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Interview: Dr. Park Dietz, Forensic Psychiatrist

Apr 01, 20064 mins
Access ControlCSO and CISOIT Leadership

Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, spoke with Managing­Editor Michael Goldberg about effective violence prevention programs and how to let problem employees go gracefully

Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, spoke with Managing­Editor Michael Goldberg about effective violence prevention programs and how to let problem employees go gracefully. A longer version of the interview, which took place after a fatal shooting in Goleta, Calif., is at

CSO: What are the elements of a good violence prevention program?

Park Dietz: The most important component is that someone in authority understands why this matters to the organization and that it’s not simply a question of how to prevent an occasional mass murder of this sortthat the value of a good workplace violence program is to save the company wear and tear and money every single day. It takes a long time and many, many errors before someone reaches the stage of making overt threats. Today a lot of companies have something to handle threats when they emerge, but that’s too late because it’s more expensive and actually riskier once a threat has emerged. On the average, the cases we deal with that reach the threat stage should have been recognized seven years earlier as problem employees who should have been separated.

What can companies do to identify those risks?

They can make sure that everyone who’s in a security and human resources role gets very thorough training about how to handle all the things that can come up at every stage. [Then] it’s time to train the managers and supervisors on their appropriate roles, and once that’s done it’s time to train every employee. Annual training is best because it peters out after a year or two without retraining. The most important thing for employees to know is that anything that is making them uncomfortable ought to be brought to the attention of HR, security or their manager, no matter who’s making them uncomfortable. It’s also worth teaching employees what they should do if they are ever faced with danger personally, so they understand it’s not their role to guard the card key, or make the armed robber angry. We want them to err on the side of bringing in HR or security rather than not telling anyone.

What are the key ingredients to early intervention?

We like to think of it as first receiving a report and then doing a basic investigation. And that investigation has to be done discreetly. In the old days there was a tendency to handle reports of violence concerns the same way one would handle, say, a theft: with a lot of interviews. That tends to make things worse. A discreet investigation can be done using available records, with one or two carefully done interviews.

Troubled employees can leave and then come back. What can be done?

I don’t know of any company that tries to monitor all their problematic former employees. Instead, one allows the information they volunteer to get to the right place. One does that by ensuring that those with whom problem employees have had conflicts understand that future communications from those former employees are to be sent to security or HR. This requires that security and HR have been trained on the importance of monitoring those future communications.

At the time of separation, take steps to reduce the likelihood that the person will ever want to retaliate. If one handles it properly at the very time of separation, the risk dissipates forever. And so we believe in individual separation plans that are respectful of the person who is being separated. We’ve had cases in which we had enough information to say that what would most reduce the risk with this person upon termination is to get his truck fixed, or to make sure there was continuing Cobra until his wife gave birth. Something as simple as not contesting unemployment, or permitting the person to resign can go a long way to reducing friction after a separation.