Many of the decisions made in the interest of protecting people are knee-jerk reactions that follow horrifying incidents. Each incident forms the basis for physical changes to facilities that would prevent a recurrence of the incident.
If the latest workplace mass shooter busts down the front door to gain access, other workplaces quickly reinforce their front doors. If the next shooter smuggles weapons in under his clothes, you can count on companies adding airport-style screening to detect hidden objects. If the incident that follows involves someone shooting through the windows, the call will be for bulletproof glass.
The company leaders who react this way are well-meaning, but they’re approaching safety and security challenges by thinking about the wrong things. They’re focused on conducting threat assessments of their buildings, but they’d be much better off if they instead focused on conducting threat assessments of the people who occupy and visit those buildings. After all, a building never shot, bombed, or took similar deliberate actions to hurt other people, but every violent act that has ever occurred in a business, a school, or a house of worship has been perpetuated by people.
Recently, while reading a book by John Douglas, who was one of the FBI agents responsible for studying criminal behavior and creating what we now know as profilers, I was struck by a comment. In talking about sadistic serial killers, Douglas noted that many people try to blame popular media or pornography for their actions. While it’s true that some of these killers may act out what they’ve seen, the more important point was that they would still kill if they hadn’t seen the media or pornography. They would just do it in a different way. In other words, the drive to harm someone else comes from inside them, not from what they have seen.
An exhaustive FBI study of violent events such as school and workplace shootings came to a similar conclusion. While most people believe such events were triggered by some kind of emotional overload on the criminal’s part, the study said, “these are not spontaneous, emotion-driven, impulsive crimes emanating from a person’s immediate anger or fear.”
Instead, the FBI concluded the vast majority of these violent incidents were carefully planned and thought out over a period of time. Mass shooters and their ilk act in a calculated fashion, not because they “lose it” over something. What they do are not crimes of opportunity. So if you prevent them from choosing their first option, they’ll find another. Keep them from entering the front door, and they’ll come in through the loading dock. Reinforce all your entrances, and they may switch their target to the parking lot or the bus stop in front of your business.
What does that mean in terms of the safety and security of your employees? We tend to focus on security by thinking in terms of buildings and systems. When a company conducts a threat assessment, the normal approach is to examine the property closely, identify areas of vulnerability, and then take steps to address those areas. It’s kind of a real-world version of that whack-a-mole game kids play in arcades.
What companies should be doing is conducting threat assessments of people. The better we understand how potential dangers such as workplace shooters think and behave, and the more emphasis we put on observing and acting upon their behaviors, the better we can be at preventing incidents in the first place.
An excellent example is domestic violence. Studies have shown that in 54 percent of mass shootings, domestic violence has been a contributing factor. So if a company learns that an employee has been charged with domestic violence — or that an employee is involved in a violent relationship — there’s justification for getting involved and taking precautions. That’s especially true when you consider that domestic violence typically intensifies over time.
The same may be true for bullying in the workplace. Companies may ignore conflicts between employees, expecting the adults involved to solve them on their own. But when those conflicts escalate into violence, everyone may be at risk.
Companies that sell security devices and systems market them by describing how they address specific physical risks — and they do serve a role in protecting people. But employers owe it to their employees to go beyond a whack-a-mole approach to pay attention to the underlying behaviors that create a need for those security products in the first place.
Mike McCarty is the chief executive officer of Danville-based Safe Hiring Solutions.