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Recognize the Terrorist in Your Workplace: Reading Red Flags

How well do you know the people who work ten feet away? Take a closer look

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Some violence in the workplace is more accurately classified for what it really is--terrorism.

On December 2, 2015, Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, killing fourteen people.[1] Who saw the red flags that indicated Farook was capable of such violence? No one in his workplace. Described as “quiet and polite, with no obvious grudges,” with his new wife and child, he appeared to be “living the American dream.”[2] His co-workers, who he reportedly got along with, had even thrown him a baby shower.[3]

Yet beneath the pleasant veneer was a man who planned and carried out a terrorist attack resulting in the tragic loss of many lives. How did Farook fly under the radar, interacting day to day with his colleagues in the workplace without raising suspicion?

In the wake of terrorist acts and other instances of violence erupting in the workplace, we renew our commitment to raising our level of awareness within our professional environment by reading behind the resumes and getting to know our coworkers.

The Perception Test

To demonstrate how woefully ignorant most of us are about the people we work alongside, consider this exercise. Think of the person who has the office or cubicle nearest to you in your workplace. Can you name five books on his or her shelf? Do you know what photographs he or she has displayed? Are they photos of family, pets, or photos from the latest Friday night out on the town?

If you can name five books and visualize the photos showcased on his or her desk, congratulations, you are more perceptive than most people in the workplace. If you are like most of us however, you cannot answer these questions because you simply have not been paying attention.

Yet perception is paramount. We are susceptible to being caught off guard by violence in the workplace because we have not noticed any red flags that would indicate we work with dangerous people—not because they are not there. In many cases, we do not see suspicious behavior because we are not looking. Remember that just like in a real neighborhood, within a professional workplace, a neighborhood watch program does not work if no one is watching.

Spotting The Insider Threat

Part of the challenge of identifying potentially dangerous employees is overcoming the uncomfortable mental hurdle of viewing your coworkers with distrust. This is especially difficult when you have a workplace filled with well-educated, credentialed professionals. From bioterrorist attacks, to embezzlement, to workplace violence, history shows that perpetrators are often able to escape detection because fellow employees give insiders the benefit of the doubt.[4]

Another mental barrier to viewing coworkers with distrust is the desire to maintain our own sense of well being through believing that we work in a safe place. It is much easier to become suspicious of people outside the comfort of our workplace environment, as opposed to those who sit in a cubicle five feet away. We do not want to consider the fact that colleagues with access cards to the building at night and on weekends might be capable of doing us harm.

This is why insider threats are so dangerous. In an effort to maintain a false sense of security, we fail to recognize potentially dangerous fellow employees. This allows them to fly under the radar where what might otherwise appear to be suspicious actions are ignored, rationalized, normalized, or dismissed.

Workplace Violence Triggers

While every workplace environment is different, there are some general observations we can make about events and circumstances that are more likely than others to precipitate violence. Job related anxiety, trauma, or negativity are classic precursors for violence in the workplace. Specific triggering events include learning about an impending firing or demotion, friction with co-workers, financial difficulties, disassociation from peers and workplace culture, isolation, a sense of rejection by colleagues, and the lack of a support network.

Another potential trigger for workplace violence involves an inability to move past disappointment and perceived disrespect on the job. This emotional red flag, which is often revealed through persistently holding grudges against others in the workplace, is often referred to as grievance collecting.

Grievance Collecting

Grievance collecting often signals a negative and often disproportionate response to workplace conflict, including perceived mistreatment by peers and superiors. As we have all experienced, on the job as in life in general, sometimes things are not fair. Most employees weather the storm of disappointment and perceived unfairness without resorting to negative behavior. Others, however, react strongly to perceived injustice. They are vocal about their anger, and their over-reaction may in fact be predicable, if we have been paying attention.

Yet as with other perceived red flags, there is opportunity here for error in terms of false positives—believing employees are physically dangerous when they are not. This is because we all have coworkers who routinely blow things out of proportion. Drama queens and kings in the workplace are often just that and nothing more. Colleagues who are all talk and no action are far less dangerous than those who internalize frustration, anger, and rage, silently plotting their revenge behind the scenes.

So because the vast majority of employees withstand professional disappointment without resorting to violent behavior, how do you know which employees are potentially dangerous? This question plagues employers around the world in every industry as they search for better ways to ensure a safe workplace for everyone. Efforts to screen out and manage problem employees include approaches to both hiring and firing, to ensure effective personality screening on the front end, and a sensitive but respectful approach to ending an employment relationship.

The Co-Worker Behind the Curriculum Vitae

The bottom line is that whether or not you are the “boss” in your workplace, knowledge of workplace violence red flags and potential triggers are important for you to consider—particularly when you do not know very much about your coworkers except that they are “qualified” on paper to hold the job.

Regardless of how well-credentialed your coworkers appear to be, there is no substitute for actually getting to know them in person, which involves spending time with them and asking questions. Not only does personal contact enhance your ability to form accurate impressions, building rapport with coworkers and creating a supportive environment in the workplace are protective factors that can increase positive interaction and decrease the likelihood of negative behavior.

So get out from behind your computer screen and get to know the coworkers you are used to emailing from 10 feet away. Look at the books on their shelves and the pictures on their desk. Getting to know your professional neighbors will enhance office camaraderie, foster cooperation, and create a safer workplace for everyone.




[4] See, e.g., Ronald Shouten and Gregory Saathoff, ”Insider Threats in Bioterrorism Cases,” in International Handbook of Threat Assessment, eds. J. Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffman (2014), Chapter 16, page 246 ff.