Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for KPCC comes from:

Your co-worker has been threatened. What can the boss do?


Officials in San Bernardino have described Monday's elementary school shooting as a tragic case of domestic violence. Fifty-two-year-old Karen Smith was fatally shot in her classroom by her estranged husband, Cedric Anderson, who also killed an 8-year-old student and then himself.

Homicide is a common cause of death for women at work – second only to roadway accidents, according to a 2015 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the homicides against women were perpetrated by a relative or domestic partner.

In San Bernardino, Anderson was allowed onto the campus because the administration was unaware of any trouble between the couple. Smith had not told school officials that Anderson had previously threatened her, police said.

While companies can't require their employees to report threats made against them, there are steps employers can take to both encourage more disclosure and better safeguard the workplace:

Urge employees to come forward with threats

Companies need to be aware that domestic violence can follow a victim to work, said Marisa Randazzo, a managing partner at Sigma Threat Management Associates, a national workplace security consultancy.

"We know in domestic violence situations, when spouses are killed by estranged partners, they are often killed in the workplace because the estranged spouse or partner knows that's where they can find them," Randazzo said. "So it can become a very important workplace safety issue even if it starts out as a domestic violence concern." 

Some companies have HR policies that require or urge employees to inform their corporate security of any acting restraining orders taken out against another person, but Randazzo notes that the majority of companies do not have these policies yet – she's seen them occasionally among the companies she advises.

Companies get better compliance when employees are urged to speak with their security personnel or legal counsel, rather than a direct superior.

"They may worry that [disclosing the threatening relationship to a manager] will have a chilling effect on their annual reviews and their eligibility for promotion," Randazzo said.

Offer employees legal assistance

Under California law, an employer can ask the courts for a restraining order on behalf of their employee. The orders can last up for three years and are enforced by local law enforcement.

Jim Potts, who heads up Potts & Associates, a Pasadena-based security consultancy, said the offer of legal help can be a proactive way to encourage employees to come forward with known threats.

"Employees can be told, 'Look, this is what's available to you, you have to come to us with this, and we will assist you so that while you are in our work environment we can at least provide a safe haven for you,'" he said.

Invest in secure doors, safe rooms and training

Potts and Randazzo agree some companies are being more aggressive about security. 

Potts said some are putting their employees through active shooter response training. Others are investing in stronger security doors, security cameras and safe rooms, where employees can retreat in the case of a violent intruder. At a minimum, companies are providing security and reception staff with photographs of people who are not allowed in the building.

Randazzo noticed an uptick in corporate interest after the American National Standards Institute approved a standard for workplace violence prevention in 2011. That standard, while not law, can be applied in legal cases as a benchmark to assess an organization's workplace violence prevention policies.

"Proactive workplaces now are looking at the standard and bringing in companies like ours to take a look beforehand to say, 'Are we doing the best we can? Where are holes in our program? What can we do better? Do we have the right training?'" she said. 

Create a threat assessment team

Perhaps the most forward-looking approach to workplace security is the implementation of what Randazzo calls "threat assessment teams," committees made up of employees that meet regularly and evaluate specific threats.

"What defines a serious threat is whether the person who engaged in threatening behavior is actually taking steps to plan out and carry out a violent act," she said. "Targeted violence is typically not impulsive. They typically think about it beforehand, do some planning beforehand, and those behaviors are potentially detectable."

Threat assessment was first developed in federal law enforcement by the U.S. Secret Service to protect the president, but it's been adopted and used widely by workplaces across the U.S. for several decades, Randazzo said.

She believes it's a vital step toward stopping violent workplace incidents.