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Workplace Violence Prevention News

The Workplace Violence Incident....that almost happened.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Workplace Violence Incident

….that almost happened


NOTE:  The names of the organization and the individual described here have been changed out of respect and privacy concerns.

Earlier this month a man in small Northern California town got into a disagreement with his neighbor, fired a shot at him, luckily missing his intended victim and then when police arrived he walked into the street and  committed suicide.   This story went mostly unnoticed by people unless you happened to have a personal connection to the people involved.  On the surface it would appear that this was simply another tragic reflection of our society.   However, for a major local employer it was sobering lesson in how close they may have come to their own tragedy.

The Difficult Customer

Joe Smith was a 50 something aged man who, for the most part, did not draw a lot of attention to himself for any reason other than being odd.  He was, however, well known to the staff at Acme Services.  He had been to the facility on several occasions and had proven to be a very difficult customer.   He often disputed charges he had incurred and made regular threats to harm staff.   Management was struggling to find the right balance between continuing to provide service and protecting its staff.  This was complicated by the fact that Acme Services was the only provider in town.   

One particularly heated exchange between Joe Smith and Acme staff resulted in law enforcement being contacted and Mr. Smith being placed on a temporary mental health hold.   The tension between Joe Smith and Acme was at an extremely high level.   As a condition of the mental health evaluation, Mr. Smith’s firearms were temporarily seized.   Now he was really angry with Acme Services; not only had they billed him unnecessarily, they were also responsible for his legal problems. Understandably, Acme’s staff were very considered about their personal safety and reached out to management for guidance and support.  Local law enforcement also warned Acme’s management that Mr. Smith was very angry with them and posed a real threat.   However, law enforcements options were still limited as Mr. Smith had not “crossed the line.”

Will a restraining order prevent workplace violence?

 Among the options Acme management was considering was placing armed guards and possibly getting a restraining order against Mr. Smith.  One thing they knew for sure, they needed to separate themselves from Mr. Smith. One of the first steps Acme did was to forgive the disputed debt that Mr. Smith owed.   Working with Acme’s management team we advised them that in this particular case obtaining a restraining order would likely only infuriate Mr. Smith further.  He had already displayed his willingness to operate outside the bounds of social acceptable behavior; a piece of paper was not likely to stop him. Acme decided against obtaining a restraining order.    Acme also opted against armed security, but did make certain that all staff were made aware of the situation, knew what Mr. Smith looked like, and reviewed in house security procedures.

Shortly after being released from the mental health hold Mr. Smith was able to recover his firearms (..that’s a whole different discussion.)   Acme became aware of his release through channels in the community, but was not sure about his level of frustration and anger with their organization.  However, after a few days passed it was appearing that their approach of disengaging from him was working.  He had not contacted them nor sought out services from them.   The next time they heard about Mr. Smith was after he got into the violent confrontation with his neighbor.  It was then that managers at Acme Services realized just how serious a threat Mr. Smith had been.  In this particular case, not seeking a restraining order appearead to be the right decision.

Too Close for Comfort

The incident with Mr. Smith has become a motivator for change at Acme Services.  They are now expanding their violence prevention program, paying particular attention to how they evaluate and responds to threatening behavior.  Acme was fortunate in that they had an opportunity to learn from their experience without having to experience a painful lesson.

About the Author :

Hector Alvarez is the founder of Alvarez Associates, a firm specializing in violence prevention, assessment, management and response.    Having been both a security director for a major national critical infrastructure and a city police officer, he has built over 25 years of experience in the field of violence prevention. He understands the challenges organizations and communities face addressing the threat of violence.  Hector has the privilege of working with organizations, both corporate and community based to build safer communities through keynote speeches, workshops, security assessments, trainings and behavioral threat assessments.

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