Special Topics in Safety Management

How to Deal Effectively with Threats and Threatening Behavior

“Dealing with threats and/or threatening behavior—detecting them, evaluating them, and finding a way to address them—may be the single most important key to preventing violence,” says the FBI.

Frequently violent incidents in the workplace are preceded by threats or threatening behavior. The FBI points out that threats may be “explicit or veiled, spoken or unspoken, specific or vague.” In other instances, behavior might suggest the potential for some type of violent act to occur. Sometimes even casual comments made to co-workers could suggest a potential problem (for example, a worker who talks a lot about guns or other weapons).

Any effective workplace violence prevention strategy must include measures to detect, assess, and manage threats and threatening behavior.

But what actually constitutes a threat? The dictionary defines a threat as “a statement or expression of intention to hurt, destroy, punish, etc., as in retaliation or intimidation.”

The problem with this definition is that it tends to rely on a subjective, rather than objective, evaluation. Who determines when an intention to hurt has been expressed? A purely subjective determination (that is, whatever makes someone feel threatened is a threat) is “an uncertain guide for behavior, since different people can respond differently to the same words or acts,” says the FBI.

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“That does not mean that subjective factors can or should be completely excluded from the definition,” says the FBI. “Employees can and should be held responsible for a reasonable regard for the feelings and concerns of co-workers and others in the workplace, and employers properly have an obligation to make sure employees do not feel frightened or intimidated.”

Therefore your workplace violence prevention policy should address threats from both an objective and subjective perspective. “It must set reasonably explicit standards of behavior so employees know how they are expected to act or not act; it must also make clear to employees that no one has a right to make anyone else feel threatened,” according to the FBI.

A definition of “threat” for a violence prevention policy might go something like this: “An inappropriate behavior, verbal or nonverbal communication, or expression that would lead to the reasonable belief that an act has occurred or may occur which may lead to physical and/or psychological harm to the threatener, to others, or to property.” Or this: “Any verbal or physical conduct that threatens property or personal safety or that reasonably could be interpreted as an intent to cause harm.”

Threat Assessment

The FBI says that effective threat assessment involves two steps:

  • An evaluation of the threat
  • An evaluation of the threatener

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“Together, these evaluations can help lead to an informed judgment on whether someone who has made a threat is likely to carry it out—a determination that has been described as ‘differentiating when someone is making a threat versus posing a threat’,” says the FBI.

The assessment can also help you determine the most appropriate response, whether that be counseling, discipline, or discharge.

The FBI says that a good threat assessment will thoroughly analyze:

  • The exact nature and context of the threat and/or threatening behavior
  • The identified target (general or specific)
  • The threatener’s apparent motivation
  • The threatener’s ability to carry out the threat
  • The threatener’s background, including work history, criminal record, mental health history, military history, and past behavior on the job