Predicting and Preventing Workplace Violence: An EAP’s Worst Nightmare

The recent tragedy involving the murders of a news reporter and camera operator on the air in Roanoke, Virginia is a reminder that workplace grievances and grudges can erupt into violence very easily, and that terminating a person’s employment can be the trigger that causes a marginally disturbed person to become violent. Taking away a person’s job not only threatens his or her sense of survival (because a job is the means we have to provide ourselves with food, clothing, and shelter), but also threatens a person’s self-image and self-worth, when being fired is equivalent to a rejection. One of the most difficult aspects of such a situation is that the breaking point may not occur when the employer and co-workers might expect it and can prepare. Often, as in this case, it simmers for months or even years before a violent incident occurs.

These situations are made more complex when there is an element of paranoia at work. Vester Flanagan (also known as Bryce Williams) had a pattern of erratic behavior and deteriorating job performance that spanned many years and a number of jobs. But when he was called to account for his actions (or was not given the promotions and honors he felt he deserved), he filed lawsuits alleging discrimination and claimed he was targeted for a “carefully orchestrated” campaign to get rid of him. This was dismissed, and no basis for discrimination was found, but his ideas of reference (as they are called in the mental health field) persisted. He believed that people were out to get him, and (at least at times) tried to claim it was because of his race.

When someone like this is referred to an employee assistance program, there is often little that the EAP can do to assure the employer that the situation is under control. EAPs are basically set up as voluntary arrangements. People may be referred out of concern about their well-being, or may be referred in connection with job performance problems; but a “mandatory’ referral is really not all that enforceable except in conjunction with other progressive discipline measures. Most personal problems that can cause job problems (including substance abuse problems, which were the original focus of EAP programs) come with some sense on the employee’s part that some kind of help is needed. Even when a substance-dependent employee is manifesting denial, there is usually some awareness at some level that there is a problem. This may be much harder to tap into when dealing with an angry and paranoid individual. The referral needs to be closely coordinated with the HR department; it is desirable in a situation like this one, where volatile behavior has been documented, to have safety personnel and legal counsel involved as well. In any “mandatory” referral, the final leverage that the employer has is to fire the employee. But an employee who has a fixed set of ideas involving resentments and grievances against the employer cannot be forced to get the kind of help that may be needed, even if job performance factors or policy violations lead to termination. In that situation, the termination can actually make things worse from a safety and threat management standpoint.

The federal Office of Personnel Management (spurred by a number of high profile incidents involving government employees, some of which formed the basis for the colloquial phrase, “going postal”) came up with an excellent manual for managers. This includes chapters on policy development, prevention, threat assessment, workplace security, and organizational recovery after an incident. I would highly recommend that any employer who has concerns about the possibility of workplace violence read this manual and make use of some of the ideas and suggestions it contains.

But for an employee assistance program, the responsibility still rests with the program’s clinicians and supervisors to take all appropriate steps to help assure that (first) the individual receives the help that he or she needs, and (second) the risk to the workplace is minimized and people are aware of whatever risk is identified.

My colleagues who perform fitness-for-duty evaluations for law enforcement and other highly responsible personnel are accustomed to warning their clients that confidentiality has limits in this type of forensic situation. We already provide informed consent (usually in the form of a “statement of understanding” that the client is asked to sign) which lets clients know that any threats may need to be reported to the appropriate authorities. When an employee is referred for erratic, bizarre, or threatening behavior, this warning should be made more explicit and should be documented at the outset of contact. Next, the EAP should carefully assess the employee’s statements and behavior, including any workplace data (such as e-mails) that raise concerns about loss of control, violence, revenge, or persecutory ideas. If any of those features are noted, it would be prudent for the EAP to recommend a further evaluation by a professional who is trained and experienced in assessing threat. If the findings suggest high risk, law enforcement and legal counsel may need to be involved.

What might interfere with an EA professional’s ability to adequately assess potential threat and take adequate steps to warn employers of any potential risk? Ironically, it may be our training in ethics and our tendency to hold the counselor-client relationship as protected and almost sacred. Counselors and social workers (and to some extent psychologists, especially in psychotherapy practice) tend to avoid jumping to conclusions about risk unless there is clear evidence of a threat. The development of mental health laws that place the client’s rights and their autonomy above all else has led many clinicians to refrain from reporting risk unless there are direct overt threats being made.

Another factor acting from the management side which can impede effective response to a potentially violent employee can be the fear of provoking a complaint under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules (covering discrimination based on race, gender,and other protected classes) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (covering medical conditions, which many managers assume makes it difficult to take action against someone who may claim a psychiatric disability). Unfortunately, the qualms of the clinician can feed off the qualms of the management, and result in a tendency to “cross our fingers and hope nothing happens.”

Actually, all of these qualms can be handled with appropriate care and possible legal counsel, or consultation with experts in disability or equal employment opportunity policy.

Employee assistance professionals are accustomed to thinking of themselves as just that – people who provide assistance, not treatment or evaluation for fitness for duty. As the story in the Guardian points out, management may tend to think of the EAP as a “medical” referral. This creates expectations that would be appropriate for an occupational health department, but not for an EAP. It is, however, appropriate, and in fact necessary, for an EAP to have basic assessment, referral, and monitoring responsibilities that work in concert with their assistance functions. It is important, though, for all concerned to understand that the EAP serves at least two clients – the employee and the organization. As in the case of truck drivers and airline pilots, EA programs may also have a third client: The community or the public. This may be a real consideration in the case of potentially violent employees or former employees.

Thankfully, I have never been involved in a situation that later developed into a violent incident or homicide. However, I have been called in the aftermath of several such incidents, and it is something that no employee assistance professional or human resources person ever wants to contemplate. However, being prepared to contemplate the worst possibility – calmly and thoughtfully – may be the best way to help reduce the likelihood that it might in fact happen.


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