How do I handle a death threat from an employee?
Dear Bulls Eye:
All threats of violence in the workplace, whether stated directly or indirectly, should be taken very seriously (unless of course it's female-to-male threats, and then it's just heavy flirting; if you missed third grade, girls who hit are just big flirts).
According to the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of
Violent Crime, workplace violence can involve assaults with or without
physical battery (i.e. pushing, shoving, etc.), acts of sabotage,
vandalism, or other threatening actions such as brandishing a
weapon.The most common type of workplace violence are written or verbal
assaults, such as threats to cause bodily harm or death.
Bynes, president of the Center for Aggression Management, said that
"verbal threats, intimidation, and fistfights appear to be the most
pervasive problems in the workplace." He added that beyond the 2
million assaults each year, there are 6 million instances of employees
being verbally threatened and 16 million more cases of employees being
harassed. Clearly, being threatened by an employee is not that unusual,
which in itself is rather alarming.
If you become aware of a threat against you or another employee, contact your supervisor immediately, who should then contact your human resource office, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office, and security or law enforcement department. With all the crazy shootings these days and federal law prohibiting guns in the workplace (even for protection), you'd be a sitting duck in cubicle land if someone ever went off the deep end. Better to be careful then on a gurney.
When you do express your concerns to your supervisor or HR division, be prepared to answer these following questions:
1) When, where and at what time you received the threat;
2) What was the exact wording, if possible, of the threat;
3) What was your initial response to the threat;
4) Were there ever previous incidents you have had with the employee; and
5) Has the employee ever made any other threats?
It's important to have all of your facts available regarding the death threat. Unfortunately, death threats are often not taken at face value because they are simply hard to prove, especially if you don't have a witness. But use your instincts; if you fear someone is going all De Niro in Taxi Driver, push for an investigation.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) states that there may be a need to keep the threatening employee away from the work site to ensure safety while the investigation is being conducted. For the short-term, supervisors can place the employee on paid administrative leave or if possible, relocate them to another work site or division if there is a source of conflict (not just to give the problem to someone else; that's just for promoting poor performers). Long-term options may include issuing disciplinary actions (i.e., alternative discipline, demotion, reprimand, warning), indefinite suspension or indefinite enforced leave.
Of course, another option is for the recipient of the threat or harassment to simply find another place of employment. This situation happens too often because employers or managers maintain an "it can't happen here" mentality, so victims of workplace violence end up quitting their jobs.
If there is no imminent threat and your question is at this point
theoretical, you may want to review OPM's handbook, Dealing with Workplace Violence: A Guide for Agency Planners,
which provides insightful guidelines on how to deal with various types
of workplace violence. However, it is the responsibility of each
departmental agency to develop their own guidelines and policies.
Bureaupat is familiar with several federal agencies that still have not
developed internal policies and/or guidelines even though OPM's
guidance has been out for over 11 years, so you and your Agency may be
winging it. If so, lead them to the OPM website or get your colored folders together and start pushing paper; the policy will take seven to ten months to get approval on at the speed of gov.
One word of warning: if a threat has been made, sitting down to discuss work disagreements or disputes is
simply not a viable option. Talk of employees "going postal"
may be amusing when it's at someone else's office, but not when it hits
Doug Kane of Risk Control Strategies, a threat management and risk assessment firm that specializes in workplace violence prevention, said that in 2006 approximately "86 percent of past workplace violence incidents were visibly apparent to co-workers" and had been brought to management's attention "prior to an incident occurring." Kane added that the most disturbing part is that 75 percent of these incidents "continued to develop as a result of management's inaction or inappropriate actions."
Regardless of the presence or lack of policy for dealing with workplace violence threats, do not hesitate to report the threat to your immediate supervisor or someone in management whom you feel will take your concern seriously. Hopefully, your agency will err on the side of caution to provide a cooling off period and properly investigate the situation before taking proper precautionary action. And if they don't, you might also consider crushing up some Valium and/or Paxil and slipping it into the coffee machine.