On Feb. 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., pulled the fire alarm and gunned down 17 people as they evacuated the building. Tragic events of this nature repeat themselves far too often in America, but there is one thing about this event that stands out as unique: Many people saw it coming. Before his expulsion from school, his classmates avoided him. His writings were ominous and threatening. He declared on social media that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter,” which was even reported to the FBI. Previously, police had been called to the Cruz home 39 times since 2010. The fact that so few were surprised to hear Cruz identified as the shooter makes this event exceptionally tragic.
One of the myths about mass violence is that people just snap and start killing people. After the Virginia Tech massacre in which Seung-Hui Cho killed 32, one tearful young lady being interviewed by a reporter said, “He just snapped! There wasn’t anything we could have done.”
No. He didn’t just “snap.” But that’s the sound bite that makes its way into the majority of eyewitness accounts in media coverage of heinous acts of violence, whether it happens on campuses or in American workplaces. In fact, at least two professors at the institute found Cho’s behavior leading up to the massacre to be growing more disturbing. He had intimidated several female students, and his writings began to take on more violent and obscene themes. On at least two occasions leading up to the shooting, Cho received a verbal warning from campus police regarding stalking complaints.
It is not possible to pre-identify those who commit such acts based on a personality profile or employment screening. However, there are easily recognized patterns of changes in behavior that justify an elevated level of attention to employees who demonstrate them. These changes are what should command an alert supervisor’s attention.
What Should Get Your Attention?
Keep in mind that these are indicators of stress, not predictors of violence. They should always be taken in context and together. This means observing the patterns, frequency and intensity of the behaviors, as well as the number of different behaviors. It’s especially important to observe and note changes in an employee’s behavior. The observance of these behaviors should command the attention and care of supervisors, and evaluations should be undertaken concerning appropriate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the entire workplace.
Job Performance Indicators
Pay attention to increases in absenteeism or lateness. Does the employee have a growing disregard for the safety of others? If work quality suffers, along with refusal to acknowledge the problem, or if the worker seems confused, distracted or unable to focus, these things warrant your attention.
Is the employee taking more sick days, staying off longer than expected or complaining of illness at work? Have they had a sudden weight loss or gain or been neglectful of personal hygiene? These things may be indicators of significant stress.
This might include crying, screaming, sulking or other passive-aggressive behaviors. Have they overreacted to criticism or thrown temper tantrums? These are stress indicators, especially if they represent a change in behavior.
Do they blame others for their own mistakes? Do they persistently complain about being treated unfairly or endlessly talk about the same problems without solving them? These are signs of stress.
Changes in Social Behavior
You should take note of increased conflict with other workers and/or withdrawing from workers they had previously associated with.
Expressions of Desperation
Statements similar to these: “I don’t know what I’m going to do!” “I don’t think I can stand this much more.” “Somebody has to do something!” Any talk of suicide is a red-flag behavior that cannot be ignored. It’s often a very short distance between the decision to do violence to oneself and the decision to do violence to others.
Of particular concern should be an escalating pattern in which the employee is visibly hungover on the job or begins arriving at work under the influence of intoxicating substances. At-risk employees and substance abuse is a very dangerous combination.
Romantic Obsession at the Workplace
While romantic involvements in the workplace are fairly common, and may or may not be addressed by company policy, unreciprocated romantic obsessions are another matter. A rebuff from the object of the employee’s obsession can be a powerful trigger event for violence.
Statements Indicating Identification with Perpetrators of Violence
When workplace violence makes the news somewhere, they may make comments to the effect: “Sometimes I think I know how they feel.” “I guess there’s a limit to how much you can take.” “We’re probably not getting the whole story.” “I guess they figured they had nothing to lose. I know what that’s like.”
What Can You Do?
If these behaviors are observed, but thus far no threats have been expressed and no threatening behavior has been reported, this simple approach is often very effective:
- Establish concern for the employee.
- Observe behaviors without judgment.
- Express empathy.
- Invite to dialogue.
- Collaborate on a solution.
Connecting with an at-risk employee who is demonstrating any combination of the behaviors listed opens the door to at least two positive outcomes. First, you as a supervisor earn the influence to prompt the employee to seek help and support. If your organization has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you can encourage him or her to seek help there. Secondly, sometimes an empathetic inquiry is all that is needed to open up the kind of ongoing dialogue that can address grievances and correct problems. This will also make the employee more open to suggestion that, in the absence of an EAP, he or she seek help from an outside source. Preventing workplace violence is about breaking the chain of events that lead up to it. Early and effective engagement, even if it seems uncomfortable, can preserve the safety of your entire workplace.
Gary Sheely is a tactical confrontation specialist focusing on workplace violence issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.