Identifying signs of emerging aggression to prevent workplace violence

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.

Incidentally, identifying emerging aggression has been deemed the only effective way to stop a shooter. Profiling tells us that within a certain group of individuals there is a higher probability of a shooter. It does not tell us who the next shooter is. According to the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education's report on "Targeted Violence in Schools," there is a significant difference between "profiling" and foreseeing emerging aggression. Their study concluded: "The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted violence at school or - once a student has been identified - for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence." It continues; "An inquiry should focus instead on a student's behaviors and communications to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack." Assessing objective, culturally neutral, distinct body language, behavioral and communication indicators of emerging aggression are the only effective means to foresee and prevent the threat posed by those who intend harm to others, whether these perpetrators of murder/suicide are a student or an employee like Omar Thornton.

Does an analysis of mental illness enable us to identify a future shooter? Not typically. We repeatedly hear that the Fort Hood shooter (Maj. Nidal Hasan) had PTSD or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, a form of mental illness. Although this may be true, using mental health resources as a means to identify these threats of aggression have repeatedly failed their purpose. The "Report to the President on Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy" concludes: "Most people who are violent do not have a mental illness, and most people who have mental illness are not violent." "Those with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence, not perpetrators." In fact, according to U.S. News, Virginia Tech's staff evaluated Seung-Hui Cho more than a year before he killed 32 people in a 2007 rampage. In three separate interactions with the school's counseling center at the end of 2005, the staff found Cho to be depressed and anxious but not at risk of hurting himself or others, according to the center's records.

In response to these horrific workplace shootings, an increasing number of responsible employers have formed Threat Assessment Teams (TAT) to identify and respond to potential threats of violence. Nationwide, violence is on the rise and our workplaces are no exception. The problem is TAT members can quickly become challenged by the number of subjective observations, like "weird, scary, strange, or threatening." How does a team distinguish between simple, aberrant misconduct and truly threatening (aggressive) behavior? Each observation must be investigated thoroughly, for in the absence of true due diligence, an organization puts themselves at risk of significant liability but more importantly the potential loss of life.

Current programs fall short because they are primarily reactive in nature; do not get out in front of the problem and prevent aggression; are insufficiently pro-active, which compromises an ability to take timely, effective action; are far too subjective, often confusing aberrant, disruptive with aggressive (threatening) behavior; and, do not achieve the goal of legal defensibility.

There must be a practical, scalable and affordable approach that focuses strictly on aggression-specific behavior that makes any organization safer. As exemplified by the shooting at Fort Hood, when observers relied on subjective references of culture and mental illness, they miss the clear signs specific to aggression. If observers focused specifically on aggressive behavior, the objective and culturally-neutral signs of "aggression" clearly standout, providing the opportunity to prevent violent encounters. An "Aggression Continuum" of emerging aggression is a requirement.

This is achieved through the three components of the Aggression Prevention System (APS), which include first observers, qualified responders and the Meter of Emerging Aggression. First observers consist of human resource personnel, security personnel, supervisors, and others who are already in positions to observe and report, providing workplace eyes and ears to identify potential aggressors. Qualified responders are members of threat assessment teams that learn how to evaluate information from first observers, objectively assess the level of hostile intent and decide if action should be taken. They also may approach the potential aggressor with a variety of resources to prevent that individual from lashing out violently. The Meter of Emerging Aggression is a software-based platform that records and tracks indicators pointed out by first observers, as well as what is learned by qualified responders after they engage the potential aggressor. The Meter also has the capacity for longitudinal tracking of an individual's behaviors over time, permitting an organization to track emerging aggressive behavior across departments.

The APS Solution is based on years of research into aggressive behavior, and the recognition that practical tools to identify, measure, and assess specifically emerging human aggression were necessary. As a result, APS is the most effective system for achieving maximum workplace safety and security in a practical, scalable and affordable way.

John Byrnes is the founder and CEO of the Center for Aggression Management. For more information, visit