Identifying signs of emerging aggression to prevent workplace violence

The Center for Aggression Management's John Byrnes looks at how current workplace violence prevention programs are falling short


Earlier this month, 34-year-old Omar Thornton shot and killed eight people at the Connecticut beverage distributor where he worked before turning the gun on himself. According to published reports, Thornton had just been asked to resign after being shown surveillance footage that allegedly caught him stealing beer from the business.

Thornton reportedly had a calm demeanor as he was shown the video. He signed a letter of resignation and was on his way out of the building when he suddenly pulled out a gun and opened fire.

We are told that from the moment a shooter begins firing his weapon to when the last round is discharged is as little as five seconds. Employers that intend to use crisis or emergency management will respond over those slain during the first five seconds. Prevention is the only effective, responsible and defensible solution.

Current programs utilized by employers are designed to react to incidents of aggression not prevent them. Crisis management is an investment in a crisis that already exists. As with this horrific event, Police were there as soon as possible, but it was too late. Workplace shooters are at the highest level of aggression, the murder/suicide. At this level of aggression, the perpetrator's goal is to give up his life for his cause and Omar Thornton personifies this example. If someone intends to murder another and then themselves, they will look for the easiest moment to achieve their goal; even though the cause for this perceived grievance occurred in the workplace.

But how do we get employers to think differently in an attempt to prevent these horrific acts of violence? Some are forming threat assessment teams, but these are individuals identifying threats that already exist. Even those who train their supervisors and managers in conflict resolution have failed the premise of prevention. Conflict resolution presupposes conflict, security managers are reacting to conflict after the fact, not preventing it. Since there are those who will express their conflict with violence, an organization that wants to prevent violence must first prevent conflict, thereby preventing any subsequent violence.

The only effective solution to any level of aggression within an organization is to get-out-in-front-of and prevent it. The solution can only be found in a continuum of aggression; a method of objective observables from the outset of aggression through its ultimate expression of murder/suicide. This continuum will permit its user the ability to see any level aggression's precursors. An example of a precursor to conflict is a coworker that is normally methodical and pragmatic, has come to work today scattered and disjoined. This is a person who is not coping with something in their lives. When an individual is not coping, a threat mechanism goes off in their head and their body starts producing adrenaline, the human body's method of fight or flight. This is the beginning of adrenaline-driven, primal aggression and it's the easy and most effective time to engage and prevent an act of violence. By simply approaching this person in a genuine and caring way and asking, "you look a little scattered today, tell me about it." Not only has the organization prevented conflict, but has also prevented any potential escalation of this aggression. We will never really know about whether this strategy would have worked with Omar Thornton, but we can certainly prevent future aggression by engaging early in aggression's continuum and prevent emerging aggression.

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