One morning in May, a city engineer in Virginia sent a short resignation email to his superiors. Hours later, he brought two handguns to the Virginia Beach Municipal Center and fatally shot 11 of his co-workers and one contractor, and injured several others.
The motives in the case are being investigated. Virginia Beach City Manager David L. Hansen said the shooter’s work performance had been satisfactory and that he was “in good standing within his department” when he resigned.
Unfortunately, the Virginia Beach shooting is only the latest fatal act of workplace violence. In February, five employees were killed in an Aurora, Illinois, manufacturing plant by a co-worker after he was fired. In 2015, a terminated employee at a Roanoke, Virginia, news station fatally shot two of his former colleagues on live TV. There were 500 workplace homicides in 2016 and 458 in 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The concept of someone suddenly snapping at work earned the unfortunate phrase “going postal” after several workplace shootings by U.S. Postal Service employees in the late 1980s and ’90s.
There are often signs that colleagues who were around the perpetrator noticed long before the person ever acted. Wondering what you could or should do if you would notice a co-worker becoming a potential threat? Workplace violence experts answered this and three other uncomfortable questions that office employees may have.
1. When is your co-worker’s talk about guns something you need to report?
Your colleague talking about guns is not necessarily a warning sign.
“I need to be clear, not everybody who has a fascination with weapons is the next shooter. We have in our culture today hunters, gun enthusiasts.... Most of them are law-abiding citizens,” said Matthew Doherty, who once ran the U.S. Secret Service’s Threat Assessment Center and now works at Hillard Heintze, a security risk management firm.
But threat assessment experts agree that fearful discomfort is the cue for you to report a colleague’s behavior. Are you worried about your safety or your co-worker’s safety? That’s the actual sign.
“I would want an employee to report any behavior that leads them to feel unsafe,” said Marisa Randazzo, the CEO of Sigma Threat Management Associates and former chief research psychologist for the Secret Service.
Randazzo said focusing on your gut reaction to your colleague can be more effective than getting a checklist of warning signs. “When we give our employees a list of warning signs, it can actually make them fearful of everyone around them,” she said.
If your colleague’s sudden, aggressive and constant talk about weapons makes you fearful, act on your gut instinct to report it. “If you’re uncomfortable and it causes fear or anxiety, then those behaviors should be reported to let threat assessment professionals, HR professionals, security professionals at least make an inquiry to see if there is cause for alarm,” Doherty said.
2. What are other warning signs that you should notice?
“What we mean by warning signs are marked changes in someone’s behavior,” Doherty said. Everyone has bad days, but if you notice a concerning change in behavior when your colleague was once gregarious and is now withdrawn, or they’ve suddenly stopped showering or have changed their appearance or demeanor in alarming ways, that can be a sign, Doherty said.
It’s better to report your fear than underreport.
“If you’re not sure, go ahead and [report],” Randazzo said. “I’d rather people report at a lower level and earlier on than wait until something gets out of hand.”
3. Should you be the one to report it?
Yes. If you are the employee with a concern about a colleague that is making you fearful or anxious, you should raise the alarm to the appropriate channels.
Your employer’s job is to help you know what the appropriate channels are and how to use them. Know that you can be the difference in preventing violence.
Randazzo says one message employers should communicate to staff is, “It doesn’t matter what position you hold in this company, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the CEO or you clean our bathrooms. You may be the first person to know about something and you may have the critical piece of information that helps us prevent harm.”
Sometimes a potential workplace threat may stem from an employee’s personal life, and employees should also feel empowered to raise concerns without a fear of reprisal to their career. Doherty said he helped implement a new policy at a company that ensured employees could voluntarily disclose if they had restraining orders in place. He emphasized that employees would not be denied employment or a promotion for disclosing this information. After his announcement, an employee shared that she had a restraining order issued against a “bad boyfriend,” and the company took protection steps.
“We did offer her a special parking space,” he said. “We made sure that the county police department where their workplace is was aware of it and had a photo. We made sure that the receptionist had a do-not-admit photo of the person. They changed the access control to make sure people need to swipe in and swipe out, all those mechanisms, and she’s still a well-regarded employee today.”
4. Should you confront a person about their behavior directly? And what do you even say?
Yes, sometimes you can address a colleague who is causing you concern. This should be decided on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether you have a good relationship with the person, whether they are making threats and other factors. But experts caution not to go it alone or do it with the expectation that concerns are up to you alone to address without consulting appropriate professionals.
Listening to someone respectfully means withholding accusations and judgment about their behavior. “Could you tell me what did you mean by that?” is a question that follows this approach, said Larry Barton, a professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida who is also an instructor at the FBI Academy.
“Asking ‘What did you mean by that?’ is ... not an intrusive question, and it can be pretty illuminating,” he said.
Listening to someone respectfully also means giving them your full attention. Randazzo said to decrease risk overall, you should make sure the person feels like they are being heard. If you find yourself talking to a colleague who is being increasingly hostile, she said, employees can “stop what they’re doing and really try to listen to what this person is saying.”
“People often escalate when they feel like no one is listening,” she said. “It can be helpful to turn off your phone, put it on silent, put it face-down and say, ‘You know what, I’m not sure I’m really hearing what you’re saying. Can we back up a bit? I really do want to hear your side of this.’”
You may still need to report your concerns about the person afterward, but giving a concerning employee a chance to be heard is a powerful tool to diffuse hostility, Randazzo said.
If you’re a human resources professional, a potentially violent employee’s manager or someone else in power to change workplace policy, there are specific answers for you, too:
1. How can companies make it easier to report?
A good company will not tolerate workplace violence. A stronger company can go beyond a zero tolerance policy by emphasizing care for employees over punishment as the way to address concerns about workplace violence. Workers may be more likely to come forward when they know it would not mean immediate punishment for the person in question.
“It’s critically important to make a professional inquiry where your sole purpose is not to get the person fired,” Doherty said.
Doherty recommends employers offer a way to report information anonymously, especially because it may be someone’s supervisor who is keeping them silent.
“Give them options so they can reach out where they feel comfortable,” Randazzo said. “Make sure they can go to corporate security directly, or they can go to HR directly, instead of to their supervisor.”
2. How do you fire someone after they are considered a potential threat?
If you take away their financial livelihood, a person at risk of violence may feel like there is little left to live for. Losing a job is often the final action that precludes an act of desperation, such as workplace violence. “In most acts of targeted violence to include the workplace, there were life stressors, some association with the company, whether it be a terminated employee or suspended employee, ex-husband, or an affair in the relationship, or an interpersonal relationship,” Doherty said.
Before the Aurora, Illinois, manufacturing plant shooting, the gunman said he would kill other employees and “blow police up” if he lost his job, prosecutors said. One of his co-workers who heard his “off-the-wall” statements did not think he would actually act on them. Terminations need to be treated with tact and care. You shouldn’t wing it.
Consider financial incentives. “You shouldn’t have to give severance to an employee who has violated your policies and threatened; however, if doing so will help reduce risk, we recommend doing so,” Randazzo said.
“If you give somebody even if a small amount of severance and some benefits, they are less likely to retaliate,” said Barton, citing interviews he has conducted with perpetrators of workplace violence.
At Sigma, Randazzo dealt with a case in which an hourly employee threatened to kill co-workers after being bullied at work. The company gave the employee six months of severance that was conditional on his using their Employee Assistance Program, which offers mental health and resume services, once a week.
It should be done in private. People being terminated are “at one of the lowest points of self-esteem,” Doherty said, which is why the firing should be “treated with the utmost care, dignity and respect. They shouldn’t walk a walk of shame in front of their peers.”
Have police standing by. They do not need to be physically present in the room where a termination happens, because that can be humiliating, but they can be discreetly nearby. “You’d rather have them be a cellphone call away than to be calling 911,” Doherty said.
Words matter. “Be cautious of your words,” Barton said, suggesting the use of “separation” over “termination.” “Focus on their future when you have these meetings, that they can rebound from this, although it’s no longer a good fit for the company.”
Monitor social media afterward. “Is there anything publicly viewable that they are now posting that is leading us to be concerned that they want to seek revenge?” Randazzo said.
Ask their friends about how they’re doing. Use broad, support-focused language in your request to know about their wellbeing. “If there are trusted employees who are still in contact with the person we had to terminate, we can say, ‘Hey, look, we hope that so-and-so is successful in whatever venture they go onto next. If you’re ever concerned about how they’re doing, if you feel comfortable, please let us know,’” Randazzo said.
Get someone neutral follow-up after the firing. Get an employee relations specialist or someone within HR to check in with the employee rather than the manager who fired them, Randazzo suggested. This person can ask “How are things going?” and explain benefits and help that the employee can still access. “A neutral person can be a good way to help do a quick temperature check. How is this employee doing? Were they irate on the call?”
3. What if your company doesn’t have a threat assessment team?
Ideally, your company should have a threat assessment team to train and work alongside you about these policies. If you do not know if your company is doing enough, check out the 2011 Workplace Violence Prevention and Intervention American National Standard compiled by national security professionals and human resources management.
But in the meantime, if you’re a manager who does not have a formal threat assessment team in place, your job is to report broadly about needing help, so you can create an ad-hoc multidisciplinary team.
“I would reach out simultaneously to HR, to corporate security and to legal counsel and say, ‘I have a situation I don’t know how to manage here. I’m scared about the potential for violence. Let’s all of us talk together and see what’s going on,’” Randazzo said. “And if they don’t have a team, let’s bring an outside expert who helps places with threat assessment cases.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Larry Barton was no longer teaching at the FBI Academy. He still has a position at the time of publication.