The January 2014 issue of Nature features the article Workplace violence: Caught on campus, in which Brendan Mahar looks at how violent incidents at academic institutions have spurred universities to adopt formal procedures designed to keep campuses safer — and offers an assessment of how these measures are working. The focus is on how educational institutions are responding to the increase in violent events but the article should be of interest to all employers. While there are environmental and structural differences between academic organizations and businesses, issues about threat assessment, planning, and training are not so very different in principle.

The article opens with a chilling real-life anecdote of a threat deferred. The success in intervening and preventing violence in this incident serves as an example of threat assessment initiatives that have been adopted by many educational institutions in response to the increasing frequency of violent incidents. Threat assessment is defined as formal procedures that organizations adopt to identify and mitigate a dangerous situation before it explodes into violence.

Part of the threat assessment process involves being educated and aware of potential signs or signals that may point to the potential for an incident:

“By studying past attacks through the lens of psychology, researchers have identified a range of behaviours and environmental factors that may conspire to trigger violence. Individuals may exhibit extreme or sudden changes in behaviour, alienate themselves or others, or adopt unhealthy interests in weapons or violent acts. Environmental factors may include a tolerance to aggressive interactions in a workplace, an unresolved conflict, or the existence of cliques or pecking orders. And there are often precipitating events. These could be personal conflicts or work-life pressures — such as not getting tenure or a key grant — that an individual has had trouble dealing with appropriately.”

“…Empirical data on attacks suggest that there is a ‘pathway to violence’: there may be some form of grievance, the development of an intention to do harm, then research, planning and preparation.”

Mahar also notes:

“Threat assessment works only when people have signalled an intent to do harm. Luckily, these signals often appear. In the 1990s, the Secret Service looked at 83 individuals who had attacked or come close to attacking a prominent public official or public figure. It showed that 63% had communicated some sort of threat in advance, although rarely to the intended target1. “The people who carry out these acts, they typically tell someone what they’re planning to do,” says Randazzo. “We’ve seen many cases where they broadcast it on social media.”

These programs are not without limitations and concerns and, as with many types of prevention programs, it can be difficult to quantify a negative: how do you assess the violence that was averted? And there is the fact that, “threat assessment is only as good as the vigilance of a community, because it relies heavily on reporting.” That points to the need for training and educating supervisors and employees alike.

If you would like to learn more about developing a threat assessment team model in your organization, we would point you to CPI’s excellent and detailed article, which offers a good road map in its article, Taking Threats Seriously: Establishing a Threat Assessment Team and Developing Organizational Procedures

The article includes covers the role of policies and procedures, the role of the Threat Assessment Team (TAT), how to choose TAT members and what to cover in meetings. It also discusses incident reporting procedures, documentation, how to conduct investigations, how to assess and abate risk, and how to conduct interventions.

Your EAP should be a part of any threat assessment intervention and response plans and can also be a vital resource in defusing situations early. Be sure you know the scope and range of services that your EAP offers in violence prevention, intervention and response.

Additional Resources


When complex employee issues arise, ESI EAP offers member employers direct access to Certified Senior Professionals in Human Resources (SPHR) and senior clinical counselors. If you need an Employee Assistance Program give us a call: 800-535-4841.

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