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Brutal Breakroom Killing Underscores Need to Document Concerning Behaviors

Tragedy hit one of the nation’s largest pharmacy chain stores in June when a 28-year-old employee stacked bins in front of a breakroom security camera before allegedly killing a 17-year-old coworker, leaving blood everywhere, according to the store manager’s 911 call after discovering her body.

Compounding the blow to the retailer, from perhaps both a prevention and liability perspective, were statements in news reports by local police that the victim had previously complained to management about her coworker’s unwanted advances and expressed her desire to work different schedules. Another store manager told police that the alleged killer “appeared to be acting jealous” a few months prior to the murder when the victim’s boyfriend visited her at work, according to local news reports.

The manner of the attack suggests a potential value for smart cameras that immediately alert when unusual behavior is detected. In addition to methodically blocking the camera’s view of the breakroom, the employee taped paper over its windows and put up a “restroom closed” sign to keep people away.

The attack also underlines the criticality of threat assessments, to judge when an employee’s actions are an indication that he or she is going to blow or if they are just blowing off steam. We’ve previously discussed in LPM elements of an effective threat assessment process, which include:

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  • Developing criteria that should trigger a threat assessment investigation;
  • Identifying individual(s) within the organization responsible for receiving information and conducting or contracting for threat investigations;
  • Notifying managers and supervisors about the threat assessment program and;
  • Disseminating the trigger criteria to supervisors and managers.

These points are central to the effective operation of a threat management unit, as are security-centric employee background checks, but while process and organization are critical, the ability to manage employee threats is only as good as the information that the threat management unit has available to it. US Department of Justice statistics have in the past shown that employers never hear about 43 percent of personal threats and 58 percent of harassment incidents in their workplaces.

A retail organization striving to improve its ability to prevent violent acts by employees, therefore, must ask important questions, including:

  • Is information regarding concerning behaviors being optimally shared? And,
  • Does manager training make it clear what concerning behaviors they should track and to whom and under what circumstances they should report concerning behaviors when they observe them?

An incident at work that is in violation of an organization’s violence prevention policy is likely to spark a threat assessment. However, to make an effective assessment and offer recommendations, a security threat assessment team needs to know more than just the facts surrounding the incident at hand. The team needs to take into consideration multiple behavioral indicators, stressors, and other risk factors.

Listed below are concerning behaviors, which should be among the inputs for reviewing a potential threat. Some items suggest the difficult challenge a violence prevention team faces: many troubling behaviors are, by themselves, insignificant. As a result, managers and supervisors may not make formal note of them.

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The case described at the outset is a case in point. A manager’s observation about an individual “acting jealous” when a coworker was visited by her boyfriend may not be a particular cause for concern, but when combined with previous complaints about the worker’s behavior, it may be.

In the event of an incident involving a store associate, the threat management unit can ask his or her supervisor if the employee in question has exhibited concerning behaviors—but what if the supervisor leaves the organization? What if he or she transfers to a business unit across the country? Would the knowledge about the employee’s trouble signs leave along with the supervisor? Or what if the employee is the one who moves—is the slate clean when he gets to his new location? These are the types of questions that violence prevention teams need to ask to ensure that patterns of behavior don’t get lost and to close small gaps that often seem enormous in the wake of an incident, and which make prevention significantly more challenging.

Information Capture

An expanded definition of workplace violence and using scenarios in staff training provides threat assessment units the best chance, when an incident comes to their attention, that a full and documented accounting of previous concerning behaviors will exist. The Department of the Interior, to better promote a safe working environment, shared scenarios to describe behavior that should be reported, documented, and assessed—and which may never reach a threat assessment team without targeted education.

Such generic examples, plus those gathered from actual internal incidents, can be useful to include in supervisor training to improve information sharing around concerning behaviors in the workplace. Examples:

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  • Intimidation A: An employee reports to a supervisor, “A coworker has been intimidating me with ‘in your face’ behavior. He stood over my desk in a manner I find menacing; he has crowded me out in an elevator; and he makes gestures at me that scare me.”
  • Intimidation B: An employee reports to her supervisor that a coworker has been picking on her for several weeks and she is afraid something serious will happen. She says the coworker has been making statements such as, “You took credit for my work and you’re spreading rumors that I’m no good. If you ever get credit for my work again, it will be the last time you take credit for anybody’s work. I’ll make sure of that.”
  • Veiled Threats: A supervisor calls the Human Resources office to say, “One of my employees said this morning that he knows where my kids go to school. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but if you saw the look in his eyes and heard the anger in his voice, you’d know why I need your help in figuring out what to do.”
  • Frightening Behavior A: A supervisor reports that one of his employees is making the other employees in his office uncomfortable, although he has not engaged in any actionable misconduct. The employee was recently divorced and has gone through a rough time the past two years. He has made it clear he is having financial problems that are causing him stress. He is irritable and aggressive in his speech much of the time.
  • Frightening Behavior B: Several employees report to their supervisor an unusual situation involving a visiting worker from another store location. Throughout the day, she remarked that “the government” was tracking her, monitoring her thoughts, and tampered with her computer to feed her evil thoughts.
  • Disruptive Behavior: An employee reports to his supervisor that some of his coworkers are behaving in a way that is disruptive to him. He also thinks it could lead to further problems in the store. He says his coworkers “tease” each other. They say things to put each other down, hit and push each other for “fun,” and participate in a variety of other “playful” activities. It doesn’t appear as though all his involved coworkers find the “horseplay” funny.

Having a documentation of such events can help prevent a tragedy by giving those who conduct threat assessments a full history and a complete picture of an individual. These are important because a strict reliance on facts isn’t always helpful in employee threat assessments, warn experts.

“People only act out of their perception of reality,” noted one workplace violence consultant at a national security conference, implying that when conducting a threat assessment, facts alone can’t help a company’s security team gauge the likelihood for violence. So, for example, if a benign comment sets a worker off, it’s a mistake to think he or she will quickly get over it because the comment wasn’t severe. In making a threat assessment the actual severity of the remark doesn’t matter. “It only matters how the employee perceived it.”

People tend to establish patterns in their responses to difficult situations, which is why learning that an individual has been violent in the past is a huge factor in any current threat assessment. Additionally, violent events typically follow a pattern of escalation.

Most situations start when an individual does or doesn’t do something the aggressor wants. Then follows his or her idea for how to re-gain control, which typically depends on what the worker has done in the past in similar circumstances that resulted in success. Other pre-incident stages include research or planning, preparation, and testing.

That violence is usually a process—not an act—implies that when an offender’s “threat” comes to the attention of a threat assessment team, the team must work to fit the event into a chronology. Does the investigation suggest is it part of an escalation or is it just the individual’s normal pattern, which suggests that things will soon revert to normal? Similar actions don’t necessarily have similar implications, and threat assessments should be aimed at gathering the information to help tell the difference.

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