This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to reflect the changing dynamics of workplace and targeted violence. 

The financial and personal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns among human resources and other executives about patterns of troubling behavior from current or former associates. As I recently discussed these concerns in a video highlighting that though workspaces may be empty – and work has gone online – the risk of workplace violence is still very real. Many of the executives I speak with know that action is needed, usually recognize that the situation is fragile, and want to take the right steps to prevent an act of violence. Behavioral threat assessment is one of the approaches we recommend to clients to help them understand someone’s potential for violence.

As a discrete component of a comprehensive threat identification, assessment and management process, behavioral threat assessment can take one of two forms, depending on whether or not the assessor meets the subject of a given threat in person for the express purposes of evaluation. At Hillard Heintze, we refer to these two interventions as Indirect Threat Assessment and Direct Violence Risk Evaluation.

What is an Indirect Threat Assessment?

An indirect threat assessment – wherein the clinical psychologist and subject do not meet – is often the most fitting approach to gauging violence risk potential. This is particularly relevant when the subject is a former employee or a partner, customer, vendor or other third party. The violence risk potential and recommendations are based on a review of records and collateral interviews (e.g., current or former managers) which act as primary sources of information that assist the threat assessment. However, in the vast majority of cases, some case-specific data remains unknown.

What is a Direct Violence Risk Evaluation?

As with the indirect threat assessment, the violence risk potential and recommendations are based on a review of records and potential findings emerging from a background investigation. In addition, the Direct Violence Risk Evaluation includes an in-person interview with the subject and discretionary psychological testing. This data is then used to apply the Workplace Assessment of Violence Risk (WAVR-21, 3rd Edition) methodology.

A direct violence risk evaluation can shine a bright, powerful light on the mental state of a current employee or contractor. This degree of assessment can help determine the subject’s violence risk level and generate recommendations for the organization based on the subject’s current known mental state at the time of the evaluation.

Direct Evaluation is the Most Thorough Method

Where possible, direct evaluation is most effective. Contrary to what you might think, we’ve found that most subjects are agreeable to and relieved by a direct evaluation. Most want to share their story. Direct violence risk evaluations provide much more information – and higher assurance based on, for example:

  1. Crucial insights into the subject’s version of the story.
  2. Direct answers to the most important questions about the subject and the situation.
  3. Greater ability to gauge the subject’s responses to hypothetical scenarios to establish a post-evaluation plan.
  4. The potential for reduced threat risk through this structured interaction with the subject.

Preventing and managing workplace violence depends on appropriate intervention. Knowing when intervention may be needed – and the degree of intervention required – can mitigate risk and potentially save lives. While the pandemic and social distancing have created new challenges for evaluations, they are still possible and highly effective intervention tactics.

For More Information on Behavioral Threat Assessments

To learn more about behavioral threat assessment options, download our primer for executives, A Structured Approach to Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management.