Hunters and Howlers in the Workplace

By Beth Mirza Jul 23, 2009
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If there’s a howler around, you’ll know it—he or she will make threats, get attention and frighten. But hunters will lie in stealth, avoiding notice, until they strike out to wound or kill.

Howlers and hunters don’t live in jungles, deserts or horror movies. They’re in workplaces around the world.

Steve Albrecht, DBA, PHR, CCP, discussed hunter and howler behavior during a webinar for the Employee Assistance Professionals Association on July 21, 2009. While both can be dangerous, hunters are usually more lethal than howlers, Albrecht said. The hunter/howler terminology stems from research conducted by Dr. Fred Calhoun during his work with the U.S. Marshals Service on threats against federal judges and by Steve Weston, J.D., working with the California Highway Patrol on threat assessment.

Howlers want to be seen and heard, but they don’t necessarily want to harm others physically. Instead, they want to control their victims’ emotional state. “Howlers are very overtly in your face,” Albrecht said. “Their goal is to frighten you. Their behavior is identifiable and recognizable.” 

Hunters, on the other hand, “operate in stealth. They are predatory, focused on harming others and not gaining attention,” he said. Hunters follow a path of progression toward violence: They conduct surveillance, gather intelligence, obtain weapons and then make a violent attempt. They are more dangerous because they avoid attention and try to get close to their targets without being seen. 

“Many people make threats, but few carry them out,” Albrecht said. With few exceptions (including previous sexual intimacy between a victim and assailant), “hunters do not howl, and howlers do not hunt.”

However, hunters usually do tell someone, usually very vaguely, that they are upset or disturbed. But the threat can be so oblique and delivered to a bystander—not an intended victim—that it’s not perceived as a threat. 

Robert Mack, a 25-year employee of General Dynamics, was fired in 1991 for attendance policy violations. In January 1992, he returned to the workplace, shot and killed the labor relations manager assigned to his case, and shot and wounded his former manager. A host of problems might have led to the violence, Albrecht said: racial issues, perceived mistreatment, union problems, job identity, discipline and termination mistakes. But the only hint he dropped was to his girlfriend on the day of the shooting, saying that he wouldn’t be coming home that night. 

Bruce Pardo also was a hunter. He shot and killed nine people, including his ex-wife, on Christmas Day 2008. He started planning the attack in March 2008 and flew to Iowa to obtain ammunition. But he complained only once, in one sentence, about his wife to a friend. By all accounts, Albrecht said, “he was a nice guy.”

Identifying the Hunters, Placating the Howlers

Albrecht said he is particularly concerned that workplace violence might spike as employers and employees deal with the fallout of the recession, whether through compensation reductions or outright layoffs and terminations. Three factors might lead someone to lash out violently: 

  • Economic stress.
  • Mental illness.
  • Desire for revenge. 

But employers and threat assessment teams should approach the problem by trying to assess danger, instead of attempting to predict violence, Albrecht said.

“Look at behaviors, not labels. Profiling doesn’t work,” he said, noting that the federal government is moving away from profiling criminals. Analyze people’s behavior in the context of what is going on around them at work and home, and then determine how to proceed.

For example, evaluate the person’s actions in light of these inhibitors and igniters of violence:

​InhibitorsIgniters​
​MoneyEconomic stress
Job securityJob loss
Family presenceFamily crises
Love relationshipBroken heart
Friends/social connectionLoner behavior
Religious beliefsIrrational religious beliefs
Interests/hobbiesOne-dimensional life
Rules and normsPain/substance abuse

Indicators of higher risk can include minimizing, rationalizing, blaming and denial of actions. “When I see those four things, I get significantly more concerned,” Albrecht said.

The threat assessment team can accomplish four goals when it conducts its interview of an employee who has threatened others or acted inappropriately:

  • Alert the employee that his behavior has been noticed.
  • Give him the opportunity to tell their story.
  • Gather information about the person.
  • Let him know the behavior is unacceptable. 

The problem with such an interview would be that the employee might feel pushed to act out. But Albrecht said that the employer should take the opportunity to defuse and “de-escalate” the problems now through “benevolent severance”—a controversial idea, he said. 

“The idea is not to reward a threatening, high-risk employee,” Albrecht said. “These tactics can alleviate revenge, mental illness, economic stress.”

Find out what is the employee is really concerned about. For example, if he is facing termination and is concerned another employer won’t hire him, offer a letter confirming the dates of his employment and the positions held with the company. If the company is downsizing and facing layoffs, be as open and honest as possible about an employee’s future with the company. Employees get angry over not having information. Let them hear bad news from the company first, not the Internet, Albrecht said.

In these meetings and other interactions, focus on interrupting opportunities, Albrecht said. “We don’t always know the motives [for violence]—but don’t obsess over it.” Instead, have good policies in place and create a culture where employees feel empowered to report troubling behavior—without getting in trouble themselves.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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