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Judging the Risk of Workplace Violence Takes a Technological Turn

Don’t Trust Your Hunches When Assessing Threatening Communications

Posted by Dawn Lomer on January 14th, 2014

When violence occurs in the workplace, those affected often look back and wonder why they didn’t see the signs. They analyze every communication with the aggressor, looking for clues. And very often there were clues that there was a risk of workplace violence. They just didn’t know what to look for.

The communication preceding a violent incident can provide some of the best clues for measuring a person’s risk of workplace violence. Whether threats are written or verbal, they contain language that experts say can serve as an accurate indicator of the person’s likelihood of following through.

But this area of study is fraught with contradictions, and until now there were theories about assessing risks from threats, but most relied on hunches. Many people believe, for example, that if a communication contains a direct threat there’s a higher probability that the person will carry it out.  “Contrary to that particular intuitive hunch, the reality is that research doesn’t support that,” says Sharon Smith, President of Forensic Psycholinguistics, LLC. Smith, a former FBI Special Agent, completed her PhD dissertation on assessing risk from threatening communications.

Researching Threat Risk

“I didn’t anticipate finding much of anything, but I was hopeful, because for me it wasn’t just an exercise in getting my doctorate, but because I was an FBI agent and had been a field investigator, I wanted something that was going to help me do my job better,” says Smith. So she conducted a study of existing cases to see what the connections were between the threat characteristics and the likelihood of the threats being carried out. What she found was surprisingly helpful and formed the basis of a new way to assess the risk of follow-through when threats are received.

The study’s database consisted of 96 cases that were investigated and assessed by the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Variables were scored manually and by two computer software programs which identified the cognitive and emotional states of those sending the threats.

Risk Factors for Violence

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“The day that the statistician ran the stats for me, I was astonished at the results that we got,” says Smith. The results of the study turned some of the commonly held beliefs on their heads.

Specificity, for example, was shown to be a low risk factor in the study. “It was one that I would have anticipated would have been high risk,” says Smith. Investigators had generally held the belief that the more specific a threat was, the more likely it was to be carried out.

Another common misconception that Smith’s study challenges is the idea that the use of passive voice, versus active voice, in a threat represents a lower risk. For example, the threat that “you will be killed,” rather than “I will kill you” was seen to be lower risk of being carried out. “That was another language variable that I found in my research was not associated with whether or not they ultimately carried out the threat.”

Checklist Mentality

What Smith’s research makes clear is that the answers aren’t nearly as clear as was previously believed. And she warns of the dangers of using a ‘checklist mentality’.

“A checklist mentality would be looking at a communication and saying it’s a direct threat, has passive voice, it has specificity of weapons, or specificity of place, and then making the determination high, moderate or low risk,” she says. These hunches can be wrong. And the consequences of getting things wrong in these situations can be the devastating.

To help reduce the risks of getting things wrong, Smith has partnered with a data analysis company to create, a web-based tool used to assess threatening communications to predict the likelihood that they will be acted upon. To find out more about Smith’s research and findings, read her dissertation.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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