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Preparing for workplace violence

Workplace violence is nothing new, as we have all experienced some level of violence in our careers.  Schools, factories, stores, or offices; no matter where you work, as long as there are people working there, the threat of workplace violence exists.



January 14, 2009
By Dean Young

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I work in an educational institution, so I have a specific interest in
school safety issues. As such, I attended the Youth and Young Adult:
Violence Risk Assessment, Prevention and Threat Management conference
held in San Diego.  As the topic was youth and young adults, obviously
schools are the primary environment.  That said, the theory remains the
same for any area where youth and young adults congregate, because this
issue involves behaviour.  We are now receiving these former students
into our workplaces.  The conference presented some of the top forensic
psychologists in the U.S. dispelling myths of youth violence and
providing pre-incident indicators and behaviours that may lead to
prevention or effective intervention.  A recurring theme amongst
presenters was that preparation was the most significant lacking
factor.  

Exploring mass homicides from numerous countries and
dating back decades, it is evident that the majority of incidents
involved “leakage”, in which the intentions of the mass murderers were
communicated in one form or another.  But this leakage was not trifling
or vague; Seung Cho of the Virginia Tech tragedy made many public displays of
violent ideation and fascination with weaponry, and whose schoolwork
was rife with violence and cold and callous attitudes toward human
life.  Even his roommates in an appearance on TV said that they both
thought he was the type to shoot up the school.  One of Cho’s poetry
professors almost quit her position due to the violent imagery
contained in his school assignments.  The sad reality is that no one
did anything even remotely significant to address the threat posed by
this young man.  But some will say that this was not solid evidence
that he would actually do what he did.  Let’s look at Harris and
Kleibolt of the Columbine tragedy.  They actually posted their
intentions on the Internet, and hid little from their friends or
teachers.  The difficulty lies within differentiating between normal
antisocial personality traits that will not escalate to violence, and
those that will.

There is much written about the necessity and
how-to surrounding workplace violence policy. While we can implement as
much policy as we wish, the reality is that without a reliable process
to respond to, assess and intervene in incidents where threats are
being communicated.  We must create a threat assessment team to
effectively address and plan a response when a threat is perceived and
reported. Such an assessment team should be multidisciplinary; and
to include representatives of security, legal counsel, HR, and a member
of counseling services.  The team is to be convened only when a threat
is received.  While each brings expertise in their respective areas,
the team requires additional training in threat assessment and
management, as well as a broader understanding of effective, but legal,
interventions.  There are many limitations to a corporation when it
comes to the capability of removing an employee due to perceived
threats, even blatantly stated threats.  Additionally, there are issues
surrounding forced mental health assessment that is not court ordered,
and the disclosure of effectiveness of therapy. I’m not saying that these
interventions are not available, but they can be very complicated.  It
is important to ensure that privacy is ensured, and that the legalities
surrounding privacy, due diligence, and duty of care are met, and that
attention is given to any present collective agreement.

The
training component is that we must educate our employees to recognize
and to report threatening behaviour and statements.  Although a well
designed threat assessment team is very important for addressing and
intervening in a threat, that threat must be reported in order for the
team to convene.  In many workplace violence situations, in the
aftermath, all signs pointed toward the eventual explosion of
violence.  In the interest of reality, we must have an understanding
that we all have bad days, and we vent innocently. Alternately, we must
be cognizant of patterns of intimidating statements, explosions of
anger and other volatile behaviours, and outright threatening
statements, workplace bullying and assaults being perpetrated by
employees.  Even if the behaviour was not intended to cause fear, we
have a responsibility to the collective staff to ensure a safe
workplace.

In his book The Gift of Fear,
Gavin De Becker, writes that the gift of fear is intuition. De Becker discusses that, in
interviews with victims of violence, the signs of impending violence
were apparent long before the incident of violence occurred. They were
just ignored. We must raise awareness in our workplace.  It is
unreasonable to believe that there are no such behaviours taking
place.  The problem remains if we do not have the capability of
reporting such concerns, or the openness of management to accept such
disclosures in the spirit in which they are offered.  Gone are the days
when people say “I don’t know, he just seemed to snap” because this is
a myth. In reality, people all come out after the violence and arm
chair quarterback the incident, and say “I saw this coming for some
time.”  The question remains then, “Why was nothing said earlier when
it could be prevented?” 

The answer may be that management is not
approachable, or the concerned employee does not feel safe reporting
due to fear of retribution, both from the employer or aggressive
employee, or there is no anonymous reporting system in place.  

We
must consider that while we, as security professionals, recognize signs
of potential violence but that others may not.  We can create
in-service sessions to build awareness of workplace safety, rather than
just writing a policy and posting it.  Employees need to understand the
issue, understand their responsibilities in contributing to a safe
workplace, and how to recognize warning signs. If we commit to
increasing the awareness in our workplaces and develop strategies to
address violence in all its forms, we will be successful in the
prevention of that one time that has the potential to end in tragedy.

Dean Young is Coordinator, Campus Security at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton.


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