Balancing Tolerance of Diverse Views and Workplace Violence Prevention: When Extreme Views Lead to Extreme Acts
The contemporary organization strives for inclusion and diversity—not simply in terms of demographics, but in attitudes, opinions, and ways of thinking. Diverse ideas can fuel innovation and create radical change, leading to new levels of success. While diversity can strengthen an organization, strong or extreme beliefs in the workplace can be a two-edged sword. An employee’s passion for a belief or cause might manifest itself as a real commitment to their employer or a project, but it can also create friction, erode workforce cohesion, and consume valuable resources when dealing with conflict.
Finding the right balance between welcoming diverse views and minimizing tension between those who hold those views and others can be tricky, but it is necessary. Left unchecked, extreme beliefs can not only threaten cohesion and productivity, they can compromise safety and raise the risk of disruptive behaviors, even violence.
A challenge for those tasked with workplace safety and security is recognizing when beliefs and behaviors begin to approach a red line—when they are not simply strong feelings, but potential pre-incident indicators of risk or possible signs or symptoms of mental illness. Strong beliefs, extreme beliefs, and conspiracy theories are often tinged with a sense of grievance—the thought that something is wrong and there is someone to blame. In the threat assessment field, grievance is recognized as an entry point to the pathway to violence.
Extreme thoughts can become extreme actions.
Extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories often develop around the idea that a person, group of people, or way of life is under threat by dark forces within an organization, community, or culture. Paranoia about the perceived threat leads to defensiveness and an us-versus-them mentality. It can create the sense that a person or group is at war with others around them who do not subscribe to the same ideas—the nonbelievers.
Paranoia is an established risk indicator for workplace violence; that is not news. Employees who are convinced that their coworkers, supervisors, or organization present an imminent risk may act preemptively to protect themselves or others they believe are in danger. Many instances of workplace violence have been inspired by paranoia. Someone who is paranoid harbors excessive distrusts without justification and may believe that sinister plots are swirling around them. Sometimes paranoid people feel compelled to use violence to stop a real or perceived threat. Extreme thoughts can become extreme actions.
In a workplace culture that promotes inclusion and diversity—not just who people are, but how they think—how does the organization recognize and tolerate deeply held, sometimes extreme beliefs? What are the thresholds for speech and conduct in the workplace, and how should the organization respond when someone approaches or crosses the line between extreme ideas and extreme behaviors? These are important questions for leaders at all levels in an organization, but especially pressing for security, legal, and HR professionals.
When speech and conduct are perceived as disruptive or potentially dangerous, it is important that they be viewed as potential risk indicators and never simply brushed aside. While it is important to create a workplace culture that tolerates diverse, powerful, and sometimes unpopular attitudes or beliefs, it is never acceptable to say, “Oh, that’s just that employee being themselves—it’s just who they are or how they are.” The failure to recognize and respond to hostile communications and behavior leaves open the possibility of escalation.
An employee who subscribes to the QAnon ideology, for example, might deeply believe that liberal elites and other actors in an imagined “deep state” are working to cover up child sex trafficking operations by forcing the pubic onto the 5G cellular network where they can manipulate communications about their nefarious activity that might expose them. That may seem like a pretty far-fetched belief, and it certainly may raise some eyebrows around the water cooler, but if that same employee now is refusing to communicate with coworkers who have 5G phones, there may be a direct and immediate impact on productivity and team cohesion in the workplace. This sort of disruptive behavior crosses the line between free speech into behavior with real world consequences.
U.S. Department of Justice and FBI research suggests that individuals who commit mass violence in a workplace, school, or community typically exhibit four to five observable indicators in the lead up to their attacks. Violent action is often proceeded by hostile rhetoric. Ideas that are associated with an extremist movement and represented by hateful language, images, or actions cannot be left unchecked. In most instances an organization’s code of conduct for employees will address hateful speech or actions, and it will clearly communicate the potential consequences for such behavior. But organizations cannot regulate what people think or believe.
We live in a world filled with visual images, and their meanings often changed based on context--benign in one case but inflammatory in another. So what does this mean for monitoring signs of extremism in the workplace?https://t.co/HySuzODW0P— Security Management (@SecMgmtMag) July 2, 2021
In approaching an individual who holds extreme attitudes or opinions that have become disruptive or concerning, it is important to focus on the behavior, not the belief. Trying to convince someone that their worldview is incorrect or delusional is a fool’s errand. Such individuals often push back citing their rights to free speech or other legal rights. Attempts to intervene, de-escalate conflicts that may arise from extreme beliefs, or to conduct thorough risk of violence assessments must be focused on the facts—specifically the communication or behavior of concern.
Depending on the nature and seriousness of the employee’s belief, it might be advisable to meet with the individual to further assess the quality and strength of their beliefs and to review how discussion of the extreme ideas in the workplace affects other employees or the work environment. The ASIS Standard on Workplace Violence and Active Assailant suggests the use of outside consultants in complicated cases where specialized knowledge or skills are required to determine the level of concern.
Research in this area makes it clear that even highly qualified and credentialed forensic psychiatrists and psychologists may have difficulty distinguishing between extreme belief and delusions. At present, there are no clear best practices in managing extreme beliefs in the workplace, and each situation will likely need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis working within the existing frameworks of security, human resources, legal, and threat assessment policies and procedures.
An employer’s duty of care must be balanced between an individual’s rights and the safety and security of the workplace. Finding that balance in an environment with strong polarized attitudes and opinions is a challenge made more complicated by evolving political and media landscapes. Security professionals must be able to see through the smoke of extreme ideas to determine if the fire of extreme action is being ignited within their workplace.
Steven Crimando is the principal of Behavioral Science Applications LLC, a training and consulting firm focused on human factors in crisis prevention and response. He is a Certified Threat Manager (CTM) and a consultant for corporations, government agencies, police, and military programs.