Friday, October 2, 2015

Recognizing and Handling Personal Safety Issues - CIO View

Recent events remind us that we all can be vulnerable in our schools and universities.  While external people are often the sources of violence in our environments, violence in the workplace, triggered by disgruntled and angry employees or former employees, current or former students, is a real issue.  Perhaps we can share insights so we all can better protect ourselves.

I've worked with people who were struggling with personal problems and stress.  In a few and rare situations, a couple folks moved beyond the usual anger and frustration that you can see in tense and stressful working environments.  These are "red flag" cases.  I'm not a psychologist or mental health professional, so I can only speak from personal observations.  Maybe if we all share observations, we can get smarter about how to handle situations and prevent harm to those around us.

What I've observed:
  • Some people can get angry and frustrated easily, but generally, this is an emotional maturity issue that just requires mentoring.  When you talk through a situation with that individual, they hear what you are saying and they are able to see how their anger hurts themselves. 
  • A few people seem to enter onto a path where they are unable to act in their own best interest. Their anger or reasoning of situations leads them to make decisions that are just not beneficial to themselves.  An individual may have angry outbursts in a management meeting or in office hours, and when you approach that person to discuss the situation, the individual justifies the angry outburst and does not reflect on the situation.  And the individual may continue to demonstrate the same behavior, even though you've warned the person about the negative consequences from their behavior.  The individual may over-react to any perceived criticism.   Some people seem to just completely lose the ability to recognize that their actions and responses are working against them.  A defensive and hostile attitude is demonstrated.  The individual is consistently belligerent when behavior is discussed.  
  • One behavior that commonly emerges is ignoring or breaking rules and policies.  It may start small, like not parking in an assigned parking space or not following department procedures for reporting being out of the office.  For a student, it may be not following basic instructions.  Increasingly, the person does not feel the need to comply with basic rules, and when confronted, is unable to comply with rules in a way that is in the individual's best interest.
  • Another typical behavior is isolation.  The individual will separate and not join groups for lunch or campus events.  The individual will not engage or will avoid typical office conversation, even simple stuff like "Did you watch the football game Sunday?".   You may note someone becoming invisible in the department. 
  • One therapist I spoke with suggested that some people need to build up anger, almost to build up a head of steam, to make themselves feel important and to have a real presence.  They feel dis-empowered and invisible.  Demonstrating an angry outburst puts them at the center of all attention.  It gives them a sense of power, because they now control the conversation and the attention.
  • A behavior labeled as grandiosity, a state of being delusional about one's importance, may be displayed.  The individual may appear overly boisterous about his job title, role, or decision-making authority.  Another behavior that can be inappropriately displayed is moral righteousness; the individual believes he or she is are totally right and others are not following the rules.  
When we find these situations on our campuses, we probably try to act specifically:  avoid confrontation, do not question, minimize the situation, and report it to Human Resources or Dean of Students.  You may have a campus behavioral concerns committee, and that group should also be informed.  My personal experience is that when you see someone not able to act in their own best interest, and demonstrating outbursts timed to attract attention and get control of a space, you must confront the behavior immediately and consistently.  You should characterize this as "red flag" behavior.  Lack of confrontation further empowers the individual and over time, the situation worsens.  It does not get better on its own.

In summary, the red flag characteristics:

  • Unexplained, ongoing anger that may appear as a quiet, seething edginess or loud, emotional outbursts.
  • Inability to recognize and act upon a positive path that is in the individual's own best interest.
  • Belligerence or silence when behavior is discussed. 
  • Over-reaction to criticism.
  • Overly defensive or hostile attitude, especially when confronted about unacceptable behavior.
  • Deflects responsibility for unacceptable behavior to other rationales, moral righteousness, or actions from other people.  Accusatory behavior with co-workers. 
  • Breaking rules, even just a series of small rules, and an unwillingness to discuss or correct the behavior.
  • Changing work schedules without approval, disappearing, or working random hours. 
  • Frequently breaking appointments.
  • Isolation from co-workers and the campus community.
  • Repetitively appearing anxious or confused.
  • Behavior displayed as grandiosity.
If you encounter these behaviors, you must start keeping a journal noting the dates, times, attendees or witnesses, and a full description of the disruptive behavior or angry outburst.  Pay attention to the journal for patterns of similar incidents or increasing anger.  Monitor and retain technology messages and note any messages of concern in the journal. 

One challenge is that Human Resources or police (if contacted) will ask you if you or others have been threatened.  For most of us this is harder to answer than we might think, especially outside of a specific event.  I've been in situations where I definitely felt threatened, even though no specific threat was articulated.  I've tried to use words such as intimidation and belligerence.  Sometimes the behavior might be described as harassment.

But it is important to remember that a threat may be non-verbal.  Did the individual stand up?  Stand over you?  Invade your sense of personal space?  Slam a door?  Punch a wall?  These actions can all make you feel threatened, even if no specific verbal threat was issued.  Since we work in technical fields, be aware of threats that may come to us via technical resources (email, social media sites, etc.).  These may contain veiled references to violence.  Campus public safety or police units should be informed of any threat, verbal or non-verbal.  While your one event may not be significant, policing agencies may have a accumulated file of events that they cannot describe or share with you.  Each report matters.

Human Resources often wants to provide cooling off periods or time to mentor the employee.  I believe it is important to recognize the behaviors quickly, confront the behavior promptly, and to report it to Human Resources immediately.   We may need to insist on immediate involvement from Human Resources. We all need to be comfortable communicating the degree that we felt threatened by the situation, and whether we perceive the behavior as escalating over time.    Use your journal to keep other units informed.  Push for attention to the issue.

Some reading that may be useful:

Resources for Preventing Workplace Violence and Bullying

Book:  The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker (Thanks, Craig Blaha, for the recommendation).

I hope you have tactics and strategies that work at your institution that you can share.