Crafting a comprehensive workplace violence policy

As last month’s massacre at the Washington Navy Yard proved, no one is immune from the terror of an active shooter incident. While it’s not possible to completely prevent incidents like this from occurring in the future, it does bring to the forefront several thought provoking questions as it relates to workplace violence. Chief among these is what motivated the former Navy reservist and military contractor Aaron Alexis to gun down 12 people in cold blood. We may never know what triggered Alexis to carry out his deadly rampage, but there are steps organizations can take to better recognize the warning signs of a potentially violent person and mitigate the risks they pose.

Andre Simmons, unit chief for one of the FBI’s behavioral analysis units, said that the lives of people who end up becoming workplace or campus shooters are often characterized as being in a “downward spiral” just prior to carrying out these heinous acts of violence. For example, Simmons said that Steven Kazmierczak, who shot and killed five people on the campus of Northern Illinois University in February 2008, suffered a series of life-altering events, including the death of his mother, prior to carrying out the shooting.

And although the majority of these attacks (three quarters) involve the use of firearms or knives, Simmons said that security managers need to look beyond firearms when they evaluate their threat landscape as it relates to workplace violence. “You have to keep an open mind about evaluating the potential threat,” he told the audience.

According to Simmons, research has shown that the top five identifiable factors for a triggered response by an attacker include: an issue related to someone they have an intimate relationship with in a workplace or campus setting; wanting retaliation for some specific action; refusals of sexual advances; a response to academic stress or failure; and acquaintance/stranger sexual violence. And while many active shooters are considered quiet or mild-mannered individuals, Simmons said they often have a “very robust, but fragile” sense of narcissism.

Although high-profile shootings tend to garner the majority of headlines, a large number of workplace violence incidents can be traced back to domestic violence spilling over into the office environment. According to Pam Paziotopoulos, a former prosecutor who now serves as senior vice president for Forest Advisors, organizations need to craft workplace violence prevention policies that include domestic violence. “There’s one thing a domestic violence victim can’t change – the address of where they work,” she said.

Paziotopoulos said there are numerous examples of women who have taken all of the right steps when they’re abused by a domestic partner – ending the relationship, taking out orders of protection, etc. – that still result in the attacks at the workplace. In many cases, she said that the victim’s employer didn’t take enough action to prevent their lives from being cut short prematurely.

It’s not enough to simply have a workplace violence policy, Paziotopoulos said, it needs to actually be put into action. “You need to breathe life into these policies,” she explained.
According to Paziotopoulos, one of the primary things that security executives need to do is create awareness among management personnel in their organization about the severity of the issue. This includes raising the issue of intimate partner violence at every level of the company, actually rolling out workplace violence prevention programs and educating employees on how to recognize the signs of abuse.

If it’s found that an employee is potentially suffering from domestic violence, Paziotopoulos said that organizations need to assess the situation as they will want to be able to determine how far the potential perpetrator is to lashing out violently. Additionally, she said that companies should also develop workplace threat assessment teams, which usually include representatives from security, human resources, union organizations, etc.

Not to be overlooked, Paziotopoulos said that organizations also need to include a section in their workplace violence policies that take into account employees who may be abusers themselves. If a worker is deemed to be at risk, there are a number of different steps a company can take to protect an employee, such as relocating them to secure areas, removing their names from automated call systems, forward threatening or harassing phones calls to the security department, and reviewing the safety of parking lots, which can be “very, very vulnerable” places, she said.

Finally, Paziotopoulos said that it’s also a good idea to actually go with employees when their case against an alleged abuser goes to court. Not only does it show that a company is standing behind their worker, but it also will give them a peak into the accused offender and what they could be capable of – giving the employer more insight into how they may want to mitigate against that risk.

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