A few years ago, Alisha Bromfield, a Home Depot employee, was strangled and killed by her supervisor while the two were traveling to a wedding together. A mother-to-be, her fetus was also killed. Although the attack took place while they were off-duty, hundreds of miles away from the store where the two worked, the victim’s mother sued Home Depot, alleging that the retailer knew about the supervisor’s history of verbal abuse and should have fired him.
A lower court tossed the lawsuit, but the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in March 2017. A key question for a jury to decide is whether the supervisor used his job position to coerce Bromfield into going away with him, according to the court. If so, Home Depot could potentially be liable. “Alisha’s story is an old story that has been told too many times,” the court added.
The case highlights several dicey issues that retailers must contend with, including liability for negligent retention and the responsibility that employers may have for the behavior of employees while away from work. The case also demonstrates the need for retailers to have an effective process for assessing potential threats and implementing violence prevention strategies. Retailers need to be able to tell when a worker’s comments signal the potential of dangerous behavior.
What Does Effective Threat Assessment Require?
The goal of a retailer’s threat management unit or process is to prevent and reduce the incidence of targeted violence by identifying potential perpetrators and managing the risks of violence. To effectively meet that mission, four important elements stick out:
- 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.
A threat management unit (TMU) will vary in size and complexity depending on the organization, but members might include legal counsel, security and threat assessment specialists, managers, and a licensed behavioral psychologist. However, even retail organizations that use outside expertise to conduct threat assessments require internal threat assessment knowledge. Having skilled personnel at a facility or store is critical for knowing when risk factors or patterns of behavior suggest that an outside expert—or the threat team at corporate headquarters—needs to be called upon to more closely assess a situation and provide recommendations for violence prevention strategies. Plus, there may not be time. Internal personnel need to be sufficiently skilled and confident enough to take action in an acute situation. Retail safety training is a good place to start.
A report by the Defense Science Board Task Force for the US Department of Defense, “Predicting Violent Behavior,” concludes that corporate entities that operate TMUs have found them to be valuable security tools. To start, the mere existence of a TMU helps combat dangerous myths, according to the report.
Misperception: There is no way to predict targeted violence.
Reality: Clues to targeted violence are present, but may not be recognized or reported to members of the community who need to know.
Misperception: Targeted violence occurs without warning or clues.
Reality: Violent offenders provide a series of verbal and/or physical clues to others.
Misperception: People are either violent or nonviolent.
Reality: Human behavior is variable. Those once perceived as nonviolent can and do commit violent acts.
The report highlights one organization’s TMU, which it said had successfully addressed dozens of situations, such as threats from internal and external sources, human resource concerns, staff welfare, and stalking. The unit consists of officers specially trained in threat assessment and violence prevention strategies, as well as a consulting psychologist, and other personnel participate on an as-needed basis, such as those in human resources. Among its activities, the TMU conducts training sessions to encourage prevention and early reporting; conducts outreach to human resources with guidelines and criteria on problematic employee issues that warrant referral; and monitors local police contacts for incidents that may warrant further assessment or threat monitoring.
In studying private-sector use of TMUs, researchers identified three additional elements that make them effective.
1. All TMU members require specialized training. “A current consensus among threat management professionals recommends that participants receive a minimum of sixteen hours of annual training to maintain professional standards.” In addition to threat expertise, threat assessors need to be aware of the complex contextual, legal, ethical, and regulatory issues that impact the workplace violence risk assessment process.
2. TMUs must be perceived as trustworthy and able to protect the privacy of those reporting a concerning behavior. “They must be seen as fair, helping to alleviate concerns over stigma, false-positives, and negative career impacts that may result from arbitrary or unfair analysis.”
3. Threat management unit members need to take into consideration multiple behavioral and risk factors prior to making an assessment and recommendations, including contextual, mitigation, risk, and resilience factors; and potential stressors. An informed assessment also requires access to sufficient, credible, first-hand collateral data sources “and avoid over-reliance on single factors,” according to the report.
Once all the relevant information about an individual and a situation are examined, the TMU should provide an assessment of the potential risk of violence, investigative suggestions, and threat management strategies to reduce the potential for a violent attack. The report notes that “while short-term strategies may resolve a situation, often times a long-term case management approach is necessary.”
This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated March 27, 2018.