Changing Horizons in Threat Assessment

You have likely heard the phrase that change is inevitable. This is certainly true however I do not think anyone could have predicted the rapid speed at which change is happening right now in the world because of COVID-19. With governmental lockdowns resulting in isolation, employer-imposed work from home or do not work at all strategies, and new weapons in workplace violence emerging, leadership teams have a lot to think about. Let us look at three pressing changes companies should be considering as they begin to focus on the future.

Work from Home

Over the past few years, the number of remote workers or those working from home has steadily been on the rise. Historically, the determination as to whether someone should work from home was typically based on a variety of factors. For example, the type of job that an employee held and whether the function could be performed remotely. Or, if the supervisor believed the employee had the capacity or self-motivation to work in isolation. Whatever the deciding factor(s), the reality is, not all people are productive when working from home and some prefer not to. Many employees desire the social connection gained from the in-office experience as in many ways, it serves as their coping mechanism.

With the emergence of COVID-19, many employers were forced to lay off or furlough staff or provide work-from-home accommodations. Few employees have remained in the workplace and among those who have stayed, there are increases in employees expressing fear of being exposed to COVID-19. As corporate leaders are evaluating their return to work policies, some are looking at the pandemic as a sign that perhaps their concerns of remote work accommodations are no longer justified. They have discovered that their business can function fine with employees working remotely, saving millions in real estate costs, operational and organizational expenditures, etc. This idea has been expressed openly with examples where authors cite “some employers will choose to downsize their leases or look for flexible office space rather than long-term leases”. Hopefully, the decision to work from home is not made exclusively between corporate real estate, finance, and the C-Suite due to the impact that such a judgement can have across a company. For example, the risk of fringe benefit perceptions, discrimination among different classes of employees, and thoughts by an employee that they are being victimized could surface. Involving Human Resources, Security, and the greater Threat Assessment team, if one exists, is wise.

New Weapons

When the term workplace violence is mentioned, the knee jerk reaction is to assume that the perpetrator used a firearm. What if the weapon of the future is not necessarily a gun, but a biological matter? Globally, people are responding in desperation to avoid the risk of infection. Illustrating this, a man recently jumped from his apartment balcony after he could not access health facilities for kidney dialysis treatment due to fears of coronavirus infection. Some of the responses are evidenced in how people are threatening others. For example, I have personally seen an increase in cases where individuals are threatening others by saying they will infect them with COVID-19 through contact or proximity. In Argentina anonymous letters were received by a pharmacist working with COVID-19 patients stating “You are going to infect us all” …. “Go away”. These notes were followed by inferences that if anyone gets the illness in the building “it will be the last thing you do in your life”. Seasoned threat assessment professionals are experienced enough to recognize that regardless of whether the threat is real, the fear that the victim feels is. This mindset will require a bit of evolution in how security teams assess threats and determine appropriate means for management. 

Target Transference

Throughout the world, we have witnessed protests towards elected officials by individuals that feel the lockdown orders during COVID-19 are too harsh. Migrant workers stranded without work or a way to get home have been seen demonstrating in Mumbai. Citizens of Lebanon have complained about lockdown conditions in a country already teetering on the edge of financial instability. In the U.S. protest groups have rallied against inconsistent proclamations from state-to-state on how best to manage the current sheltering requirements. These objections and the current isolation conditions have fed into a growing level of distrust and anger, if not hatred for governments in some cases. Naturally, as individuals begin to fixate on government mandated lockdowns, they start to identify their angst with the leader(s) of those governments, whether it is a mayor or state governor for example. While many persons threatening harm in this environment are merely being outspoken, some will unfortunately proceed past expression and move beyond grievance with a means to resolve their concerns through violence. This is already evident in some of the cases I have seen presented to threat teams supporting many elected officials.

It may be assumed at this point, nearing the end of lockdown for some localities, that the return to normalcy will ease stress levels. Unfortunately, not everyone’s circumstances are going to change for the better soon. Loss of life and livelihood will have a long-lasting impact on society. Individuals may be facing additional stressors that were not present before. Loss of financial stability, long-term health implications, and significant interruption in coping mechanisms can all have a greater impact on how individuals manage stress. The question for threat assessment professionals going forward is not necessarily if these individuals will continue to harbor these feelings. Their situations will not drastically improve as the stresses remain. The question may more appropriately be, will the targets of their anger shift from elected officials to others?

It is reported that there have been nearly 200 incidents of political violence in India. Many of the circumstances had themes surrounding curfew violations, mob violence against healthcare workers, and targeting of individuals suspected of spreading the virus. We are witnessing individual fears escalating towards violence against others and in some cases, towards people who were not the root cause of their fear. Within the mental health field, the term transference is used to describe when a person directs some of their feelings or desires for another person to an entirely different person. We have seen this happen towards the children of public figures in Dr. Reid Meloy’s research “Approaching and Attacking Public Figures: A Contemporary Analysis of Communications and Behavior”. Dr. Meloy references nonpsychotic transference, “the shifting of emotions from one’s own children…. onto the offspring of the public figure”. Is it possible we will witness a transfer from elected officials and government representatives to a new population?

All of this may start to gain some clarity in the coming weeks. As some corporate leaders are considering extended work-from-home scenarios, 30-60-90 days or longer, than that dictated by local governments, we very well could see a shift. Individuals significantly struggling with heightened stressors may likely maintain elevated stress levels after government lockdowns subside. They will not immediately go back to a normal baseline. To receive guidance from their employers that they won’t be returning to the office may extend their stressors and result in a realignment to a new target. The underlying assumption that a recession is coming and reductions in force are likely over the next 12 months does not help the situation either. So now these individuals begin to possibly align their grievances with a new group – their corporate leadership.

All these potential scenarios are going to have an impact on how employers manage their employee base in the coming months. Company executives and the Threat Assessment team need to begin thinking through these situations and formulating strategies to prepare for the potential of a heightened level of risk. For AT-RISK International, we have encouraged companies to take on aggressive approaches to employee engagement before the threshold of stress overcomes individual coping capabilities. We strongly suggest companies take the following steps in the next few weeks and anticipate these efforts will be long lasting, at least into this time 2021:

  1. Increase the frequency of meetings with your Threat Assessment team. These meetings should include briefings from Human Resources, Finance, and Security on organization-wide changes that may occur such as work-from-home policies and classes of employees impacted, along with planned reductions in force, even if hypothetical
  2. Increase the outreach and collaboration between the C-Suite, Executive Protection, Protective Intelligence, and the Threat Assessment teams. These individuals must be in synch to detect early shifts in manners of communication and engagement with the public and employee base. Engaging with the Communications department may also assist with pulse checks on general sentiments towards leadership
  3. Lastly, even if you are a small to mid-size organization and don’t have the above teams, figure out now how to build a framework to help ensure you are capturing employee behavioral data beyond just the expression of threats, but performance and general proclamation of dissatisfaction. If need be, engage a third-party consultancy to develop or manage these programs

At this point in time, the future is foggy at best and the current state we are in can be overwhelming for people that cannot see the end soon enough. And even when that end comes, uncertainly and job in-security will prevail for at least the next year. Let us collectively take the steps now to reduce the risk of violence or harm in the workplace, so we are not reporting in 2021 about significantly elevated workplace violence statistics.