

Consider, for example, an employee who miscalculates numbers on a crucial report and is disciplined by his supervisor in front of his team. Whether it was an honest mistake or not, the employee might walk away from the interaction feeling embarrassed about the report and concerned that his team no longer has faith in his abilities. The result is a complex mix of shame and self-doubt directed inward, compounded with anger and distrust directed outward—feelings that the employee may or may not be able to resolve.

Of course, what is “no big deal” to one person may be catastrophic to another, highlighting the real or imagined nature of public humiliation based upon how the individual perceives the event. With this context, and in the experience of the BAU, a humiliated employee may demonstrate an acute hypersensitivity to any perceived slights, hearing gentle criticisms or even jokes from others as harsh condemnations that amplify feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

Individuals may also be more likely to perceive a publicly humiliating event at work as more hurtful than a similar event experienced elsewhere. Many people equate their personal value with the social status, reputation, and position they have at work, so losing their job can carry a particularly sharp sting.

“Most workplaces have explicit or implicit economic and social hierarchies and one's status within the hierarchy is of considerable concern to all involved,” explained Catherine Fisk in her foundational 2001 journal article, Humiliation at Work. “Inasmuch as humiliation is an effort to lower another's status within the hierarchy, one would expect such acts to be particularly threatening in an organization where hierarchical status is critical.”

Social media has only broadened opportunities for a humiliating event to quickly become public. Minor or local embarrassments can quickly be shared across the country (or even the world) and amplify an employee’s sense of being mocked, despised, and derided.

“The Internet and social media have significantly amplified humanity’s means of public shaming, taking victims from the town square to a global network of connected screens,” wrote Tree Meinch for Discover Magazine in 2021.

Should a localized event at a workplace suddenly transport an employee’s image and embarrassment across the Internet, it’s difficult to fathom the overwhelmingly negative impact this may have on an already stressed employee.

Assessing Humiliation at Work

A challenging task for corporate security stakeholders is to recognize when an employee is experiencing acute or sustained feelings of humiliation. Once recognized, security professionals and threat managers must then assess the severity and impact of the humiliation on the employee in a consistent and structured manner. This analysis feeds into the broader threat assessment and informs the development of a mitigation or violence prevention strategy.

Humiliation can become a primary driver in moving employees or former employees to develop profound psychological grievances against employees or the company. Rather than prompting self-introspection, pro-social change, or dialogue, humiliating events tend to create an adversarial environment where the employee feels persecuted and reacts defensively. Opportunities for constructive, collaborative, or rehabilitative measures may evaporate if the humiliation creates an emotional and psychological “wall” between employer and employee.

Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner posited in their 2010 paper Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences that humiliated people may be consumed “by the need to recover from [the humiliation] and by the need to gain revenge on their humiliators. The motives surrounding the humiliation become so powerful and all-consuming that they largely preempt all other motivations in the person’s life. Other concerns fade into the background. The individual cannot focus on these matters, cannot concentrate, and is constantly distracted by the humiliating situation and its implications.”

Public humiliation experienced by separated or terminated employees may be uniquely resistant to mitigation. Former employees will typically have diminished access to the social systems and resources that come with having a job. With both physical and network access revoked, the individual may not have a forum for repair or an opportunity to redress a real or imagined public humiliation.

“Understandably, the anger provoked by being severely publicly humiliated, particularly when the humiliation is experienced as unjust and undeserved, can be extreme,” wrote Torres and Bergner. “Naturally, such humiliations evoke powerless rage, the urge to protest, and a strong desire to seek redress. However, humiliated individuals, who have now lost the status of persons who can effectively make status claims on their own behalf within their communities, no longer have any voice within these communities to make their case and have it considered. Thus, although their anger is often intense, they are powerless to act within their communities to recover their former status. In this situation, some individuals assume a new, powerful, and potentially quite dangerous status, that of an outsider who has become an enemy of the community. Such persons come to believe that they have no other recourse but to take revenge on the community itself through some form of violence.”

A related concept to the idea of diminished access is that of “disappearing anchors,” the BAU’s term to describe reduced or evaporating protective factors that may have previously insulated the person of concern from violence.

In his 2014 book, Protective Factors, Michiel de Vries Robbé describes protective factors or anchors as “conditions or attributes (skills, strengths, resources, supports, or coping strategies) in individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that help people deal more effectively with stressful events and mitigate or eliminate risk.”

Examples of protective factors may include the presence of a robust social network, motivation for treatment, financial management, and positive intimate relationships. When such protective factors or anchors begin to disappear, an employee might begin to experience a profound sense of defeat or despair, a downward spiral appearing during the formation of a psychological grievance.

The unavailability of stabilizing factors—especially when paired with perceived rejection and hopelessness—may echo psychologist Thomas Joiner’s interpersonal theory of suicidality and “thwarted belongingness” when social connectedness is compromised and membership within a desired social structure (such as a family or workplace) is challenged. Public humiliation can directly and negatively impact social connectedness when someone is expelled from their community, causing embarrassment and shame.

A common result of humiliation, especially chronic or sustained public humiliation, is the emergence of debilitating mental health conditions that may compound or amplify the original, job-related stressors.

According to a team of researchers in 2022, led by Aoibheann McLoughlin, “Suffering severe public humiliation can lead to major depression, hopelessness, and helplessness, and is associated with suicidal ideation or acts.”

Left unaddressed, this can become a workplace issue for not only the humiliated person but also for other members within the work community who may experience collateral stress.

In their 2010 paper about humiliation, Torres and Bergner examined the concept of humiliation and suggested ways to gauge whether an event could be humiliating or not. Stakeholders should therefore consider key questions when assessing the severity and impact of a potentially humiliating event in the workplace:

  1. How global, and thus broadly socially disqualifying, is the individual’s status loss?
  2. Has the humiliating event generated or appeared to contribute to any feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, or suicidality in the person? Is the person in a downward spiral, both personally and professionally?
  3. Has the individual been marginalized or excluded from social/interpersonal groups within the organization because of the publicly humiliating incident (potentially reflecting thwarted belongingness)?
  4. From the perspective of the employee, how essential or important is the community in which the humiliation occurred?
  5. How public is the humiliation or how public was the humiliating event? Is it known to only one other individual, an entire community, or beyond? Was social media a factor in contributing to the publicizing of the humiliating event or circumstance?
  6. How publicly supported or sanctioned is the individual’s degradation?
  7. What significant life losses (e.g., separation/divorce, financial hardship, child custody), if any, resulted from the humiliating event and compounded stress on the person?
  8. Does the person have other options for status recovery? Does the person have access to protective factors that enable both emotional and pragmatic management of the crisis?

Mitigating Humiliation at Work

In recognizing that a publicly humiliating event has occurred or that a potential exists for such an event to occur, corporate safety stakeholders can take steps to mitigate the impact or, in some cases, avoid the event altogether. It might be difficult to determine which events will be construed as potentially humiliating—especially given the subjective nature of embarrassment and shame—but there are fundamental strategies that can help minimize public humiliation while maintaining a responsible security posture.

The BAU has identified several dual phase strategies that preserve dignity and consider the safety of all employees.

Workplace culture. Organizations should maintain a supportive workplace environment free from bullying, harassment, or other behaviors where an employee’s social status may be publicly diminished or compromised. Such an environment should emphasize “respectful workplace” policies that specifically prohibit behaviors contributing to public humiliation (e.g., posting social media content related to co-workers and chronically excluding targeted individuals from meetings or team gatherings).

Corrective conversations, coaching sessions, or other disciplinary conversations should be held privately. Confidentiality and privacy should be emphasized and balanced with security concerns.

Training and awareness. Training is provided to all levels of the organization on preventing public humiliation, fostering a respective workplace culture, and promoting awareness of this issue.

Creating and sustaining a threat management team fluent in recognizing the signs of public humiliation. While already considered a best practice, organizations should augment multidisciplinary threat management teams by providing advanced training related to public humiliations, sensitive separations, de-escalation, and grievance mitigation.

During and after separations. Termination notifications or other potentially humiliating notifications should be delivered in consultation with the threat management team, considering the following:

  • The notification meeting with the employee should be in a room or space that is not in the view of other employees, and which does not expose the employee to public view.
  • The individuals making the notification should be compassionate, patient, and should have received advanced training in de-escalation.
  • Any supervisor, HR professional, or corporate security specialist must have the ability to engage in difficult conversations without further escalating the situation.
  • By using active listening skills, demonstrating empathy, building rapport, and displaying high emotional intelligence, many episodes of public humiliation could be mitigated or potentially avoided altogether.

The BAU recommends that personnel notifying an employee about a separation use threat assessment interviewing models that emphasize assessing humiliations, probing for grievances, and gauging any progression along the pathway to violence. This model often provides an opportunity for the airing of grievances and potentially for understanding any perceived humiliations associated with the separation.

In some cases, threat mitigation may be served by providing the separated employee with “softeners,” such as a severance payment, extension of insurance benefits, or access to employee assistance program (EAP) counseling services for the employee and his or her family. Beyond easing the stressors associated with the loss of employment, such softeners may help to partially repair any experienced sense of humiliation.

Consider opportunities for employee caretaking and for image recovery opportunities that the employee can use to reclaim status, repair social standing, or recover a sense of self-worth. Such strategies can include a review of what information that prospective employers can obtain from the former employer or even career counseling services to help the employee prepare résumés or update LinkedIn profiles. Any efforts that contribute to the employee’s sense of repaired status and dignity should be designed in collaboration with the employee to enhance agency and sense of participation. The goal is to help the employee recover a sense of self-worth and to understand a potential future beyond the current job loss.

Professionals in security, HR, legal, and threat assessment should consider the potential role that publicly humiliating events appear to play in workplace violence incidents, particularly active shootings involving recently separated employees. Once recognized, assessing the impact and taking concrete steps to mitigate the effects of public humiliation can help drive a threat management plan and disrupt progression towards targeted workplace violence.


If you have questions about this topic, please reach out to Dr. Karie Gibson at [email protected].


Dr. Karie Gibson earned a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree in clinical psychology with a concentration in forensics. She has been a special agent with the FBI for more than 18 years and currently serves as the unit chief for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-1 (BAU-1), Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BTAC), which focuses on the prevention of terrorism and targeted violence through the application of behaviorally based operational support, training, and research. Gibson worked as a supervisory special agent/profiler at BAU-1 before being promoted to unit chief. Prior to joining the FBI, Gibson worked as a licensed clinical psychologist and maintains her license today.

Dr. Lauren Brubaker earned a Doctor of Philosophy with a concentration in applied behavior analysis. She is the research coordinator at FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), and she oversees research projects for BAU-1, the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center, and BAU-2, the Cyber Behavioral Analysis Center. Her research focuses on applying behavioral science, psychometrics, and cyberpsychology to understanding offenders in order to prevent future attacks. Prior to her work at the FBI, Brubaker worked as a behavioral science consultant in the private sector. 

Andre Simons is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and was assigned to the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). He continues to support the BAU's work in targeted violence prevention as a contract researcher. Simons is a consultant in the private sector specializing in workplace violence and threat management issues.