The high levels of gun violence in the United States continue to surprise and concern international business leaders – particularly as the incident rates of workplace violence and active shooter incidents in America continue to rise. “This is an unfamiliar culture for us,” they say. “What should we be doing to protect our employees in the U.S.?” Here’s a case in point.

Foreign-Owned Companies Are Rarely Prepared to Address Workplace Violence

As the former Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center and in my current position as Senior Vice President of Threat and Violence Risk Management at Hillard Heintze implementing workplace violence prevention programs throughout corporate America and U.S. government agencies, I have extensive real-life experiences in helping foreign-owned companies determine how to counter the risks of workplace violence in the United States. The first step is typically putting their minds at rest and giving them assurance that we know a great deal today about how to counter acts of targeted violence – at work, at school, in transit – if they are prepared to make prevention a key priority.

While Rare Even in the U.S., Expert Threat Assessment Can Be Extremely Effective

I point out to them that the steps they should take are based on established research and experience. For years – as the result of the infamous Columbine school shooting in 1999 – the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center have been collaborating as a team to try to better understand, and ultimately help prevent, school shootings in America.

When we began this collaboration, we focused on one common goal: to develop accurate and useful information about prior school attacks that could help prevent some future ones from occurring. We refined threat assessment for schools, the process of gathering and assessing information about people who may have the interest, motive, intention and capability of mounting attacks against individuals. We know an individual planning to carry out an attack must select a target, locate the target, secure a weapon and travel to the target’s location.[1]

A Wake-Up Call: The School Attack in Erfurt, Germany Shocks a Nation

As we were disseminating our ground-breaking work throughout the United States, I received an urgent call from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of State in April 2002 regarding a devastating school shooting that month in Erfurt, Germany. A former Gutenberg High School student had just shot and killed 17 people before taking his own life. On the day of the shooting, before leaving his residence at his usual time, the shooter armed himself with a 9mm Glock and a Mossberg 590 Mariner 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

Germany declared a national state of mourning as we dispatched a team of threat assessment trainers to the Erfurt school board and community to explain our study findings and threat assessment processes. Germany had not experienced an act like this even though the nation has some of the most stringent gun laws in Europe. To be specific, the law “restricts the acquisition, possession, and carrying of firearms to those with a creditable need for a weapon. It bans fully automatic weapons and severely restricts the acquisition of other types of weapons. Compulsory liability insurance is also required for anyone who is licensed to carry firearms.”

The shooting was a wake-up call to school boards and police departments throughout Germany in their effort to prevent targeted acts of violence.

I was not surprised when, in 2014, I was contacted by a major manufacturer in the U.S., owned by a German company. The U.S.-born Chief Security Officer was undergoing an effort to convince his German executive leadership on the need for a workplace violence prevention program in the U.S. The executives understandably did not see a need for this effort due to the strict gun control laws in their native country.

Understanding the Range of Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies and Tactics

I met with the German executive leaders and explained that we use a variety of strategies and tools in protective intelligence investigations, including interviews; searches of people, residences and automobiles; background checks; and reviews of weapons purchases, credit card purchases, phone records and travel verifications. I noted that in our more serious cases, the individual’s actions involve weapons-seeking or weapons use.

Although a constitutional right to bear arms is not part of the German legal tradition, I explained to the leaders that our country does have such a right that is clearly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Threat assessment is, therefore, a key to identifying individuals who may be a danger to U.S. companies. We leverage the fact that Congress passed the Gun Control Act in 1968 which made it a crime for any person to possess firearms who had been “adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.” If an individual is deemed a threat, a plan to manage the individual and mitigate any potential risks is developed and implemented. Such a plan may involve working closely with family members and law enforcement in an effort to obtain a court-ordered mental health commitment to ensure the individual is denied ownership or access to weapons. Other preventive weapons possession measures may include a protective order or ensuring a violent criminal history is brought to the attention of federal, state and local law enforcement.

How This German Company Took Action

Thanks to this persuasive argument, the German business leaders fully endorsed the implementation of a workplace violence prevention program at their U.S. locations. We established regional inter-disciplinary threat assessment teams and provided training for the general workforce and managers. We also announced the program via the company’s corporate  Learning Management System. Without a doubt, we have already been successful in preventing people who were likely planning an attack from obtaining or possessing weapons.

We were also able to ensure that the company understood the importance of positioning a U.S. Chief Security Officer or HR Director who reported to international leadership and ensuring that this individual could clearly articulate the cultural nuances and laws in the U.S. for “buy in” to keep individuals with weapons away from the workplace and deter would-be attackers from trying to approach the area with a weapon.

Each company, however, is different – and how we bring best practices in workplace violence prevention and active shooter planning must be very carefully applied. If this is a concern of yours, contact me at I’ll help you understand what you’re up against – and our team will help you put the right preventive countermeasures firmly into place.

[1] Vossekuil, B., Fein, R.,et al. The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education: Washington, D. C. (May 2002).

The risk of workplace violence is pervasive. It doesn't discriminate between C-suites or cubicles.
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