Workplace violence strategies must account for the 'Age of Rage'

May 9, 2019
Stopping workplace and school violence is more than just about addressing gun access, mental health treatment and media coverage

As a workplace violence and school violence prevention practitioner for the last 27 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with many dedicated, skilled, and assertive security professionals. They have helped me with complex threat assessment cases, both as a consulting resource to a Threat Assessment Team meeting and as an intervention resource for law enforcement when employees have made threats of harm to themselves or others.

Whether it’s during a discussion with law enforcement, or the HR Department, or with another security professional, we – as those who work for the prevention of violence – will need to continue to rely on each other, now more than ever. To suggest I’m pessimistic about our collective ability to stop workplace and school violence today undercuts it by half. We are certainly not making sufficient progress in stopping mass attacks, as recent published reports by the FBI, the US Secret Service, and for schools, a new set of guidelines from the Department of Education have proven. In 2000, we had one mass shooting in the US, at a software company in Massachusetts. From 2017 to 2018, we averaged 30 to 40 mass attacks per year, or nearly one every week to 10 days.

As an article from USA Today last November so bleakly states it, “4 of the biggest mass shootings in 5 decades happened in 2018.” In fact, the worst mass shootings in our history happened in 2017 and 2018, including:

  •  Las Vegas concert shooting – 58 killed;
  • First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas – 25 killed;
  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla. – 17 killed;
  • Borderline Bar and Grill, Thousand Oaks, Calif. 12 killed;
  • Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue ­ 11 killed;
  • And, Santa Fe High School, Santa Fe, Texas – 10 killed.

These shootings have created a grisly list of horrible murders caused by lone-wolf males on a rampage. The number and severity of these shootings is getting worse, way worse, when compared to just ten years ago.

My pessimism is heightened by the fact that security, HR, legal, EAP, mental health, and law enforcement professionals work diligently every day on prevention, intervention, and treatment, but our efforts are not bearing fruit in terms of fewer cases. I’ll never throw in the towel and let bad people do bad things, but at this point in my long career in this arena, I’m not sure what more we can do without substantial changes in how we:

  • Provide mental health services;
  • Restrict access to guns by minors and the mentally ill;
  • Stop global media coverage of these attackers by name and face;
  • And, fix our current culture of “Entitled Disgruntlement” that seems so vested in these attackers’ desires for revenge. Our “Age of Rage” is now fully realized.

Research into the motives of these attacks cover the usual drivers, including unresolved anger, untreated depression, broken hearts, and feeling victimized. But there are other common characteristics which should give us pause. Many of these perpetrators have no father figure currently and did not have one growing up – resulting in the accompanying family dysfunction this often creates. Many appear to have cycled on and off their anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications without a doctor’s supervision. Some of these subjects also went on and off Ritalin and Adderall as well, with predictable results when it came to creating their mood disorders.

As a result of this mix, many felt isolated and disconnected from appropriate social circles, and had no sense of satisfaction in their life, work, family, or love relationships. They couldn’t or wouldn’t see their own faults in all those failed interactions. Couple this with blaming behavior (which allowed them to rationalize and distance themselves from their future violent actions) – a brittle, hypersensitive, paranoid personality – and we see subjects that have the “Broken Bridge of Self-Esteem;” no regard for their own life and no regards for the lives of others.

I’m often asked by people (and the news media) how and why these attackers could kill so many strangers, so horrifically, and I answer: “They literally don’t care about their own lives and they literally don’t care about the lives of others. They lack self-empathy and they lack any human concern for others. This makes them feel hopeless and that makes them dangerous.”

Years ago, I sat down and crafted what I believe to be the “Mass Attacker’s Manifesto.” This is my sense of how these people see themselves and it comes from my review of so many cases over the years. Note the chilling lack of concern for what they are about to do:

“I have lived a depressed, disconnected, disaffected life, with no real job, girlfriend, supportive family structure, or goals. Because of this, I hate people and they seem to dislike me. I have collected the many injustices directed at me my whole life.  Now, I will kill as many people as I can for my revenge. I will dress like a commando and I will mimic my ‘idols’ who have killed before me – so that people will remember me and talk about my actions for decades. I will post my words, photos, or videos of my discontent online, to provide proof of either my irrational life views, religious zealotry, racial hatred, my active and untreated mental illness, and my rage against the world. I know the U.S. and international press and instant social media will expose me around the globe minutes after I am dead or in jail because that is what they do.”

Consider using the following questions for a subject-employee who has either made a threat or who has come to the attention of your organization because of threatening behaviors or statements. These are probing questions, asked with the intent of determining if the subject has a plan. When and how to ask these (and in what order) is at the security professional’s discretion, of course, but I would worry less about triggering the subject and more about the value of interrupting his or her opportunity to do harm. Putting these subjects on notice has more benefits than risks.

These questions include:

  • Who do you blame for your current life, work, or school situation?
  • Do you feel like time is running out for you? Why?
  • If you could solve your current situation, what would that mean you would do?
  • Do you have a plan? (Always consider the possibility that a suicide plan may take place at the workplace instead of home. In baseball, this is known as a “purpose pitch,” something designed to send a message to others that “this could’ve been you.”)
  • Who else have you told about your plans?
  • Do you ever capture your thoughts in a journal, or diary, or online?
  • Have the police ever talked to you about anything related to this situation? How would you feel if they did?
  • Do you think other people are afraid of you? Who and why?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What people trigger your anger or frustration in your life? How do they do that? Why do you think they do that?
  • Who are you angry at the most in your personal or professional life? Why? When did that start?
  • If you’re taking medications, do you ever feel frustrated by the side effects?
  • Do you think your medications are helping you or making things worse?
  • Do you go on and off of them without talking to your doctor? How long have you been doing that?
  • Do you ever mix your medications with alcohol?
  • How would you rate your level of pain each day?
  • Do you ever feel bullied at work? Why and by who?
  • How many guns do you own? Do you plan on getting more?
  • Have you ever thought about using your weapons to solve some of your life issues?
  • What was your reaction to the Las Vegas concert shooting? The Parkland, Florida high school shooting? (Or any local mass shooting the person might be expected to be familiar with.)
  • What do you think of people who kill their bosses, or co-workers, or classmates? (Does the person react with admiration or abhorrence?)
  • What kind of solutions that I can create for you would work best?
  • Is talking to me right now making you feel better or worse about your situation?
  • Do you feel hopeful about your life or work situation right now, going forward?

A critical threat assessment question you may want to consider: How does the subject respond to being interviewed; being recognized for these behaviors?

How will you address the “paranoid predictions” of the subject, (which often turn out to be quite true)? Examples include: “I bet they’re gonna try to fire me!” (And the HR Department starts those proceedings). “I bet the cops are gonna show up at my house one day!” (And the Security Department initiates that response.) “I bet the next step is you’re gonna go make me go see a shrink!” (And you initiate a Fitness for Duty evaluation with a local psychiatrist.) These alarmingly accurate predictions can help these subjects prove to themselves that the world really is out to get them, so you had better have a plan as to how to address their fears.

Security professionals are on the cutting edge of workplace and school violence prevention. We will need to help our political leaders, HR Departments, and law enforcement members see the value to what we do.

Stopping workplace and school violence is more than just about addressing gun access, mental health treatment, and media coverage. Until we figure out how to address the Age of Rage - where disconnected people feel they have the right to kill for revenge in order to solve their collection of problems - these attacks will continue. It’s up to all of us to work - on a case by case, person by person, incident by incident basis - to do what we can to redirect these people off of their horrific plans.

About the Author:

Dr. Steve Albrecht is internationally known for his training, speaking, and writing on high-risk HR and security issues. In 1994, he co-wrote "Ticking Bombs," one the first business books on workplace violence. He is retired from the San Diego Police Department. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Dr. Steve Albrecht

Dr. Steve Albrecht manages a San Diego-based training, coaching, and management consulting firm. As a trainer, speaker, author, and consultant, Albrecht is internationally recognized for his expertise in high-risk HR issues. He is former police officer and has taught at several California universities. He can be reached at 619-990-2685 or at [email protected].