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Warning signs of a potentially violent co-worker - A short interview with Dr. James Campbell











































(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)



Warning signs of a potentially violent co-worker

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Dr. Kenner: I received a phone call from someone who didn't know how to interact with his coworker. Now, this coworker isn't just someone who is a nag, isn't someone who just gets under your skin and they talk too much about their kids. This was someone who was paranoid and acted weird, strange. The boss said he has "issues." Now, the coworkers all had problems with him. They went to the boss. The boss tells them, "Just ignore him. He's got issues. Just don't pay any attention to him." The boss totally was putting blinders over his own eyes. Will something happen at this scene? I don't know. Did I have all the information to give this person an answer of what to do in this type of situation? I had a little because I've been to some conferences, but with me today is Dr. James Campbell, who has a ton of information. He is the Rhode Island Coordinator for the American Psychological Association and the American Red Cross Disaster Response Network, and he's a frequent consultant to corporations regarding crisis response and threat of violence. So that means if you're at work and something is going on, you could call Dr. James Campbell. He is the Director of the University of Rhode Island counseling center and on top of this, you've got a very full life Dr. Campbell, he teaches courses in traumatic stress and workplace violence. He's also the author of a book, Hostage: Terror and Triumph. Welcome to the show.


Dr. Campbell: Thank you very much.


Dr. Kenner: What would you tell that person? That person is calling up on the phone saying, "I don't know how to handle it. I'm afraid of this guy." I said, "You said you were afraid that something really dramatic might happen?" And he said yes. We're talking about death or the guy coming in with a gun and shooting people. The guy is pretty much a loner. So, first, what are the signs that you could look for in this type of a situation?


Dr. Campbell: There's a number of red flags you look for. Psychologists tend to not be incredibly successful at predicting violence, but nevertheless, there are a number of red flags I call that you look for that raise your level of concern. One is already clear in the story that you told - someone is feeling afraid. You pay attention to that. 


Dr. Kenner: You mean the coworkers? It's not just one coworker. It's several. And the guy is paranoid. So he's always accusing them, "You did this to me. I'm telling the boss."


Dr. Campbell: That's another red flag, if someone is blaming others for all of their misfortune, then that goes to make it easier for them to say, "They deserve to be hurt." You're on a roll there. So being afraid, paranoia, someone who has a very angry, inflexible, rigid kind of personality, if someone has lots of experience or familiarity with weapons, fascination with weapons or bombs or things of that nature.


Dr. Kenner: Sounds pretty obvious.


Dr. Campbell: Some of these are pretty obvious, right. But also, if someone is sort of despairing. Their life is crumbling around them - spouse is leaving them, financial problems, they might get fired


Dr. Kenner: So there's little left to lose. They can go on a shooting spree.


Dr. Campbell: Exactly. If you have someone with nothing to lose, you want to worry more.


Dr. Kenner: And someone that is using drugs or alcohol?


Dr. Campbell: Absolutely. That reduces their ability to control impulses and puts them at greater risk. Also, obvious one, if they're making threats. Either veiled or direct.


Dr. Kenner: Could you give an example of a situation you've been in or you've been involved in, where they are making those type of threats?


Dr. Campbell: There was a company where an employee said, "If you close this department, some of the people are going to pay." And so when six or eight months later there was a corporate decision to close that department - unrelated to this gentleman - people remembered this statement and got worried. Because he's making a conditional threat and then they were fulfilling the condition, so it was time to intervene and assess what was the level of potential threat there? And how do you defuse it?


Dr. Kenner: What do you do in that situation? If you came on the scene, if this were my factory and I wanted to close this department, what would you do? People are all up in arms. They're worried that this guy, you cannot close our department. He's going to kill our families. Who knows what has gone through their minds.


Dr. Campbell: The first step of course would be to assess. What do we know? What has happened already? What's been said? What has the company done? What are some of the red flags that exist with this individual in terms of the weapons and substance abuse and despair and interpersonal behavior and support system and on and on? And get a better sense of level of risk. And then people take different approaches. Some just resort to sort of high protection security approach. I will certainly utilize that, but I also believe in the guy who is making direct contact with the subject.


Dr. Kenner: What would you say? Say I'm the subject. I'm the guy that is the loner or this particular guy who just said, "You close? This is going to be trouble."


Dr. Campbell: Usually by telephone, sometimes in person, would contact them, tell them exactly who I am. I'm a consultant hired by ABC company to help in situations where there's a conflict between employee and management and I wanted to hear your side of the story. Over a series of contacts - phone calls - build a relationship with them and you'd be surprised at how open people typically are about what they're thinking and feeling and planning. Then I'm able to get a better sense of what their needs and worries are, how we can help resolve this in a way that preserves their dignity, does not increase their level of desperation, and yet meets the needs of management. And it can take usually some weeks, sometimes months even, to sort that out in a way that is satisfactory to everyone. What companies will otherwise sometimes do is call the person in - you're fired, get out of here, that kind of thing.


Dr. Kenner: You're going to get it.


Dr. Campbell: And you may have inadvertently increased it.


Dr. Kenner: My wife left me. I don't see my kids anymore.


Dr. Campbell: Exactly.


Dr. Kenner: "This is it. This is the final straw. I can't take it anymore." What do you do in that moment? 


Dr. Campbell: If they are very high risk, then you may take security precautions. You may move potential targets to a hotel. You may call in law enforcement or private security, Those kinds of things. But, most of the time, it doesn't get that far. If you start, particularly if you have the opportunity to start early enough.


Dr. Kenner: So you try to diffuse the hostile person. And you let him tell his story from his perspective. I'm saying "his" but it could be a "her." From his or her perspective, in order to feel more visible.


Dr. Campbell: Tell the story. Engage them. Find out what their needs are. Say they're worried about losing health care because of a sick child. Okay, you work with the company. Maybe we can extend their health care beyond what's typical. What else can we do? Those kinds of things. To keep them feeling, if not grateful, at least, "Okay, I'm being treated with dignity and I'm being heard."


Dr. Kenner: And to reduce their sense of there's nothing left to lose.


Dr. Campbell: Exactly. Create options for them.