Distinguishing What is a Threat

There is much attention being paid to violence in the workplace than ever before; and that is a good thing. Unfortunately, there is a general misunderstanding by many of what actually constitutes a threat. because of that, actions taken by management may actually aggravate rather than assuage a situation.

Webster defines a threat as “an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury, or damage”. It may be relatively easy to identify that a threat is made, especially if it was directly made between the person making it and the victim. what is more difficult to discern is whether there is any evil intent. In the world of threat assessment management we often talk about the difference between Making a Threat versus Posing a Threat. Social psychologists suggest there are four interpersonal elements of threatening, or the reasons a person may make a threat or what is perceived as a threat. These are (1) current state of mind, (2) desire for attention, (3) anger, and (4) hostile intent.

Clearly, we are not expecting managers, HR professionals, or business leaders to be social psychologists. And we are not advocating threats made but never acted out. However, the more we understand the nuances that accompany a threat the better equipped we are to mitigate the risk of violence and not incur unintended consequences.

One of the first steps taken in conducting a threat assessment is to determine the credibility and the immediacy of a threat. Some people make a threat and pose a threat. They are serious about the threat and they have the means to carry it out. Others may make a threat but don’t pose a threat. The threat may have been made out of anger or to get attention, but they do not posses the evil or hostile intent to carry out the threat. but the most concerning are those that never make a threat but pose a threat. They are not on anyone’s “radar screen” but have the hostile intent to harm others.

If your company, hospital, school district, or other organization has a threat assessment team, it is critical  to the assessment process to understand the difference between making versus posing a threat. Gathering information is therefore critical to understand why the threat was made, who are the intended victims, and what is the context in which the threat was communicated. Then the team can try to identify behaviors exhibited by the person making the threat to determine if their behaviors are indicative of hostile intent. If they are, more work needs to be done to manage and mitigate the threat.

Remember, all threats need to be taken seriously. But determining the seriousness and the immediacy of threats requires a thorough and structured response to keep everyone safe.