When Fellow or Former Employees Present a Safety Risk

The December 2013 issue of School Nutrition offered readers pragmatic advice for ensuring that cafeteria and kitchen areas are safe havens and not security risks in the article, “Protect & Defend.” There’s been a lot of national attention on school-related violence being perpetuated by troubled teens. But with all the talk about beefing up security at schools—locking doors, issuing identification cards, etc.—it’s worth noting that it’s also important to keep a keen eye out for any internal threats. Author Patrick White notes that disgruntled or disturbed employees, along with their family members, also can pose a danger within the workplace.

Jon Dickl, child nutrition director, Knox County (Tenn.) Schools, has dealt with exactly these scenarios in recent years. “We had a manager who was under disciplinary action and was under investigation and had to be removed from our school,” he explains of one case. “I started receiving threatening e-mails from her husband.” The communications started with name calling and then escalated. Dickl never replied to any of the e-mails. “We never discuss personnel issues with family members,” Dickl emphasizes. “But the more silent I was, the more aggressive he became.”

In 2010, a principal and assistant principal in the district where shot by a disgruntled teacher—both fortunately survived. But the incident served to make Dickl and others working in the district keenly aware of how serious such situations can become.

In the case related to his former school nutrition manager, Dickl quickly reported the situation to school security staff, who sent a cease-and-desist letter to the person involved. “In this day and age, you have to take everything seriously,” advises Dickl. “Any kind of danger or harassment has to be reported and responded to.”

Though there was never any explicit threat issued, the tone and tenor was of enough concern that, at one point, Dickl called his wife to make sure the doors and windows at home were locked. “Like a lot of school nutrition directors, it’s dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home. So, for a good couple of weeks I found myself seriously looking over my shoulder. I even considered purchasing a weapon,” he recalls of the experience.

Since that incident, Dickl made the decision to change to an unlisted phone number to reduce the risk of someone from locating his home address. “Today, information is so available on the web that it doesn’t take someone very long, especially if your phone number is public, to find out where you live,” he explains.

More recently, one of Dickl’s supervisors had to alert an employee that she was being moved to a different school following complaints that she was being hostile to her co-workers. The meeting didn’t go well. “She made it clear to some people there that she owned a gun and got almost physically confrontational with the supervisor and threatened her,” he recounts. The police subsequently filled out a report on the matter, and school security escorted the members of the school nutrition team in and out of the building in subsequent days. Dickl says it’s critical for coworkers and managers to report any instance of threatening behavior, so that the proper precautions can be taken when dealing with the abusive individual.

George Boue is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management’s (www.shrm.org) special expertise panel on workplace safety and security. He reinforces the message that it’s critical to keep a watchful eye out for any sort of behavior that might turn violent. “In the very beginning, with pre-employment, it’s important to do a background check,” says Boue. “But it can be the case where someone’s been working at the school for a long time but something changes—everybody goes through issues and challenges and stressors in life.”

The challenge, he says, is for managers to actually know their employees so that they’re aware of life changes that might create problems in the workplace. “Most managers are averse to getting involved in employees’ private lives, perhaps because they’re worried about facing a discrimination lawsuit,” he notes. “But I try to tell managers that they have a responsibility to understand the person, as well as the worker.” He also advises that if they perceive an issue but aren’t comfortable confronting it directly, they should report it to the human resources department or some other administrative leader.

Another challenge is to differentiate the routine from the extreme. “Everyone can get a little distressed or upset, but it’s different when there’s a perception that someone could be violent,” says Boue.

Steve Albrect, author of Fear and Violence on the Job and a blog on www.psychologytoday.com called “Aggression in the Workplace,” asserts that it’s often fellow employees, rather than managers, who are in the best position to spot potentially dangerous situations. “Co-workers often have a lot of knowledge that the administration doesn’t have,” says Albrect, a former police officer.

He notes that the Secret Service uses the term “third-party leakage” to describe clues sometimes provided by dangerous individuals before they act. “If someone wants to shoot the cafeteria manager, for example, they won’t tell the cafeteria manager, but they’ll tell a co-worker,” Albrect explains. “People who do warn the target are often really trying to draw attention to themselves, [trying to] be provocative and create turmoil and fear. The person who really wants to do it is the one who won’t warn the target, but they will tell somebody within their inner circle: family, friends, co-workers.”

In his trainings, Albrect stresses that the challenge is to help employees have the courage to come forward with this third-party leakage. “Sometimes this [effort is] hurt when the administration either under-reacts or over-reacts, when what they need is a measured response,” he warns. “Say, ‘Thank you, I’ll bet it took courage to report this. Now we’ll figure out what to do.’”

But how to know when to take perceived dangers seriously? Albrect says he starts by looking at the behavior of the employee in question: “Is that person an ‘injustice collector,’ where they constantly think people are trying to get them? Those people will share that information with co-workers, saying, ‘I’m getting screwed,’ Other people are getting credit for my work,’ ‘My boss is trying to ruin my career.’ Everyone feels disgruntled at some point, but these people take it to the level where people [become] concerned.”

Another sign that alerts Albrect is when employees talk about using violence to solve their problems, or when they make references to a past case of violence. “If they say, ‘That kid at Sandy Hook really took care of business, didn’t he? People didn’t mess around with him,’ that’s frightening to me,” he notes. “Because reasonable, ethical people wouldn’t use a shooting at another school as a touchstone for what they want to do.”

Depression and substance abuse are other warnings that could signal impending workplace problems, he adds. “And big off-the-job issues, such as divorce or domestic violence; or big on-the-job issues, such as facing a hostile disciplinary action or termination, can create this situations,” explains Albrect.

Lynnelle Grumbles, child nutrition director at Visalia (Calif.) Unified School District, recently dealt with a threatening employee who exhibited many of the signs referenced by Albrect. “We had an employee who became violent on campus and came onto other campuses looking for [me] and one of our managers, so we felt it was best to get a restraining order against her,” Grumbles explains. The district’s human resources department worked with the police to complete that paperwork; the individual did come back onto school property several more times and the police were called to remove her.

The situation began when the employee, who reportedly suffered from paranoia and other mental health issues and sometimes stopped taking medication, made comments to fellow workers, who reported them to authorities. “She made comments to other employees about a bomb. When we talked to her about that, she became angry,” recounts Grumbles. “Then, she was working a cash register, and her till was a little short, which is a common thing. But when the manager talked with her about it, she banged her fists on the window and stormed out making some comments that she would come back to ‘get’ them.”

Though frightening, Grumbles took the experience in stride. “It’s part of work,” she says. “It’s just something you have to deal with on the job. And I’m sure I’m not alone.”

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