Caring for Your Employees: Preventing Workplace Violence Q&A
With Mike Georgoulis and Malique Carr, Ph.D.
Over two million incidents of workplace violence are reported each year, making it the fourth leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Though active shooter incidents have tripled in a four-year time frame, as many as 7 in 10 workplaces lack a formal program or policy for addressing violence issues. To help proactively address this potential threat, TorchStone has developed a customized workplace violence workshop program tailored to the unique needs of each of our clients.
Our workplace violence training team is led by TorchStone experts Michael T. Georgoulis, a law enforcement veteran, and Malique L. Carr, Ph.D., a psychologist (CA PSY 25110) and risk analyst. Their workshops have been utilized by corporations, high net worth families, hospitals, police, military and veteran’s organizations, schools, and community organizations.
We asked them to share their expert perspective on proactive planning, training, and identifying red flags among other critical elements of creating the right workplace violence program. Here’s what they said.
Why is creating a culture of awareness before an incident essential for companies?
Mike: If you are a CEO, know that your employees are already thinking about workplace violence. There is not a person watching the news who has not thought, “What would I do if something happens?” You can have all the policies in the world, but if they are not supported by training and by encouraging people to participate in pre-event planning—as opposed to post-event reaction—you face considerable risk. As an employer, providing workplace violence training for your employees will ensure that they know that you care about them and their welfare. It will also allow them to focus some of their concern or anxiety into constructive behavior to minimize potential vulnerabilities.
Malique: When faced with an incredibly stressful situation, especially one that you may not have experienced firsthand before, you will likely go into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. While these are normal responses, and may be perfectly suited for the stressful situation, why not be more proactively prepared? Increasing the culture of awareness, understanding behavioral red flags, and practicing de-escalation skills may actually help prevent a situation from escalating and reduce the risk of workplace violence. As a leader, your approach to planning proactively for the possibility of a workplace violence situation is critical. Specifically, you’ll need to create an open environment where employees can feel emotionally safe to talk to you about stressors and possible red flags they see, while avoiding an overreaction or the creation of a witch hunt.
Why is employee training and prevention so critical?
Mike: The intersection of an employee’s personal life and their professional life happens at least twice each day: when they come to work and when they leave. Even if what your employee is dealing with is personal and not work related, that personal issue will touch the company because they spend so much time there. Violence is one such issue.
In fact, we have seen firsthand how domestic violence can spillover into the workplace. In one case, after we concluded our presentation, an employee in the audience was emboldened enough to confidentially share that she was at risk at that very moment. The potential perpetrator had threatened to come to the workplace that very day to kill her. Why had she not said something earlier? When employees don’t sense the company cares about them, they won’t feel comfortable bringing their personal issues to a designated, trusted contact at work. In this case, the training sessions helped convince the employee that someone cared. All of your employees are at risk when one of their fellow employees doesn’t feel they will be supported if they come forward with a personal issue. While it isn’t necessarily a traditional issue that a company would think about, it is very, very important today.
Malique: Violence can happen anywhere and sometimes feels random. But when it comes to targeted or intended violence at the workplace or schools, it’s not random. People also often associate violence with extremist beliefs. While in some cases this may be a factor, in other cases, it is not. We help people to better understand the complex factors that can motivate violence. Sometimes a person is facing long-term issues that grind them down. Other times, someone may face a crushing event that may impact their routine and disrupt their sense of self – like a break-up, a death, or being fired from a job. If this person also has a lack of coping skills or resources, acute or chronic mental or medical health issues, feels all alone and without support, and/or has other personality factors linked with violence, they may start to move down a pathway of violence.
In our workshops, we show participants the “pathway to violence,” a concept developed by Frederick S. Calhoun and Stephen W. Weston. This model highlights the steps that people who may carry out an attack go through as they escalate and deescalate following an initial grievance. The steps after a perceived grievance include violent ideation, researching and planning an attack, gathering materials and preparing for an attack, and then probing before the actual attack. Each of those steps before an actual attack creates an opportunity for intervention, and that is why employee training and increasing awareness is so critical.
What are examples of behavioral red flags you identify in your workshops?
Malique: We help people to look for anomalous behavior, moods, and possible triggers in the people around them. These may differ for each individual but generally speaking some consistent red flags include activities like demonstrating an increased or new interest in weapons, collecting weapons, or weapons training; identifying with perpetrators of previous attacks; making threats; changes in appearance, hygiene, or mood; psychotic episodes with paranoid thinking; drug and alcohol abuse; becoming more isolated; having more black-and-white or rigid thinking; an increasing sense of entitlement; a lack of empathy; relational red flags like stalking, harassing, or romantic obsessions in the workplace; and recent relational losses.
Specific to the workplace, we also look for personal grievances against the company, its employees, or leadership; if someone starts being tardy or missing work and doesn’t seem to care; or if their work performance starts to deteriorate. We’re also sensitive to possible triggers like an employee being demoted, passed up for a promotion, or terminated. We always encourage people to trust their instincts and speak up, even if they can’t put their concerns into words.
It’s also important to note that, just because someone has red flags doesn’t mean they are on the pathway to violence. At the very least, red flags signal they are going through a difficult period. If we can encourage people to be more aware, and to periodically check-in with the people around them – actually demonstrating care and compassion – this would probably have a far greater, long-term impact than any other element of a workplace or active violence training.
What should readers know about proactively identifying and responding to violence in the greater community?
Mike: I’ll draw from our active violence presentation, which is not just workplace specific, but addresses life in general. It’s about making decisions that will aid in your own personal survival. We call it being an active participant in your own rescue, be it at work, at the mall, while traveling, etc.
That includes incorporating the “Left of Bang” awareness that Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley describe in their book by the same name. It is based on the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program and is about increasing your sensitivity to threats before they happen. In our workshops, we teach employees to do their own reconnaissance.
We advise them to look for those alternative exits that can facilitate a better evacuation in case of an emergency than the main entrance everyone else will use. In that same spirit they should also plan a secondary or alternate way out of your work environment. They should then visualize implementing this plan, mentally rehearsing their escape a few minutes each week. That small time of investment will provide each employee with a sound basis for action in the event such a situation occurs.
We also encourage adopting a “grey man” persona when traveling, blending in to the local environment. There is a time and place for wearing an embroidered company jacket or using a bag with the organizational logo, but when traveling overseas that brand pride may draw unwanted attention and targeting. When you are traveling, especially alone in airports, blending in is always the safest option.
Malique: My general advice is to recognize that you don’t know what someone else is going through in any given moment. I try to be courteous and respectful to everyone, especially to the more surly and bitter people.
When out-and-about, stay generally aware of your surroundings and the people around you. You don’t need to be paranoid – just prepared and alert. Part of being prepared, as Mike shared, means thinking through where you are going and what you’re bringing with you. For example, in an airport, are you going to wear flip-flops, high heels, or sneakers? If there’s a situation that requires a quick exit – possibly through broken glass and obstacles, what would you like to be wearing? A little forethought and preparedness can make a huge difference during a critical incident, should it occur.
Who in a company is your point of contact when planning workplace training workshops?
Mike: We are typically contacted by security, but we always encourage participation by human resources (HR) as workplace violence prevention is equally an HR issue. You don’t want to demonize people’s everyday ups and downs. Sometimes employees are just having a difficult time or a tough day and HR is better suited to helping them than security.
We also offer training in deescalating inappropriate behavior to select individuals across many different departments. We support that effort with workshops that introduce best practices for handling situations that can trigger risky behavior, including terminations that can occur anywhere within the company structure.
What else should readers know?
Malique: One thing employers must consider is that the threat assessment is dynamic, and the pathway to violence could be short or it could be very long. For example, the perpetrator of the 2015 on-air attacks of WDBJ-TV (Roanoke, VA) station news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward acted two years after his termination from the station. Employers need to be thoughtful in the ways they handle problematic employee behaviors and separations, and this thought process needs to continue even after a person is no longer with the company. Having an interdisciplinary threat assessment team in place or available for consultation can help thoroughly assess potential threat situations and work to mitigate the risk of future violence.
Please visit TorchStone’s Team page to learn more about Michael T. Georgoulis
and Malique L. Carr, PH.D.
To learn more about our workplace violence workshops or TorchStone’s consultation and security services, please contact us.