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On the edge: assessing the violent employee.

IN 1990, incidents of workplace violence seemed to increase in number and intensity. These incidents involved current and former employees, former customers, and a range of other people.

The cost of violence in the workplace is high, not only in legal fees and possible punitive damages but also in the loss of employee confidence, morale, and productivity. Lawsuits over negligent security, which normally follow violent incidents, are on the rise. These suits involve not just employers but also landlords and property management companies that operate the buildings where such incidents occur.

An example of this type of exposure is found in Tepel v. The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, Case No. 801363, San Francisco Superior Court. In this case, the husband of an insurance company employee who worked on the 18th floor of a high rise at One Market Plaza in San Francisco came to see his wife with the pieces of a 12-gauge shotgun in a flower box. He walked to her desk, accused her of infidelity with her supervisor, opened the flower box, assembled the shotgun, and shot his wife and her supervisor. He eventually killed two and injured nine before being killed by police.

The shooter's wife and seven of her coworkers (or their families) eventually sued her employer, another insurance company that shared floor space with her company, and the building owners as all being responsible for their injuries or their family members' deaths.

At a recent employment law conference, one of the speakers, a lawyer, stated that with the advent of the Foley decision limiting claims of emotional distress in wrongful termination actions, plaintiffs' counsel in California were actively looking for an avenue to recoup the large jury awards in employment-related lawsuits that had been linked to punitive damages for emotional distress. One tort of great interest to them was workplace threats and violence that raised questions of negligent security practices and emotional distress.

Violence with tragic consequences can touch a company through any relationship it has with the public. Companies often recognize some of these possible situations and have a security policy and plan for dealing with robberies or assaults on company employees, normally focusing on incidents caused by external sources. These are often reactive plans that detail how to report the incident and what steps to take afterward.

But what about the incident that has yet to occur but may be potentially more dangerous? Take, for example, the employee who is currently working in one of your facilities and is angry, confused, and contemplating an act of violence.

Does your company have a way to assess such a person before an incident occurs? Does the plan balance the needs of the individual against those of the company, while making certain that all the issues of privacy, labor regulations, and adequate security are addressed?

THE PROBLEM THIS ARTICLE WILL address involves an employee who has, by verbal or physical behavior, communicated to other employees that he or she is thinking about committing an act of violence against another employee or the company in general. This employee, as likely as not, has an excellent work record and is either a white-collar or blue-collar worker, possibly a department head, manager, supervisor, or regular employee.

Assume that the employee has a relationship with the company that gives the company contact with him or her under circumstances it can control. If the employee were on a leave of absence or no longer employed with the firm, portions of the method in this article might still apply. But the central part of the method discussed - direct evaluation of the person by competent psychologists under controlled circumstances - might be difficult or impossible to accomplish.

The first step in dealing with potential employee violence is for someone to come forward and notify the company's management that some type of statement or behavior has occurred that has been perceived as threatening.

Every company should have in place a policy that says that any statement that is thought to be threatening; is made in the presence of any employee; and concerns the company, a contractor, another employee, or the person himself or herself should be reported confidentially to the human resources or security department.

Such a policy is only effective if these departments have the reputation for handling matters confidentially and with a concern for all employees involved.

If the current policy for handling threats in your company states that threats should be reported to the employee's immediate supervisor or manager, many important incidents leading up to a major incident may go unreported, thus allowing the problem to build to an unnecessary level of risk.

This problem occurs either because coworkers of the person making the threats do not want to cause trouble for him or her by talking to the supervisor or manager directly or because they do not want to take any action that forces them to face the possibility that their own safety is being threatened.

When a statement is reported, the person who reports the statement must be thoroughly interviewed about the following:

* the exact statement made

* the circumstances in which the statement was made

* any knowledge the person has of the person who made the statement

* the relationship between the person who made the statement and the person who reported it

* the names of any others who may have witnessed the incident, who have personal knowledge of other threats or odd behavior by the same person, or who might have detailed knowledge of the person who made the statements.

This interview and any subsequent interviews with other witnesses or informed persons must be kept confidential and be thoroughly documented. Having one individual conduct all the interviews can be beneficial. Even though it may take more time, it allows for more effective sifting, collating, and verifying of the complex information such interviews generate.

AS INFORMATION IS GATHERED AND documented, you should contact a person who specializes in assessing potentially violent employees. This specialist needs to be more than just an industrial psychologist. Ideally, he or she will have had experience not only in industrial psychology but also in assessing violent persons or dealing with hostage negotiation.

Not all threats or actions will be judged by the psychologist to require further assessment of their originator. Should the psychologist deem further assessment unnecessary, then the company could simply implement its policy for handling such incidents.

Whether the psychologist deems further assessment necessary or not, by consulting an outside specialist the company demonstrates its concern over these situations. Such an evaluation could help the company defend its actions in court should any serious incident occur.

If the psychologist believes further assessment is necessary, a crisis management team should be formed to handle this further assessment and the possible consequences. The most effective team for handling this situation includes three elements: legal counsel, human resources, and security.

The representatives of these three elements must have enough authority to commit company resources and personnel to handling this situation. Additionally, the legal representative should have firsthand knowledge of the laws involving employment and privacy and the processes involved in obtaining temporary restraining orders and then making them permanent.

Once this team is formed, it needs to meet with the psychologist, review all the facts, and construct a plan for further assessment. This further assessment is usually done in stages. The first stage involves a thorough background investigation of the subject. This investigation should include a review of all employment records and research of public records at the city, county, and state level for every place the subject has lived during his or her adult life.

Special attention should be paid to locating information indicating any turbulence or pressures, previous or current, on the subject and any information that shows how the subject responds to such pressures. This information could concern marital problems, prior violent episodes, prior or pending lawsuits, financial problems, or family problems.

Also important is any information concerning past military service or interest in the collection or use of weapons of any type. Obviously, this investigation should be conducted with the utmost discretion. Such care can help shield the company from possible later claims of libel, slander, or invasion of privacy.

It is also a good idea to establish some contact with the appropriate law enforcement agency at this time. It is possible that the conduct or statements of the subject may already constitute a crime.

In California, a threat statute enacted in 1990 holds the promise of being applied to some situations of the type described earlier. However, it has not been used to much effect so far.

If a law enforcement agency is involved, it may be possible to gain access to its information resources, thereby giving your company further insight into the person. If the agency cannot or does not want to get involved yet, at least you have informed it of the situation.

Generally, law enforcement does not want to get involved until a serious incident occurs or a legal order, such as a restraining order, has been obtained. This response seems to have as much to do with a lack of resources as it does with lack of interest in handling threatening behavior that has not caused actual harm.

IN THE SECOND STAGE OF THE PROCESS, the psychologist interviews the person who reported the threatening incident or statement and the persons who can verify or provide additional information on the subject's state of mind.

Though the psychologist's interviews may overlap topics already covered by the human resources or security interviewer, enough new information can be developed and important information verified to make this second set of interviews worthwhile.

These interviews need to be conducted in private, with the utmost care not to alert the subject. An ideal interview location is a conference room away from the subject's work area that interviewees can go to without drawing undue attention.

Also, depending on the type of information that develops from the background investigation and preliminary interviews, it may be necessary to provide security to the psychologist while he or she conducts interviews.

Security would certainly be warranted if the subject is known to own weapons and if the statements he or she made or the behavior he or she exhibited would lead a reasonable person to believe the subject might become enraged on learning of the interviews.

Regardless of the subject's background or the information gathered about him or her, when the psychologist or the team of psychologists interviews the subject directly, security measures should be in place around the site and security should be ready to respond to any threat.

To secure the interview process my company uses a two-person team whose only responsibility is to secure the interview site and the safety of the people in the interview room. These two security persons are armed and have the necessary training and experience to provide any level of response - from calmly talking with an upset employee to physically restraining an individual who is assaulting someone in the interview room to responding quickly and decisively to an incident involving weapons.

The assigned security personnel must be calm, low-key individuals who do not project a threatening or officious manner. Their behavior affects how employees gauge the company's handling of the situation.

Their behavior also affects the level of tension employees may feel about the situation should they become aware of it. Also, the team's behavior should not escalate or precipitate an incident. It must be seen as reasonable by the standards that will be applied to it later, perhaps in court.

Strategic placement of security personnel is essential. One person should stay outside the conference room and have a clear view of the surrounding hallways and areas but not be in plain view of anyone walking by.

This placement is easy if cubicles are near the conference room and one can be occupied by a team member. The second team member should be in an adjacent conference room or office and act as a communication and support person.

Team members should be able to communicate with each other with eye contact and hand signals. This will be possible due to their proximity to the interview room and the need for immediate and clear communication.

Also, the psychologist must have some method of signaling to the team members should a problem develop inside the interview room. Ideally, this method of communication should also allow for communicating the level of threat inside the room so the appropriate response can be made.

Whatever the method of communication, it must stay within the legal boundaries imposed on your company. For example, in California it would be illegal for your security team to listen in on the interview room conversation with an electronic listening device, such as an activated speaker phone, unless both parties to the conversation had been notified. However, in Nevada such electronic listening devices would be legal if the psychologist, as one party to the conversation, consented to having it overheard.

THE THIRD STAGE OF THE PROGRAM IS the interview of the subject. This interview is the most important because a competent, experienced psychologist will work with the subject and test his or her reactions to various ideas, stresses, and problems. The psychologist will also be able to develop an understanding of the person and his or her potential for and interest in violence.

In case the subject attempts to disrupt the interviews with other employees, walks out of his or her own interview with the psychologist, or assaults the psychologist, it is important that the crisis management team and the interview security team agree in advance on the actions they should take to handle this type of problem.

Regardless of the outcome of the psychologist's interview, the subject should be given the rest of the day off and instructed not to return to the premises without the approval of a designated person who is also a member of the crisis management team. This is obviously not an option if the person's behavior has caused him or her to be placed in custody.

Having the subject off the premises is important because the final stage of the assessment phase is a crisis management team meeting to review all the information gathered and analyzed to date. The presence of the subject on the premises during these deliberations can be distracting not only to security personnel in the meeting but also to senior management representatives.

During this final assessment meeting, the most important information is the psychologist's analysis of the subject's potential for violence. If the psychologist determines the individual is not an immediate threat to himself, herself, or others, the following questions must be considered:

* Should the person be offered counseling?

* Should such counseling be voluntary or a condition for further employment?

* Should the person be fired based on a company policy about threats or violence on-site?

* Should the person be offered the chance to resign because no one in the company will ever treat that person the same in the future?

All of these options, and many more, should be evaluated before a final decision is reached.

If the psychologist interviews the subject and decides that the person is an immediate danger to himself, herself, or others, the questions to consider include the following:

* What is the company's responsibility to notify local law enforcement?

* How will the company handle the individual's separation from the company? Will the separation be temporary or permanent? What is the basis for the decision? Is it defensible?

* What types of attacks might the person make on the company?

* Should the company seek a temporary restraining order? Who will provide the affidavits?

* What will the scope and cost of security be, given the risk the person poses? How long should security be in place? What indicators will allow the company to lower the level of security in the future?

All these questions and many others will arise as each situation develops. These questions are important, and their answers hold the key to a successful outcome.

The assessment method described in this article will allow your company to address the problem of potential employee violence in a comprehensive way, thus helping to shield the company and its employees from workplace violence and its destructive aftereffects.

James S. Cawood, CPP, CFE (certified fraud examiner), is president of Factor One Inc. in San Leandro, CA. The company specializes in solving problems related to company personnel and the preservation of assets. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Special Seminar Issue; workplace violence
Author:Cawood, James S.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:2757
Previous Article:Sobering up for success.
Next Article:Over the edge: managing violent episodes.
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