How to prevent, prepare for and respond to active threat incidents in the workplace

April 7, 2022
Establishing security plans and threat management teams is essential for all businesses today

Workplace violence incidents, including active threat cases, are more common than many people might expect. According to a 2019 report published by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly a quarter of American workers said their workplace has had at least one incident of workplace violence, and nearly half of human resources professionals said that their organization had experienced a workplace violence incident at some point.

For employees in high-risk occupations, including any business facing the public and higher risk industries such as healthcare, it is vital to understand what security plans are in place in the instance of a workplace violence incident. According to SHRM, nearly one in seven employees feels unsafe at work, and it is up to employers to implement a workplace safety and security plan that helps employees prevent, prepare for and respond to workplace violence situations.

Implementing a Security Plan to Prevent Workplace Violence Incidents

Though it is impossible to fully prevent incidents of workplace violence, it is important to have a security plan in place for employees to feel safe should an incident ever occur. A SHRM survey determined that 87 percent of employees know what to do when they witness or are involved in a workplace violence incident if their organization has a workplace safety program in place.

The first thing any employer should do prior to implementing a workplace safety and security plan is to start with a risk assessment of your business and workplace. Identify the areas where your company may have more specific risks of violence both from within and outside the organization, such as the HR department where employees are disciplined or a legal department where workplace lawsuits may exist between employees, business partners, vendors or third-party entities. This could also include individuals with a higher risk profile, including upper management and supervisors.

Another important consideration for employers to implement into their workplace safety plan is an interdisciplinary threat management team. When problems arise or escalate, employers will need to identify the go-to people that will help to manage and potentially deescalate the situation and/or call authorities or other external resources for additional help. This ideally should be a combination of professionals from different departments, such as HR, legal, security and executive management. Employees assigned to the threat management team should be level-headed, understand company workplace violence policy and procedures and have the ability and training to manage incidents regarding potential threats.

After employers have assessed higher risk areas and functions within their organizations and determined which team members will comprise the threat management team, they can start developing a customized workplace safety and security plan. There is no shortage of resources available for businesses that do not currently have a workplace safety plan implemented. The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a handful of resources employers can use to establish safety protocols for a workplace violence incident, including examples of effective workplace violence prevention programs and employee training. ASIS International has some great resources and guidelines pertaining to workplace violence. The FBI has a guide to workplace violence, which includes how to develop an official workplace violence policy and prevention program based on the unique needs, risks and other factors of your work environment. SHRM also has an online toolkit for members, designed as a guide to understanding workplace violence prevention and response.

Safety in the Workplace: Training and Preparing Employees for an Active Threat

The next step after implementing a workplace safety and security plan is to train employees to recognize and prepare for incidents of workplace violence, including an active threat situation. There is a large variety of in-person and online training and resources available to employers, and they can seek out these resources through their business’ HR and security departments or externally.

In the case of an active threat, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers a myriad of resources on active shooter preparedness for employees. DHS manages an Active Shooter Preparedness Program, which focuses on behavioral indicators, potential attack methods, developing emergency action plans, and the actions that may be taken during an incident, and includes the following:

  • Active Shooter Online Training: An introductory lesson on the actions that may be taken when confronted by an active shooter, as well as indicators of workplace violence and how to manage the consequences of an incident.
  • Active Shooter Preparedness Workshop Series: Scenario-based workshops that feature facilitated discussions to inform participants on the best practices associated with preparing for and responding to an active shooter incident.
  • Active Shooter Online Resources: Resources range from booklets and pocket guides to a 90-minute webinar that explains the importance of developing an emergency action plan and the need to train employees on how to respond to an incident.

It is important to note that there are several things you can look for that could be early warning signs in a person about to commit a workplace violence incident. A typical offender usually has five basic characteristics, which include letting their perception be their reality, living in a bubble, having a desire to establish or regain control, past behavior likely a sign of their future behavior and behavioral changes. If an employee notices any of these signs in a fellow co-worker, they should bring it up to HR or a manager for evaluation.

Best Practices for Businesses Responding to Workplace Violence Incidents

An active threat incident can be frightening, and an employer's preparation steps and actual response during this type of situation will be critical to employees. The run, hide, fight methodology is the most effective way to respond when an active shooter is in the vicinity, and DHS offers a comprehensive guide to support this method. First, employees should determine the most reasonable way to protect their own lives, whether that is by finding an escape route and evacuating the building, hiding in an area out of the active shooter’s view, or taking action to incapacitate the active shooter. The latter should be a last resort option, as it is the most dangerous and employees risk losing their lives in the process. Customers and clients will typically follow the lead of employees or managers in an active shooter situation, so it is important to prepare by having a workplace safety plan implemented and training employees on workplace violence incidents, including active shooter preparedness.

There are several other considerations to consider for workplace violence preparedness. In an article written by my colleague Joseph Murphy, Senior Vice President of Commercial Sales at Prosegur USA, he recommends implementing a central reporting structure for any concerns and observations, such as an anonymous hotline. With a centralized body, employers can get a more complete picture of a potential situation as early as possible.

Oftentimes, many employees do not know where the exits to their building are located, since they may only come into their workspace one way. Ensuring that employees know where the building’s exits are located - is vital for an active threat or similar workplace violence incident. Employers will also want to communicate how to utilize the building’s mass notification system, if available, so employees that are able to send out an “SOS” can do so.

Employers can prepare for and respond to workplace violence incidents if they have a comprehensive workplace safety and security plan implemented for their employees. Workplace violence incidents can be preventable if employees know what to look for, through training and resources. The implementation of a threat management team is vital to the effective response of a workplace violence incident. All of these factors, in addition to considerations such as written workplace violence policies, a clear incident management process and top-down executive program support, will ensure that any business can survive an incident of workplace violence, regardless of the outcome.

About the Author:

Robert Dodge currently serves as CEO of Prosegur Global Risk, a key business unit of the world’s third largest security company, where he leads the team that advises some of the largest organizations around the world on risk mitigation and security strategies. Prior to joining Prosegur, he was Global President of the Corporate Risk Services Division at G4S, at the time the world's largest security firm with 600,000 employees in 100 countries. He also spent 14 years with Pinkerton, one of the world’s largest risk management firms as the International Senior Vice President, responsible for managing all of Pinkerton’s international offices and operations. Early in his career Robert served honorably in the U.S. Navy.