Handling threats in the workplace

Workplace stress and violence may cause damage equivalent to as much as 3.5% of total economic output

The incidence of threats, violence and seriously criminal behaviour in the workplace is on the rise. Does your company know how to handle these frightening and potentially destructive situations?

By Alex Frew McMillan

It was through word from a snitch in prison that Totti Karpela first learned there was a contract out on his head. Karpela, who spent 20 years with the National Police of Finland, had been working on a taskforce investigating outlaw biker gangs. And he apparently was doing his job a little too well.

Next came threats to his family, and a pledge to place a bomb in his car. Police found photographs of his home during raids on biker hideouts – clear signs they’d been watching him.

But the young policeman wasn’t sure how seriously to take the issue. The bikers looked scruffy and chaotic but operated a sophisticated system of organised crime. How willing were they to risk their cash cow by taking out a law enforcement officer?

Karpela went to his supervisor to see how the police decided which threats presented real danger, and which were mere bluster. But to his surprise, there was very little in the way of research into how to evaluate threats and how to respond.

Thankfully the threats proved to be all posturing. And the assessment system has improved markedly since. For instance, there are now sophisticated computer systems that model how likely a stalker is to attack.

There is an entire industry devoted to helping companies devise ways to respond to business partners who take a grievance a little too far – those who veer into coercive behaviour, bribery or blackmail. There are companies that management can enlist to help solve the problem of workplace bullying, ward off potential violence from aggrieved staffers or ex-employees, and assess what is broadly known as the issue of “threat management.”

From threatened to threat management

Karpela moved into the threat management field organically when he got the go-ahead to compile threat-management procedures for the Finnish police. He consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department, which led the way in forming procedures to handle domestic violence and stalking behaviour involving celebrities.

Then he moved on to the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre in Britain, which focuses on threats against the royal family, politicians and other public figures. He worked with the FBI and the US Secret Service during his research.

That led to his company, Peace of Mind, which operates in Europe and Asia. And Karpela’s research understandably has a personal as well as a professional interest for him.

“It gave me peace of mind to understand the behaviour a bit better, but it got me really fascinated as well.”

“Workplace stress and violence may cause damage equivalent to as much as 3.5 per cent of total economic output.”

He concluded there are two types of violent behaviour. The most common is impulsive and very often defensive anger: someone feels physically threatened, intimidated or ashamed. It is most often perpetrated by individuals who don’t have good conflict-resolution skills or anger management, or who are drunk or on drugs, and lash out.

Those motives are fairly easy to understand. The second category involves targeted or predatory violence, which is more complicated.

“Here are people who are sober, clearly know this is not the kind of behaviour they should be doing, and they still do it, which I find fascinating,” Karpela says.

“How do you deal with this effectively?”

The first known workplace mass murder was in 1986 in a post office in the US state of Oklahoma. And although a lot of workplace violence is not deadly, the International Labour Organization (ILO) noted in its 2006 report Violence at Work that the incidence and severity of incidents was increasing in many jurisdictions. That may reflect greater awareness of the issue, as well as an actual rise in the total number of incidents.

The ILO report says workplace violence is a “highly complex issue, rooted in wider economic, employment relationship, organisational, gender and cultural factors”. The authors, Duncan Chappell and Vittoria Di Martino, examined the effectiveness of workplace anti-violence measures and responses such as regulatory innovations and even workplace design.

Bullying and worse

Workplace violence is the second-leading cause of worksite deaths in the US, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There was an average of 14 workplace homicides per week in the decade through to 2010, its figures show.

That has led companies such as Chubb to start offering workplace-violence insurance. According to InsureCast, the average workplace-violence episode costs employers US$250,000, with US companies alone losing US$1 billion per year in worker compensation claims as a result.

Globally, workplace stress and violence may cause damage equivalent to as much as 3.5 per cent of total economic output. In Australia, bullying costs up to A$13 billion a year, or A$17,000 per case.

But bullying and harassment often occur out of sight. In recent years, “mobbing” has become increasingly common in countries including Australia, Germany, the UK and the US.

Chappell and Di Martino classify this behaviour as involving a group of workers ganging up and subjecting a target employee to psychological harassment by making continuous negative remarks, isolating the victim or ridiculing them constantly.

“Workplace violence is the second-leading cause of worksite deaths in the US.”

“The impact on a person of what might appear on the surface to be minor single actions of this type can be devastating,” they write. They found that around 10 to 15 per cent of cases of suicide in Sweden stem from mobbing.

Several organisations contacted by INTHEBLACK declined to discuss their threat management policies.

In Asian nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia, there is a focus on not only corporate employees but also domestic workers, and the instance of abuse against them is a growing problem, says Human Rights Watch. A 2000 report by the Asian Migrant Centre found that 13,000 of the 220,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong had suffered some form of sexual abuse – from verbal to physical abuse in the extreme.

Corporate anger

John MacPherson, the deputy managing director for Greater China and North Asia at global risk consultancy Control Risks, says it is common in Asia for disputes with former business partners or employees to descend into confrontation. One of the largest issues is bribery or corporate corruption. When companies terminate or scale down deals with suppliers, it is quite common for them to threaten to reveal unlawful or unethical conduct to the authorities.

The slowing economy in China is only likely to increase the number of business disputes.

“There is a pressure to look at costs and restructure,” says Shanghai-based MacPherson.

“We’ve seen entire factories shut down, partial closures, the white-collar work forced stripped bare. A lot of that restructuring activity ends up in some form of dispute.”

Most disputes in China used to go unnoticed, but disgruntled employees are now more active.

“Workers are increasingly better organised through social media and are using pressure tactics to protect their rights,” Control Risks states in a report.

“Many workers do not trust formal channels for addressing grievances and may feel the need to take measures into their own hands.”

“Corporate anger” is increasingly seen as a legitimate way of settling commercial disagreements. “It is becoming a more and more accepted way of managing disputes to do this through the use of threats or coercive relations,” MacPherson says.

“The publicity around labour disputes and protests – in social media, not necessarily mainstream media – has legitimised this form of protest.”

There were 569 labour disputes in China in the fourth quarter of 2014, according to the China Labour Bulletin, three times the number of the previous year. Guangdong province sees the most incidents, but the rate is picking up in Shandong, Jiangsu and Shanghai.

Dealing with a threat

With a much lower level of firearm ownership than the US, Asia typically sees a different form of violence. Threat managers say that 90 per cent of cases are straightforward and easy to handle, with a low level of risk.

Yet employees often don’t have any experience evaluating a threat. They therefore can’t assess the level of danger that they face. All they see is peril.

So the first step is fear management, to calm and handle the victim. After that, it is quite often most effective not to respond to the threat.

“For many threats the simplest and most effective thing to do is simply ignore them,” MacPherson says. “If there is low capability, ignoring the threat means they will go away and try someone else.”

The second phase of a response is to limit access to the victim. Change where they work. Alter their work hours. For inter-office intimidation, shift their role within the company or their chain of command.

“The interesting things about China is that there is a lot of sabre rattling that occurs and very little violence.” John MacPherson, Control Risks

For corporate threats, the company can also ignore a threatening business partner. If the company opts to engage with their “enemy”, it is vital to develop a strategy for negotiation in such a “coercive environment”. This involves devising a strictly managed business plan, legally binding on the perpetrator, that will put an end to any dispute.

Control Risks conducts a formal analysis in each case, assessing the motivation and capability of the threat. And in Asia, cases generally involve a high level of motivation but a low level of capability, MacPherson says.

“The interesting things about China is that there is a lot of sabre rattling that occurs and very little violence,” he says.

“There tends to be a lot of threats, a lot of shouting, a lot of detentions and blocking people on sites. But it rarely escalates into physical violence.”

One problem in Asia is that companies only tend to seek threat-management advice because they have already had an incident. This means the serious cases in Asia have a higher risk profile. The company has been slower to respond, allowing problems to simmer. In some jurisdictions, there aren’t such things as restraining orders on the books, and patterns of behaviour such as stalking are not classified as a crime.

Mental health issues

Another complication in some threat situations is that an employee or business partner may be experiencing a serious mental illness. “Many countries in Asia have a very different take on mental health problems,” Karpela says.

“They have no idea of proper threat assessment or management, or mental health issues.”

For instance, in one of Karpela’s cases, a former employee had become extremely delusional and believed that an old colleague was planning to kill him. It was necessary to reach out to the perpetrator’s family to defuse the situation.

While business disputes may often be best handled by ignoring the threat, cases involving former employees or partners are more complicated. For stalking cases involving ex-boyfriends or husbands – 80 per cent of stalkers are male – the situation is particularly dangerous. Often, the perpetrator’s motive is to have control over their victim or target.

“Often the motivations can be far complex,” MacPherson says. At that point, the key thing is ensuring that the target of the threat is safe.

“We provide protection, and move them to a safe location while the threat peaks.”

As for those bikers threatening Karpela, it turned out he had nothing to worry about – he and his family could safely stay home. The bikers were much more focused on their business (and their bikes) than embarking on a drawn-out feud.

Going postal?

The expression “going postal” arose after a series of tragic events involving aggrieved US Postal Service staff. In August 1986, postman Patrick Sherrell killed 14 colleagues and wounded another six at the Edmond Post Office in Oklahoma. In 1991, dismissed postal worker Joseph Harris killed four people in New Jersey. The following month, sacked postman Thomas McIlvane killed four in a Michigan post office. There were more shootings in 1993 and 2006.

But an analysis of data from 1983 to 1993 showed that the work-related homicide rate for US postal workers was 0.63 per 100,000, actually slightly less than the national average of 0.64 per 100,000. Postal workers were, however, much more likely than others to be killed by their co-workers.

This may have been related to another issue: discrimination. Although postal employees make up 18.6 per cent of the US federal workforce, in 2010 the agency accounted for 40.2 per cent of counselling incidents to do with discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported.

This article is from the June issue of INTHEBLACK.

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