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Workplace violence: Using threat assessment to reduce risk

Workplace violence—it’s a subject so difficult and so frightening that employers may feel paralyzed when considering how to prevent it. If someone is showing violent tendencies, an employer may want to fire the employee to remove the threat. But what if that’s the action that triggers more rage, worsening the risk instead of reducing it? What if inaction or discipline short of termination doesn’t solve the problem and just keeps the potentially violent employee in the workplace? 

With uncertainty surrounding every possible solution, employers may feel indecisive and totally at a loss. But careful threat assessment can be the tool that reduces risk, according to two professionals who have studied workplace violence and recently presented a Business and Legal Resources webinar on the subject titled “Warning Signs: HR’s Role in Identifying, Reducing, and Responding to Employee Violence Risks.” (HR Laws subscribers can watch the webinar here.)

Jeffrey Nolan, an attorney with Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, P.C. in Burlington, Vermont, and Steve Albrecht, a human resources consultant and trainer, advocate the threat assessment process as a way of identifying and mitigating danger. In their webinar, they explained that threat assessment is a systematic process designed to identify persons of concern, gather information, assess that information, and then manage the situation.

Multidisciplinary approach
Albrecht said the challenge for HR and management is to create an environment where people will feel comfortable reporting behavior that poses a concern. Too often, people are afraid to come forward out of fear of becoming a target of violence or that the employer might take action to make the situation more dangerous.

Nolan said the threat assessment process should use a multidisciplinary team since such a group can draw on more sources of information and more expertise than an HR professional working alone. The team might include representatives from an employer’s employee assistance program (EAP), security department, management, as well as HR. Different people bring different capacities to the table, he said.

Among the sources of information the team can look to in making an assessment are:

  • The employer’s EAP if it has one. Team members may not be able to get information about the individual of concern from the EAP, but they may provide information that will be helpful to any counselor working with the potentially violent employee.
  • Website/social media. Often a potentially violent person will post telling information.
  • Managers, supervisors, and coworkers. Those who work closely with the person may report behavior of concern.
  • Police and/or the employer’s security personnel. Albrecht and Nolan said getting law enforcement involved is often advisable.

Albrecht said he is a “big fan” of EAP and says HR should cheerlead for it and work to take away the stigma of using it because EAP saves people’s careers and lives.

Path to violence
People who engage in workplace violence are often “on a path from ideas to action,” Albrecht said, and that path may take “several weeks, several months, or even several years.” Often HR is concerned about a verbal, angry threat, but what may be more worrisome is the person who doesn’t say anything but sits in the corner and plans and schemes, he said. Coworkers may know there’s something wrong, but they don’t know what to do.

Nolan said the research has shown the pathway to violence goes from the idea stage to the planning stage, then progresses to the perpetrator acquiring the means to do harm, and ends with the implementation stage. At each point in the process, the opportunity exists to stop and reverse the progression.

The good news is that most people never leave the idea stage, Albrecht said, but once they leave the idea stage, they may be moving rapidly. “How we interrupt that is through an employee assistance program, fitness for duty evaluation, through time off, through job rotation, through coaching—there’s lots of opportunities to knock people off this path,” he said, but the key is having a team that can gather information when a possible threat comes to light.

Nolan suggested checking an employee’s social media and other Internet posts and asking supervisors and coworkers if they’ve noticed anything of concern. “The conversations don’t need to start with, ‘I’m on the threat assessment team and we’re analyzing a threat to others, so tell me everything you know,’” he said. Instead, he suggested asking others how the person of concern is doing and if they’ve noticed worrisome behavior.

“It doesn’t need to be we’re the FBI and we’re showing up to investigate,” Nolan said. “You start in a more measured way and hope that you gain some rapport and trust, being careful with what information you provide so as not to unduly embarrass the person, defame him or her, violate rules you might have around privacy, and also recognizing that with some folks, this information may go back to the person of concern. Then you’re probably going to talk to the person of concern as well.”

Difficult conversation
A talk with a potentially violent person is difficult, and HR may be afraid to have the conversation out of fear of making the situation worse. That’s possible, Albrecht said, but it’s more likely that a potentially violent employee will realize that his or her behavior has been noticed, it’s being addressed, it needs to stop, and the employer has resources available to help.

Albrecht suggested using the stabilizers in the person’s life when talking to a person of concern. Reminding the person that he or she has a good job, children, appropriate religious beliefs, hopes for the future, etc. can prevent someone from resorting to violence.

If termination is necessary, Albrecht said he’s a believer in “benevolent severance” to provide “a soft landing.”

Nolan agreed, adding that anything that the employer can do to preserve the person’s dignity can get him or her out of the organization more safely. Severance paid out over a long period of time, outplacement services, and the opportunity to use the employer’s EAP after termination can ease the blow and ensure that the employer stays in contact with the individual. Without some kind of connection, the employer loses any control it might have over the person.

Need to learn more?
BLR is holding the 2016 Workplace Violence Prevention Symposium March 10-11 in Orlando, Florida. This high-level program comes with a money-back guarantee, so the only risk is choosing not being prepared. Arm yourself with tactical strategies that will reduce your liability and improve your employees’ chance of survival if violence ever strikes. For more information, go to