Workplace violence is on the rise. In May, there was an active shooter event in Virginia Beach, where a disgruntled city employee murdered 12 of his co-workers. In May, as well, another school shooting occurred in Colorado, not far from where the infamous Columbine shooting took place in 1999. As the debate for sensible gun-control continues, gun laws alone will not stop the next massacre, particularly for those already intent on causing harm.
General John Jumper, former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, had a saying: “Every Airmen is a Warrior. Every Airmen is a sensor.” At that time, shortly after the Khobar Tower bombing in 1996, which effectively launched the Department of Defense’s Antiterrorism program, this was an appropriate way to describe both a nascent force protection program and peer accountability. Many have since used that phrase as the rallying cry for teaching employees to identify suspicious activity, and what some experts refer to as “pre-attack indicators.”
Take, for example, the Virginia Beach shooter, who allegedly had already engaged in activities along the spectrum of violence – up to and including physical altercations with other employees the week prior to the shooting. Other cases – including manifestos on social media and abnormal behavior detected by friends or family – have signaled an imminent attack.
Starting from the reality that risk can never be fully eliminated, only managed, the question becomes: how critical is employee training to prevent workplace violence? Not just reacting or responding to a kinetic event (i.e., running, hiding, and fighting), but recognizing the signs and symptoms of potential emotional instability – and equally important – creating a workplace environment where concerning activity can be discretely addressed, swiftly adjudicated and in the far more likely innocuous cases, not adversely affect an employee.
A couple of years ago, following the New York City Halloween van attack, another Air Force General and former head of the CIA and NSA, Michael Hayden, remarked that the attack was “one of limits.” Limits both for jihadists, in that planning a large-scale, high-casualty attack is extremely difficult in today’s intelligence environment – but also limiting for law enforcement who simply cannot (and should not) monitor every van rental agency in every country or place physical barriers along every pedestrian walkway. Similarly, workplace violence or active shooter events challenge law enforcement and security personnel because many of the perpetrators are “clean skins,” with little to no criminal background. That does not necessarily mean there are no indicators – especially in the workplace.
While unpredictable shootings certainly occur, many of these events are precipitated by anomalous behavior, a response to a perceived or real grievance at work and/or follow somewhat predictable escalating violence criteria along what DHS calls a “pathway to violence.” However, those in the best position to detect these breadcrumbs are often the least trained to do so. Therefore, deploying resources to help employees recognize indicators in their co-workers while simultaneously ensuring that the proper structures and processes to address them internally are in place, could potentially prevent a tragedy. If executed correctly, creating empathetic environments for employees has added benefits and externalities as well: employees feel protected, understood and trust that their management teams are attentive and engaged. Employee behavior detection training should take an empathetic approach, not an accusatory one, but ignoring a pattern of abnormal behaviors could be at best negligent, and at worst dangerous.
So, what does an “aware employee” look like? For starters, an aware employee is an engaged employee – or as General Jones might say a “sensor.” Situational awareness is not just a security buzzword or platitude, but it can be counterintuitive – especially in environments where routine can breed complacency (like the workplace). Imagine a scenario where a co-worker is almost always upbeat, engaging and positive, but over the course of a couple of weeks becomes down-trodden, somber and introverted. Do you have the tools to engage with that employee? Would you notice? Does your company have a system in-place to report something as seemingly innocuous as a mood swing?
Gone are the days of a bright-line distinction between work and personal life. Now, more than ever, employers have a duty to protect their employees. This includes detecting and intervening when they are distressed, and effectively training co-workers to act accordingly.