Workplace Violence Expert: Watch for ‘Grievance Collectors’

By Kathy Gurchiek Nov 10, 2009
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The Nov. 5, 2009, mass shooting at the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 dead and 29 wounded points to the importance of companies creating a culture of awareness, says a workplace threat assessment expert.

The following day at an Orlando office building, an alleged gunman—an employee reportedly terminated two years earlier from the engineering firm—shot and killed one person and injured five others. Asked why, the suspect said the employer “left me to rot,” according to news accounts.

“The single most dangerous persons at work are the grievance collectors,” and 82 percent of the time they signal that they are at-risk individuals, Larry Barton told SHRM Online. Barton, a faculty member at the FBI Training Academy, has researched more than 2,300 critical incidents affecting organizations since 1986.

He’s a former professor at Harvard Business School, Penn State, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and Boston College. While vice president of crisis management at Motorola from 1995 to1999, he designed a global system for crisis prevention and response.

“Many of these [grievance collectors] are good people. I’ve worked with them, but they were unable to process their stress, their anger,” he said. “These people litter the landscape with signals.” A look at their records often shows incidents where they’ve thrown a punch, yelled at a customer or posted a thinly veiled cry for help on a blog.

While workplace killings are down in the United States, written and verbal threats in the workplace were up about 30 percent in 2009, and there has been an increase in suicides at or related to work, according to Barton.

Sometimes a supervisor chooses to ignore these signals, with the mindset that “I don’t have time to listen to you whine,” he said. Often it’s those cases that escalate to the point where the individual acts on his or her grievance, Barton added.

However, “we have a culture right now where we’re not supervising to standards of accountability,” said Barton. He believes that some HR professionals think that legislation outlawing breaches of personal medical data and barring discrimination of persons with disabilities mean “that we cannot openly discuss employees with mental health issues.”

Duties Under Safety Law

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s General Duty Clause, Barton pointed out, employers are required to furnish employees with a work environment that is free from recognized hazards “that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to [its] employees.”

That means, he said, that an employer has a duty to get involved when an employee talks about suicide or threatens or harms another person. In some states, employers can mandate a “fitness for duty” evaluation if the employee’s actions constitute a threat, he said. Delaware is one state that has such a policy.

“You cannot look the other way,” Barton said. That’s where a culture of awareness comes in.

In the Fort Hood case, the suspect is an Army psychiatrist who had long wanted out of the military, but his attempts had been unsuccessful and he was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan, according to news reports.

“Talk with the person,” Barton said. “Sometimes people need to vent. We have to allow [the individual] the chance to tell [his or her] story” when a threat is made.

The Society for Human Resource Management’s manager of diversity and inclusion initiatives, Eric C. Peterson, agrees on the importance of workplace awareness.

“Something all organizations should be doing now, and whenever a public tragedy such as the Fort Hood shootings occur, is to keep a watchful eye on their workplaces, looking for anything that even remotely resembles an act of hostility toward anyone based on religion or ethnicity.”

Organizations also should communicate and implement a zero-tolerance policy around workplace harassment and discrimination, particularly around these issues.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone suspected of ethnic or religious harassment will be immediately disciplined; it simply means that all acts of perceived harassment will be thoroughly investigated.”

Barton, a self-described believer in progressive discipline, questions the effectiveness of zero- tolerance policies. One side of the coin is when the policy trumps common sense, such as in the case of the first-grade student who faced a 45-day suspension for bringing to school a Cub Scout camping utensil that violated his school’s rule on knives.

And sometimes an employer’s zero-tolerance policy isn’t totally zero, such as when an exception is made for one employee, Barton noted.

Peterson acknowledged that zero-tolerance policies “will inevitably spark a mild backlash among employees who believe that their freedom of speech is being threatened or that their employer is criminalizing a sense of humor.

“But it’s far better,” he added, “for an organization to act with integrity according to its stated values and be seen by some as ‘politically correct’ than to allow the actions of one disturbed individual result in an entire community inside its workforce being diminished or mistreated.”

Periodic training is an important tool, along with best practices and case management, according to Barton. Training should cover such issues as being prepared to handle at-risk persons, witnesses and co-workers; when to involve law enforcement; and when a temporary restraining order is necessary.

“These are the questions we need training on,” and it’s not training that should be computer-based, he added.

“I’m vehemently opposed to computer-based training when it comes to safety” because it doesn’t allow for individual questions and feedback. “We’re clicking the box [in the training modules], we’re keeping the lawyers happy” because organizations can attest they have provided training.

Organizations should make better use of employee assistance programs (EAPs), which usually are “very well-equipped to identify a person at risk,” Barton noted.

“We often don’t promote the EAP to the very employees who are at risk.”

He urges HR to be cautious about firing on the spot a person believed to be dangerous.

“Once that person leaves work, the employer is in a zone where you lose the ability to monitor, [although] in some cases an immediate dismissal is appropriate because the situation is so egregious.”

Calling on Law Enforcement

Calling upon law enforcement can be a helpful preventive tool. If police dismiss the employer’s concern, Barton says, the employer should put its concerns in writing and deliver it to the chief of police.

When violence does touch the workplace, in most cases it’s appropriate to notify co-workers that there is a problem and what role the employer is taking. Zero communication creates a negative and fearful environment.

“You can certainly say ‘we’re providing help to an employee who’s having a difficult time,’ ” he advised. “You have to be discrete; you wouldn’t name the person,” he added, but the communication can note that the company is involving law enforcement, can ask employees to respect the individual’s privacy and can remain focused on customers, with a promise to keep employees updated.

Reducing the threat of workplace violence is not always about training, Barton emphasized.

“It’s more about awareness, and I’m concerned that companies rush out to hire cops that have no background in threat assessment, they have no background in psychology, and we have some ex-cops out there who are trying to cash in on [fears about workplace safety].”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at

Related Articles:

OSHA Forms Alliance Focusing on Workplace Violence, Safety and Security Discipline, March 25, 2009

Report: Workplace Violence Rate Declines, HR News, Sept. 12, 2008

Work To Reduce Exposure to Workplace Violence Threats, Staffing Management, May 6, 2008

Official Outlines Strategies for Preventing Workplace Violence, Legal Issues, June 6, 2006

Related Resources:

Workplace Violence Prevention Policy, SHRM Templates and Tools

Workplace Security Measures, SHRM Poll, April 2007

Weapons in the Workplace Survey Report, 2006

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