In our job as Threat Assessment experts, we frequently go into workplaces where an employee’s behavior has come to the attention of HR or management for being inappropriate, bullying, or downright threatening. And, as a part of the Threat Assessment process, we always inquire about the history of the present concern, and speak with individuals who have been identified as possible witnesses to the behaviors in question. Almost without fail, we also find that the behaviors that are now being investigated have gone on longer than was originally thought, and were witnessed or experienced by individuals, sometimes repeatedly, who never came forward to report the behavior. We’ve even seen this happen in work environments where prevention training has occurred, and policy and reporting expectations for potential workplace violence are made clear to employees. So what gives?
One common explanation that we find is that when human beings are confronted with an event that is scary or intimidating, we often feel a need to dismiss the sense of threat. We rationalize and explain away disturbing behavior as a coping mechanism. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say in response to a threat:
“I don’t think he meant it”
This is an example of where an individual hears comments that concern them (“If they don't lay off me, I’m going to go postal.”), but override their intuition and convince themselves that the person didn’t really mean it. If he didn’t mean it, then we can move on and shake off our concern, and tell ourselves all is well.
Another way of dismissing these types of behaviors is to normalize conduct that is, in fact, not normal. In these cases we might hear something like:
“That’s just Crazy Dan. He runs up and down the hallways screaming in anger every now and then. He’ll calm down”
This is a good old defensive mechanism that allows us to avoid the truth – it works by trying to make logical the illogical, and avoiding something rather than having to deal with it. We tell ourselves that the behavior is normal (at least for Dan) and that soon his anger will subside and we can all get back to work. If we accept the behaviors as inappropriate, threatening and a violation of policy, then we are confronted with a decision point: to report or not to report. And that presents us with the next dilemma.
Reporting concerning behaviors can inherently carry with it some stigma. In fact people justify not reporting behaviors of concern by saying: “I’m not going to be a snitch.” Truth is, most people don’t wish to get their co-worker, friend, or neighbor in trouble. We don’t like being a “tattletale” and potentially setting the wheels in motion for someone that we work with to face disciplinary action or lose their job. And even worse, if the person is a threat, we don’t want them mad at us! Especially if it’s someone you report to – which brings us to one we have had reported to us many times before:
He’s my boss – and a leader in his field. I will lose my job or there will be hell to pay if I report his threats to HR.
Reporting the behaviors of someone in the organization who is “above us” on the organizational chart can be even more frightening than reporting a co-worker. Fear of retaliation or job loss may be a realistic one, depending on the organization. Reporting someone in a position of authority can be especially difficult, and many accommodate behaviors from superiors that they wouldn’t tolerate from colleagues. And often, regarding executives in particular, employees will claim:
If I report to HR or Leadership they won’t do anything anyway
We’ve frequently heard this from employees who have reported concerns in the past, only to feel that their concerns fell upon deaf ears, weren’t taken seriously, or were explained away. They often walk away feeling like “why did I bother” and share their experience with others, who in turn, feel that it is fruitless to report.
So how do we address non-reporting as an organization?
It’s a good question – and one that probably needs to be looked at from several angles. First, assess the culture of the organization. Is it one that looks the other way, or doesn’t uniformly enforce workplace violence and other compliance policies? Is there a culture of fear, management by intimidation, and favoritism that undermines trust between employees and management?
Cultural assessment is an important component of the success of any safety program - and a culture that overtly or subtly does not live what it professes in its policies will have trouble succeeding. People fear making a report because they don’t know what will happen. They also often feel that they can’t trust management to address the issue – and as a result, don’t report or wait to report until behaviors have risen to a dangerous level. We find that cultures that emphasize safety, transparency and accountability do better in terms of hearing reports about suspect behaviors early, allowing more time for early intervention.
Next, look at your messaging about the importance of reporting. Employees need to hear important information on a regular and repeated basis – whether they are messages about reporting structures, workflows, or safety protocols. Hearing the importance of reporting one time as a part of employee orientation module won’t be enough. Safety and the reporting of concerning behaviors should be emphasized regularly, in large groups and small groups, and woven into the culture as both an expectation and a responsibility for all who work there.
Additionally, we feel it’s really important to message the idea first put by the Department of Homeland Security, “if you see something, say something.” While originally developed as a tool to encourage reporting of possible terrorist activities, it certainly applies to the concept of preventing any kind of violence, including workplace violence.
Finally, walk the talk. If you receive a report, act on it – immediately - whether the report is about an entry level employee or the CEO. Investigate thoroughly and promptly. Thank the individual who reported and let them know their concern will be taken seriously. Emphasize that retaliation for making the report will not be tolerated, and if warranted by the investigation, take decisive and effective action to mitigate the behaviors or the threat in a manner that protects the safety of all employees. Pre-screen professional resources that can be of assistance in high risk situations, such as Threat Assessment, security and legal professionals.
Remember that action speaks volumes, and that employees share their reporting experiences with one another. When they experience an ineffective HR or management response, they tell others. The result? Decreased trust and decreased reporting. Conversely, when employees feel heard and that their report was appropriately received and investigated, they share that as well. A positive reporting experience reinforces the likelihood of reporting for all employees, which can ultimately improve the safety and culture of the work environment.
Co-Written by Wayne Maxey, CPP, CTM and Suzanne Hoffman, Ph.D.