For the past 30 years, Laurence Barton, the highest-rated instructor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy and a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, has studied what turns our co-workers into threats.
Unfortunately, his knowledge is in increasing demand. There have already been seven workplace shootings in the U.S. in the last 28 months. To save lives, preparation needs to start before a disgruntled employee enters your building with a gun.
Barton talked with Ladders about how employees can identify and stop unstable, at-risk employees before it’s too late:
Watch out for grievance collectors
We first need to understand that unhappy employees are not necessarily at-risk employees. “Many grievances — whether they are about race, pay scale, or whatever — are legitimate,” Barton told Ladders. But when co-workers cannot stop talking about their grievance, and they keep blowing it out of proportion to the actual grievance, they become grievance collectors, and this personality type is the kind of employee on the path to self-harm or harm to others.
Grievance collectors track minor slights against them obsessively. They call CEOs out in alarming social media posts. Barton said they are likely to keep a timeline of who did them wrong when in a diary or journal. Complaints leave the everyday world of bad bosses and terrible coworkers and into the nefarious world of conspiracy. They become convinced that their company is out to get them. They become dangerously determined to settle the score without a lawyer.
“Anyone can have a bad day, but when they become repeated bad days, we need to get them counseling or separate them from the firm,” Barton said.
Address the grievance seriously
You are an employee, not a cop or a psychiatrist, but you can still help people by treating grievance collectors with the dignity and respect you would want to receive if you were in distress.
Building your situational awareness means not looking the other way when people are clearly troubled. “When people send up a signal that something’s wrong, we need to be listening,” Barton said. Instead of bypassing the co-worker who is crying uncontrollably or making wild claims, address them.
“I’m a big believer in just asking, ‘are you okay?'” he added. “Most people can be talked off the ledge.”
Of course, use your judgment to see if you are the right person to be having this conversation. If the employee is volatile and argumentative, extricate yourself from the situation and escalate conversations to human resources.
Barton said he has asked his clients, “Have you thought about the employees tried giving them a week off with pay, and explaining that their comments are inaccurate, irresponsible, that they are causing alarm for other people?”
Words matter. Barton suggests using the word ‘separate’ over ‘fire.’ Instead of playing into the grievance and saying, ‘I agree,’ tell your aggrieved colleague that you understand. These words may not matter to you, but they may make all the difference to an at-risk employee feeling isolated.
“The person needs to be validated that you, at least, are listening to them,” Barton said. He advises not taking notes in these conversations, particularly if you are HR. They make the conversation seem more like an interrogation. “If you want me to tell you how I feel inside, and you’re sitting there like a transcriber, it feels like a setup.”
Don’t humiliate employees during their exit
Be careful when and how you terminate someone’s employment if the situation escalates to that point.
“Humiliation is often the tripwire for when the person who has risk factors may act on those grievances,” Barton said, citing incidents where an embarrassing exit was the final trigger.
In 2010, for example, Omar Thornton fatally shot eight of his coworkers after being confronted with video of him stealing beer. After being told he could resign or be fired, he chose the former and let himself be escorted from the building. Then he returned back to Hartford Distributors with a gun.
Firing does not even mean you are freed from the person’s endangering influence. You may exhale more easily, but having the person out of sight does not necessarily mean the company is no longer on aggrieved person’s mind. “Sometimes firing is the worst thing people can do,” Barton said. “Once you separate a person, you lose the ability to have accurate surveillance.”
Once the aggrieved person is physically gone, you do not know what he or she is doing.
Ultimately, safety comes with building your instincts and thinking through how you would react to volatile situations. “Pay attention to your intuition,” Barton cautioned. “At work, we turn it way down. I’m not saying be paranoid, but be situationally aware.”