Mitigate risk by recognizing signs of troubled individuals and following best practices during the hiring process
Earlier this year (see the April issue of Rough Notes), I wrote an article on the education sector, which contained a section about active shooter coverages. That same month I attended the RIMS conference in Philadelphia, where I heard a session on workplace violence. Since you’re reading about it now, apparently I felt the material was important enough to share with our readership. After all, as “risk managers,” isn’t it your duty to be vigilant about risks in your clients’ workplaces?
The presenter of the session was Mario Pecoraro, president and CEO of Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, Inc., which helps organizations manage risk as it relates to workplace violence through pre- and post-employment background screenings and investigative services.
“Thirty percent of someone’s life is spent at work, so why wouldn’t you want to know more about the people who work for you?”
President and CEO
Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, Inc.
“It’s a very serious topic; it’s one that’s top of mind for every risk manager I know because, ultimately, workplace violence happens every single day both directly and indirectly,” says Pecoraro.
Know the signs
The best way to be vigilant when it comes to workplace violence is to recognize the signs that people who have exhibited violence before may show.
“What are the typical behaviors, and how do you label someone who has what we call the angry smile?” asks Pecoraro. “Workplace violence is not just about an employee who’s angry; it’s also about the domestic side that’s often overlooked.”
Have you ever gone into the office and one of your co-workers was acting a little strange? I mean, we all have bad days, right?
“Some of the obvious signs are that they’ve been missing work regularly and they’re neither engaged with what they’re doing nor do they take ownership of what they’re doing,” Pecoraro explains. “They don’t pay attention to company polices, like showing up late and taking extended lunch breaks. They may be withdrawn or depressed.”
What are some of the less-than-obvious signs?
“Having problems at home is a sign that’s harder to detect,” according to Pecoraro. “How often does an employee share what’s going on at home? They generally keep it to themselves. They might have a confidant at the workplace, but how does that information reach the point where it’s elevated to the level of risk?
“Financial challenge tends to be one of the biggest things we don’t know about. It can be anything from gambling problems to not having enough income or having additional dependents in the family whom they’re having challenges maintaining. Perhaps they’re stealing from the company.
“Some people are generally unhappy outside of work. Over time you learn that you can choose to be either positive or negative. We all have bad days, but if somebody’s generally miserable and negative, chances are there’s something going on that could escalate into something more significant later.”
- As for trends, the average aggressor:
- Is under the age of 40
- Lacks social skills
- Stays in the background and won’t confront challenges
- Has difficulty making eye contact
- Is a victim of teasing and bullying
- Hates criticism and doesn’t take it well
- Blames and threatens others
- Has emotional outbursts and is emotionally charged
- Is generally depressed and has conflicts with co-workers
Let’s examine a few violent tragedies and see how the warning signs were missed and how the perpetrator’s act might have been prevented.
Vester Lee Flanagan II—Also known as Bryce Williams, Flanagan was a former reporter at WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, who shot and killed two people during a live television interview in 2015.
“He was terminated from the station in 2013 and physically escorted from the building by the police,” says Pecoraro. “Think about that. He was escorted away by the police, which tells me it probably wasn’t his first rodeo with the organization. According to the general manager, he had a reputation for being difficult to work with; he was known to watch for people who would say something that he would take offense to. He had also requested personnel records for co-workers. These are things that other members of the organization at some point knew about.
“He sued the station in 2014, and the lawsuit was dismissed later that year. The station manager told him to seek medical attention and that his behavior made co-workers feel threatened and uncomfortable.
“What were the red flags? He had a history of violence and a previous termination that a former employer didn’t disclose; it came out after the fact. He had anger issues that were unaddressed. He wanted personnel records and was waiting to flare up. Despite all of this, the tragedy still happened.”
Ezequiel Garcia—He was an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who in 2012 opened fire on a supervisor before being shot and killed by another agent; the supervisor survived the attack.
“He was a 24-year ICE veteran who in 2004 was promoted to supervisor of a Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force,” explains Pecoraro. “According to his family, he was previously the subject of complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), based on the way he treated folks he arrested.
“He was described by co-workers as a rogue agent; he did what he wanted because he felt that he had the authority to do it. Talking to his co-workers after the fact, we found out that he had a history of violence and anger. For whatever reason, it was never addressed. He was a good agent, but maybe not a good supervisor. You hear that you can take your best person and promote them to a management role, and now you’ve lost your best employee. What training did he undergo to get that promotion?”
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik—These two were the shooters in the San Bernardino shooting at the Inland Regional Center in 2015, killing 14 and wounding 22 others.
“They were 28 and 29 years old and were radicalized before they got married in 2014; that was probably not known,” says Pecoraro. “They practiced at shooting ranges in L.A. before the attacks. Does that make someone predisposed to commit a crime? No. But it might throw up some red flags.
“They posted a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook. Syed was quiet and polite but held grudges. He was hired as an environmental health specialist trainee in 2012 and became permanent two years later. He never completed his degree, so he was hired for a role that he wasn’t qualified for. A $10 to $15 verification might have prevented him from being hired in the first place.”
Aaron Alexis—He was a contractor who killed 12 people in the Washington Navy Yard in 2013; he was shot and killed by police.
“He was 34 years old and had been honorably discharged,” says Pecoraro. “Two days before the massacre, he visited a shooting range in Virginia. He was cited eight times for misconduct; he was brought in, written up, and nobody did anything about it. He was arrested multiple times for various crimes including malicious mischief, which did not lead to prosecution.
“In 2008 he received a security clearance, which was valid for 10 years. His clearance was taken for granted. What else could’ve happened in those 10 years? It never showed up in his background that his roommate gave testimony that he frequently showed frustration at being discriminated against. He had a history of violence but was never arrested, and he had mental health issues that went unaddressed.”
Esteban Santiago—This past January, he killed five and wounded several more during a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport.
“He was 26 years old and an Iraq war veteran who was discharged for poor performance,” says Pecoraro. “In January 2016 he assaulted and strangled his girlfriend and was arrested and released on the condition that he have no contact with her. In February 2016 he was arrested again because he made contact. The case was pending at the time of the shooting.
“In November 2016 he walked into an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, and told an agent that he was being forced to fight racists and that he had a gun, which was legal but later confiscated from his car. He clearly had mental health issues. After his encounter in Alaska, he was allowed to get his weapon back, even though he still had an open case from January. He had a Florida driver’s license, yet he had never lived in Florida. He traveled from Alaska to Florida with no luggage, and nobody asked questions when he transported his gun. How was the airport staff trained to handle a suspicious individual? We train to do the tasks at hand, but how do we train to handle a risky person?”
What could have been done differently to prevent these tragedies from happening? A challenge Pecoraro sees today is a conflict between risk and human resources.
“When I was helping my dad with investigations, HR departments didn’t conduct background investigations; it was usually done by security,” Pecoraro says. “Security comes from a unique background: the trust factor is usually low, and everyone who commits a crime is probably guilty. From a risk perspective, they do not want to let anybody into an organization who could present a problem.
“It became a conflict between HR and security because security was there to prevent the risk, yet HR was making sure you followed the process. Through the years, HR eventually took over the background investigation process. Along the way, laws were passed and organizations have become increasingly challenged and sued by individuals who have not been hired.
“We live in a litigious society where we’re afraid to say anything for fear of being sued,” Pecoraro continues. “If you see something, say something. We’re afraid we might offend someone or get into a lawsuit. But at what cost? Are we really doing our jobs in risk management if we’re not actively questioning each part of the process?”
The first step in being proactive can take place during the pre-hire process.
“How many organizations are actually conducting background investigations; what does the typical background check look like?” asks Pecoraro. “I hate the term ‘background check.’ The word ‘check’ implies something quick—like check a box—versus an investigation. What kind of searches are you running—county, state, national, federal?
“Make recommendations from a risk perspective and not a financial one, and look at the true cost impact that a bad hire has on operations. Background checks should be more than a line item.”
Employee screening shouldn’t stop at the pre-hire process but should continue throughout an employee’s career.
“Most organizations don’t look at anything during the course of someone’s employment,” says Pecoraro. “Every six months after someone has been employed, you have the right to do more background investigations if you suspect an issue or a challenge.
“Employees of concern should be documented and addressed, not swept under the rug. Look at their social media before and after they’ve been hired. An organization’s core values should be followed at all stages of a career, not just when the employee is brought on board.”
Follow best practices when it comes to the challenge of post-termination.
“Don’t just terminate someone because you want them out of the organization, and don’t assume they won’t react negatively,” Pecoraro says. “Keep an eye on how someone responds to being passed up for a promotion or after having an unfavorable evaluation. What security measures are in place for safety when an employee is terminated?
“You can have all the procedures in the world, but they need to be tested and retested. It’s critical to see how your team would react in these situations.”
It’s important that all employees work together to detect and report troubled individuals in the office.
“Risk is not just one person’s job, but everyone’s job,” Pecoraro adds. “Thirty percent of someone’s life is spent at work, so why wouldn’t you want to know more about the people who work for you?”
For more information:
Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, Inc.
By Christopher W. Cook