Workplace Violence Part II: The Psychology of a Lone Wolf Attacker

Workplace Violence

This multi-part series on Workplace Violence is full of information and I hope that you’ve had a chance to read the first article, which profiled a lone wolf shooter. In this month’s article, we’ll explore the stressors and behaviors that lead to someone becoming a lone wolf attacker. The majority of the research for this series was found on the FBI, as well as the Department of Labor websites. The article will present a large amount of statistics and data, so let’s start with the key behaviors of an attacker.

According to the FBI, the top 10 behaviors of active shooters includes:

  1. Demographics are not a good predictor
  2. Three-quarters take over a week to plan. And nearly half spend a week or longer actually preparing or procuring the means for the attack.
  3. The majority obtained firearms legally.
  4. One-quarter of the active shooters in the study had a previous diagnosis of a mental illness.
  5. Active shooters were typically experiencing multiple stressors.
  6. Each shooter displayed 4 to 5 observable behavior characteristics. The most frequent behaviors were related to mental health, problematic interpersonal interactions and expressing violent intent.
  7. Peers and teachers were more likely to observe the behaviors than family members for active shooters under 18. Spouses/domestic partners were the most likely to observe concerning behaviors in those 18 or older.
  8. The most common response to a potential shooter’s behaviors was direct communication. More than half did nothing. And 2-in-5 reported the concerning behavior to law enforcement.
  9. The shooters tended to attack places already familiar to them. One-half the violent incidents were related to a negative interpersonal relationship or issues with an employer.
  10. In more than 5-in-8 cases, at least one of the victims was specifically targeted by the shooter.

In the above list, it was interesting to see that in three-quarters of the incidents; the attack was planned – and that means the shooter was looking to murder people. It was also interesting to see that a prior mental health issue was not atypical in these types of events.

The research then led to Who’s More Likely to become an Attacker:

  • Co-workers make up the 21% of people who commit a workplace homicide
  • Workplace homicides are committed 2 out of 3 times, by someone not close to the victim
  • 85% of workplace violence deaths are due to a robbery
  • Employees who commit workplace violence typically exhibit 8 behaviors before carrying out their act
  • Narcissism and psychopathy are the two most common personality traits workplace violence, where the attacker is a white-collar employee
  • The attacker has some sort of outside connection to the person or business, such as a vendor, service person or may have had a past or present employment relationship or a personal relationship with an employee

As this series of articles has pointed out; there are red flags or behaviors typically seen when some crosses over the line and becomes an attacker. The next time that someone if referred to as a narcissist or psychopath – just keep this information in mind. During my research, I spoke to a psychologist who told me the psychological traits of a lone wolf attacker are associated with bipolar and narcissism and psychopathic tendencies can be associated with someone who suffers from bipolar disorder. Stressors and the Lone Wolf Attacker are also important, as those that carry out workplace violence typically exhibit multiple behaviors. The research showed that 62% of the attackers had a prior mental illness.

According to the FBI, in 2018, active shooters on average, experience 3.6 multiple stressors in the year leading up to an attack. The top 3 stressors are mental health, financial strain and job-related issues.

So, which type of employee is most at risk to encounter a Lone Wolf Attacker?

The Department of Labor identified several indicators that may increase the risk of violence. The most vulnerable workers include those that:

  • Exchange money with the public
  • Work with volatile, unstable people
  • Work alone or in isolated areas
  • Provide services and care
  • Work where alcohol is served
  • Work late at night
  • Work in areas with high crime rates
  • When a personal situation enters the workplace (ie: domestic abuse, divorce, separation)

Let me ask you as a reader, do you see yourself in one of these volatile work environments? The last item on this list should not be taken lightly – as the research showed that domestic situations can and do spill into the workplace.

Onto more statistics and employee situations that can lead to workplace violence. When an employment status changes, people’s lives are impacted, and this stressor can come out as violence. The top employment changes that can lead to violence includes:

  • Employment status change – termination, layoff or fear of a change in status
  • A warning regarding an employee’s performance or behavior
  • Statements regarding a belief an employee has been treated unfairly, disrespectfully, or with hostility
  • Expectations regarding a perceived promotion or raise that didn’t happen
  • Having a hostile relationship with another employee

In February, a situation in Illinois occurred, when a coworker was let go from his job and went on a shooting spree, killing 5 people and wounding another 5 officers. He was a felon, and a repeat offender in domestic battery related incidents, kept to himself and had a gun. To me, he sounded like a time-bomb waiting to go off and unfortunately, he did just that.

The more warning signs that a person displays, the greater the risk of violence. The research shows that 4-8 warning signs are typically seen in an individual who became a lone wolf attacker:

  • Makes threats of violence, getting back at someone, etc.
  • Intimidates others
  • Gets very angry easily and often
  • Uses abusive language
  • Changes in performance
  • Communicates they own a weapon and/or can use them
  • Brings weapons to work
  • Frequently talks about violence
  • Paranoia and suspicion that others are out to get them
  • Blames problems on others
  • Displays bizarre or inappropriate behavior
  • Holds grudges and is vindictive
  • Is irresponsible in their actions
  • Is rigid, unreasonable and inflexible
  • Has a drug or alcohol abuse problem
  • Has chronic depression
  • Suffers from extreme stress
  • Demonstrates mood swings
  • Has a history of violence

We may all know people who present these behaviors – but that doesn’t mean that they will strike and it’s hard to know when they will cross the line. If you become concerned about an individual, who presents these behaviors – because something just doesn’t seem right – then notify they police – but make sure that you have facts, as we can’t go around putting the police on notice for our opinions.

This last list is a few more bits of demographic information that adds to the portrait of a victim:

  • Each year, an average of 2 Million US workers will become victims of workplace violence
  • The healthcare industry has the largest amounts of workplace violence injuries than all other industries combined
  • Homicides total 9% of workplace deaths
  • Annually, 44% of teachers are physically attacked at school

Thank you for reading this article. In the next series, we’ll discuss the definition of workplace violence and end the series on why planning goes a long way to preventing a workplace violence attack.

@2019 All Rights Reserved

Sue Bergamo is the CIO & CISO at Episerver, a global digital commerce company. She can be reached at sue.bergamo@episerver.com.

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