Some years ago I received an enquiry about the strange behavior of an executive at a large employer. The executive had a history of being somewhat aloof from others and odd. In the preceding week, he came to work and posted, on a bulletin board above his desk, a picture of an AK-47 assault rifle. One of his coworkers asked him about the picture and he said that this was something he had just bought. The coworker went to the next level supervisor who then went to the human resources department and they called me about my thoughts. I expressed concern because the posting of the picture might represent a cry for help or a nonverbal warning about a future action. I strongly advised that I meet with the man and the HR director agreed. Because of discomfort within the organization, the employee was put on paid administrative leave and I flew to the workplace to examine him three days later. I met with the director of HR, the man’s supervisor and the second-level supervisor, as well as with head of security for the company. In the interval, they had performed a background check on the man and obtained a list of other weapons that he owned. He had no past history of violence nor did he have any known history of drug or alcohol abuse. His performance on the job was generally good. His standoffishness and oddness were commented about, but even at the point I was brought in, his job performance was satisfactory except that the picture was causing a lot of institutional anxiety.
I next examined the employee for about three hours as well as administering a Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Test-2 (MMPI-2), a psychological test I frequently use to assist me with my assessments. The clinical examination was more helpful on this occasion. What was revealed was that the employee had recently experienced a sudden revelation about the dangers surrounding him and the reason he posted the AK-47 was to let people at work know that if anyone there was planning to threaten him, he had the means to defend himself.
Clinically, I believe he was undergoing a paranoid psychotic decompensation with emergent delusions of persecution and that he required a psychiatric intervention immediately. The employee assistance program for the employer intervened with a referral to a local psychiatrist. The employee was placed on medical leave, his security pass removed, and he was instructed not to come to the workplace until his doctor cleared him to return.
I did not believe more aggressive security needed to be instituted at the workplace nor did I believe a temporary retraining order needed to be implemented.
On the issue of temporary restraining orders, my own experience has been they are often helpful but in certain circumstances they may be provocative and not obtain the benefit desired but instead cause a confrontational person to seek a confrontation, in order to prove that he is in control. Assessing the risk-benefit of instituting a temporary restraining order is its own discussion, which I will leave to another time.
With respect to the executive and his assault rifle, subsequent enquiry by the employer revealed that this particular man had had other episodes of paranoid psychotic decompensations causing him to be terminated from prior employment. He had not disclosed that information when he applied for the job and on the basis of his nondisclosure, the employer elected to terminate his employment but to leave his medical benefits in place for six months so that he would be able to obtain enough treatment to hopefully go into remission and thereafter find new employment.
What particularly interested me about this matter was the symbolism of the AK-47 and the way in which the employee was alerting his employer and coworkers about his decompensating mental state. He was indeed sending them a warning to stay at arm’s length and not to challenge him or threaten him. The employer wisely understood the danger, called for help, an intervention was made, and the matter was resolved.
Many investigations of violent acts at the workplace have revealed multiple warnings by the attacker. Those warnings were ignored, leading the person to escalate his warnings. It is after multiple ignored warnings that the violent act occurs.
Employers have become increasingly aware about the risk of workplace violence and they have consequently called for help earlier leading to safer workplaces. There are many “false positives” but one never knows how many of these “false positives” were actually false. Early intervention in my opinion prevents escalation and subsequent workplace traumas.
I have evaluated a number of cases where coworkers were told by an employee about his growing gun collection. The collector in each of these cases had a history of intimidation using other means. Examination disclosed no psychiatric decompensation, such as unfolding paranoid delusions (for example, where the person feared an attack by enemies), but usually revealed a bully who was trying to reassert his control over a group of coworkers. Different employers have dealt with this behavior in different ways, depending on the facts of the case.
Even though in those cases my examination revealed the intimidating behavior not to indicate a specific threat, the bully’s behavior nevertheless constituted the creation of a hostile workplace and implied threat. When repeated intimidating acts occurred, progressive discipline occurred, although sometimes the acts were egregious enough to justify immediate termination of employment.