The Blind Spot in Workplace Violence Prevention Programs: Part Three
Bringing It Home
In this final installment in our three-part series addressing violence prevention for employees working from home, we will focus on strategies and techniques that employees can use to reduce the risk of violence and ensure a safe and healthy work environment. In Part One we reviewed OSHA and Workers’ Compensation concerns related to home office work, and made the case that an employer’s Duty of Care extends to home-based offices. In Part Two we explored this issue from the employer’s perspective. We now will bring our discussion right into the home office work space. In doing so we will divide our attention between developing a proactive mindset about home office violence risks, and specific security practices, as well as physical security enhancements.
Just as employers have a Duty of Care for employees working from home offices, employees have responsibilities, too. These include:
- Following the employer’s policies and procedures for safety and violence prevention.
- Taking reasonable care of their own and other people’s safety in and around the home office.
- Maintaining an awareness of their surroundings and any possible threats to their personal safety when working from home. Contacting the local police department or searching online for local crime statistics for the surrounding area can help employees gain a wide-angle perspective on the risk of violence near their homes.
- Being involved in assessing risk and identifying safety measures in the home office.
- Taking part in and following guidance provided in training to ensure their safety.
One of the most important steps employees can take to ensure their safety is to adjust their attitudes, beliefs and awareness about the potential for violence in home office settings.
Adopting a Violence Prevention Mindset
Professional success, whether real or simply perceived by others, can attract attention and it can attract trouble. There is a fine line between vigilance and paranoia. Our goal here is not to play upon fears, but rather to develop the appropriate level of knowledge, awareness and skill to realistically address the risk of violence. Working from the comfort of one’s home can be a great perk; it is convenient and offers a degree of freedom that can enhance the employee’s lifestyle. Finding the right balance between freedom and security can be tricky, and it is a bit of a moving target since security risks continue to change over time. It also requires open and honest communication between employers and employees. Most of what is required to reduce the risk of violence does not require any significant spending; it is based largely on changes in behavior and thinking about the possibility of violence in the home office setting.
In our 25 years of experience in the field of violence prevention, we have found that the three greatest risks to home office worker safety are complacency, denial and indecision.
When working from home, employees are in their comfort zone; they are on their turf, in their castle. It is understandable that people would be more relaxed at home than in most other settings. Bad things happen in the outside world, and workplace violence, well that happens in office buildings, not in people’s homes, right?
There is a natural tendency to drop our guard once we step into our personal domain. It can be a real challenge to make the mental shift that one is considered “at work” while still immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of their own homes.
It is interesting to note that people are more susceptible to extreme violence behind closed doors than they would be if attacked on the street. Our perception of risk and the realities of violence don’t always align.
There are several cognitive biases that work against us in regards to our safety. The first is the optimism bias that causes a person to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. The subconscious thought process may be that violence happens to other people; it would never happen to me. While it is cliché to say that bad thing can happen to good people, it is a reality that bad things, dangerous things, can and do happen to all kinds of people.
Perceptual bias is a psychological tendency to lose objectivity in perception of people and situations. More simply put, it can be the impression that the employee lives in a “good” neighborhood or on the “right side of the tracks,” and that violence and crime are problems in other places, but not for the employee who perceives that their area is safe. As a result, it is likely that people operate at higher levels of vigilance in places considered risky, and drop their guard in places perceived to be safe, including in their own homes. There are other biases that affect risk perception, but we’ll leave it at that for now.
“I think I’ll conduct a fire drill for my home office today,” said no one ever.
The truth of the matter is that under crisis conditions people do not rise to the occasion, they fall to their training. Back at the main office employees participate in fire drills, perhaps even active shooter lockdown drills, but in the home office setting, is all of that necessary? We would suggest that yes, in some form, it is. At a minimum, home office workers need to have basic emergency plans, and more specifically, a violence response plan. Violence can happen in a flash. Between the speed of an attack and our own physiological response to violence, it is unlikely that we will be able to form any type of meaningful response plan during a violent event. While doing anything protective in a violent attack is better than doing nothing, having some degree of mental readiness and a basic plan in place can be the difference between life and death.
Understanding Crime and Violence
It is helpful to understand the basics of criminology as a starting point for any discussion about violence risk or prevention. At a fundamental level, the “crime triangle” provides a useful point of reference. For a crime to take place, all three sides of the triangle must be in place: 1) the presence of a likely offender, 2) the proximity of a likely target, and 3) the absence of a capable guardian. Removing any one of the legs of the crime triangle will prevent the crime.
Applying this model to the home officer worker or telecommuter, the employee may be perceived as a suitable target, especially in Type I violence in which the likely offender believes there is something of value to taken from the target or their home/office. The capable guardian? Well back at headquarters there may be various levels of security onsite or simply the presence of others who can step in to help if something goes wrong. In the home office setting, the worker may be completely alone for extended periods of time.
It is important to know that 85% of workplace homicides in the U.S. occur in Type I situations. These are cases of robbery, theft, or trespassing that become violent. There is typically no pre-existing relationship or legitimate business connection between the attacker and their victim. It is equally important for home office workers to understand the difference between a burglary and a home invasion.
In Part One, we provided the notional Ms. Smith Case as an example of Type III violence and the actual Thomas Mosser/Unabomber Case as an example of Type V violence. We will introduce several strategies and techniques for developing a proactive mindset to counter those risks later in this installment, but to bring the issue of home office violence into sharper focus, it may be helpful to explore Type I violence a little further. While it is important to understand that all five types of workplace violence can affect employees working from home, Type I scenarios can be particularly terrifying.
Burglaries typically occur during the day when a home is more likely to be unoccupied. Burglars seek to avoid confrontation and may be startled or react aggressively if they are surprised to find someone working from home once they have broken in. Burglars are thieves looking to grab anything of perceived value. They move quickly, and in most instances, if discovered or confronted, will run. Most burglaries are non-violent and but can become so if they feel cornered or need to use force to escape.
Home invasions usually happen at night and on weekends. The invaders (often more than one) wait until people are at home since they may target both the home and its occupants. Likely targets include women living alone, senior citizens, and high net worth individuals and families. At times homes have been selected simply because the type of car parked in the driveway suggested a certain lifestyle or income level.
Home invasions are violent. The attackers employ the principles of surprise, speed and violence of action. They may approach a home under the guise of a repair or delivery person, or use some type of social engineering ploy to get the occupants to open the door enough to allow them to push their way in. The first sixty seconds of a home invasion are usually the most dangerous.
In many instances the invaders come equipped with supplies to make the occupants captives, including handcuffs, rope, zip ties or duct tape, as well as weapons like guns and/or knives. Many instances of home invasions have included elements of sadism in which the invaders seem to enjoy the violence, intimidation, and domination of their victims. Once occupants have been secured, home invasions typically evolve into robberies, often cleaning out cash, jewelry, electronics and other valuables. Some home invasions have also resulted in severe physical and sexual assaults committed in front of the victim’s powerless family members.
All crime committed in the home are especially traumatic and shatter people’s sense of safety. Home invasions can be extremely violent and shocking, and home office workers should be aware of these risks, and work with their employers and local law enforcement agencies to guard against them.
Recalibrating the Active Shooter Risk for the Home Office
As a component of organizations’ workplace violence prevention programs, it has been increasingly common and understandably necessary to provide employees with guidance about responding to an active shooter incident. There is an important difference between an active shooter situation and a shooting incident. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as, “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”
An active shooter is an attacker or attackers seeking a high casualty count. They tend to select target-rich environments that will afford them the greatest number of victims. That is not likely to be a home office with a single worker.
The motivations and means in active shooter cases are substantially different than those in shooting incidents in small or home offices. A shooting in that type of setting would more likely be an instance of targeted violence. In true active shooter situations, the attacker selects the venue, but the victims of such shootings are often random and have no prior relationship with the perpetrator. It is more likely that the employee in a home office would be targeted because of a pre-existing relationship with the attacker, and motivated by revenge for a real or perceived injustice.
Given current trends, it is important that everyone know how to react in an active shooter or active violence attack, including incidents such as the recent vehicular attacks in Nice, Berlin, and at Ohio State University. Active shooter situations have occurred in shopping malls, in educational settings, movie theaters, and even houses of worship. The probability of a true active shooter incident in the home office setting is very low, but a basic understanding of active shooter response has become necessary for everyday safety and survival.
Developing a Violence Prevention Mindset
To counter complacency and the cognitive biases that can contribute to the risk of violence for home office workers, it is helpful to engage in some basic security behaviors and thought exercises.
The first process that is known as “prospective hindsight,” which is also referred to as a “pre-mortem.” Most people are familiar with the term, “post-mortem,” but that implies that the worst has already happened. The idea of a pre-mortem is to analyze a situation before it has occurred; that is, playing the “what if…?” game. Research suggests that purposefully imagining that an adverse event has already occurred increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. 
Using prospective hindsight to conduct a premortem helps identify risks at the outset. This approach can be used by individuals and organizations. It means little more than brainstorming about all of the possible negative outcomes and developing reasonable countermeasures before a problem is encountered. Doing this at the beginning of an assignment rather than the end allows the possible outcomes be improved rather than autopsied. When applying this concept to the risk of violence in home office settings, it can be uncomfortable to think through all of the possible harm that could possibly befall an employee, but it is an important and worthwhile exercise.
The second and more important task is to develop greater situational awareness.
Situational awareness involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity, in order to understand how information, events, and one’s own actions will impact the overall situation.
This begins with monitoring the baseline environment in and around the home office, and the ability to recognize change from the baseline. More specifically, the question is: What is different today? People, objects, a gut feeling? This involves forcing oneself to be more observant, and once a baseline is established, to be looking out for anomalies. There are two types of anomalies that are meaningful: people or things in the environment that should not be there, but they are, and people and things that should be in the environment, but they aren’t. Research in personal safety and security also stresses the importance of intuition and instinct. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Trust your gut.
There are three common barriers to developing situational awareness:
- Not Monitoring the Baseline. If you are not monitoring the baseline, you will not recognize the presence of threats that present a risk.
- Normalcy Bias. We have a bias towards the status quo. Nothing has ever happened here, so nothing is likely to happen.
- Focus Lock. This is some form of distraction that is so engaging, that focuses all of our awareness on one thing and by default, blocks all the other stimulus in our environment. Home office workers have often told us that they can become so engrossed in a project that hours will pass without them even moving from their seats. There might be a greater risk of deep vein thrombosis than violence in some situations! The point is that we can be so focused on a task that we block out all other stimuli to our own detriment. Of course, wearing earbuds or headphones will contribute to this dynamic, and reduce the chances of hearing trouble coming.
There are three effective approaches to overcoming these barriers:
- Monitoring the Baseline. Making a conscious effort to be observant. At first, this will require some effort, but over time can become a helpful habit.
- Fight Normalcy Bias. This requires you to be paranoid for a while as you develop your ability. Look at every anomaly in the baseline environment as a potential threat.
- Avoid using the obvious focus locks in transition areas. It may be OK to text while you are sitting at your desk or lying in bed. But it’s not OK to text as you are walking from your home to your vehicle. 
At times others in the home can be a distraction, but they can also be targets or assets in terms of safety and security. Anyone likely to be in the home during work hours must be involved in a discussion about home office safety and violence prevention. This includes children, elders, and anyone who can affect or be affected by a hostile encounter in the home office setting. Such conversations should be conducted in age-appropriate ways, not to scare others, but to help them become active participants in home and office safety. Some ideas that home office workers have put in place have included safe rooms, evacuation plans, and code words for loved ones to let them know to call for help or to get out of the house. Any safety plans the home office must include others in the likely to be in the home during work hours.
Local Emergency Alerts
If there is an active shooter scare at a nearby school or some type of emergency in the surrounding area that requires residents to lock down, shelter-in-place or evacuate, the home office worker will want to know.
Many communities are now using emergency notification systems to reach their residents and people working in the area. While these systems go by a variety of different brand names, we will refer to them generically as Community Emergency Notification Systems (CENS). These communication systems typical require residents to register online at the websites of municipal police or local and county emergency management agencies. Once registered, participants will receive notifications via voice, email and/or text messages in the event of a local crisis, as well as updates and news bulletins. This information might include status reports about emergency conditions, what to do, where to go or other critical details that residents should know.
Many employers have begun to use similar emergency notification systems to let employees now about crisis situations affecting their facilities or operations. Those charged with sending emergency alerts for the organization are unlikely to know about hyper-local emergency conditions near every home officer worker’s location. If your organization and community offer such notification systems, it makes good sense to register for both, and make sure that your contact information is accurate and kept up to date.
At the employer’s main offices it is likely that the mail is received, screened, sorted and delivered to the appropriate departments and individuals by dedicated personnel. Mail room workers have hopefully received some basic guidance in how to spot suspicious or potentially dangerous letters and packages. There are a few different ways that organizations handle mail for home workers, and in some instances, mail may come directly to the employee’s home office. It is a good idea for the home office worker to have a post office box or other location to receive mail besides the home. By doing so they can avoid sharing their home address with others, have additional screening for suspicious letters and packages, and know that their mail is stored in a locked mail box which will be more secure than mail inside a mailbox at home where a stranger can rummage through it.
If home officer workers do decide to receive business mail at home, we recommend becoming educated about mail safety. The U.S. Postal Service provides a useful mail security poster that provides important information. It is also necessary to educate family members about mail security since they may handle the mail before the employee.
Home office workers should use the same caution with deliveries as used in their employer’s main office. Anyone making a delivery to the home office should be properly identified before the door is opened, and a delivery persons should not be allowed to enter the home.
Hostile Surveillance Detection
There are some fundamental hostile surveillance detection measures that home-based employees can take reduce the element of surprise, and perhaps deny a would-be attacker the opportunity to commit violence. Individuals or groups who may be planning hostile actions directed at specific individuals or businesses often engage in pre-attack behaviors that can serve as meaningful warning signs. Surveillance is an unnatural activity, and a person doing it often feels self-consciousness and out of place. They are likely to seem awkward or unnatural in their movements or communicate hostile intent through their body language.
Home office workers should be watchful for:
- Anything out of the ordinary in or around the home or neighborhood. Any occupied cars parked nearby? Anyone new or unknow walking their dog or jogging?
- People loitering around the neighborhood or repeatedly coming back to the same area without an understandable reason. This should include watching for furtive behaviors, which simply means someone who appears sneaky or to be snooping around.
- Anyone who seems preoccupied with the employee’s home or other nearby homes, including taking pictures, writing notes or making sketches.
- Vehicles that cannot be attributed to neighbors that seem to appear repeatedly.
- Phishing activities, such as attempts to gain information about the home office, business activities, routine or employee’s personal life that appear to be more than just typical curiosity.
If a home-based employee starts to feel concerned that they are being followed, it is helpful to apply the TEDD test:
- Time: Is the same person being seen repeatedly at a variety of different times of day or different days of the week?
- Environment: Is the same person popping up in a variety of settings such as the grocery store, movie theater, dining spots, or coffee shops?
- Distance: Is the same person seen at varying distances from the home? Those may be places both near and far from the home office, as well as in different directions.
- Demeanor: Is there something off about person’s look or movements? Do they seem angry, sneaky?
To paraphrase the renowned threat management expert, Gavin DeBecker, noticing strangeness is more important than noticing strangers. If an individual is exhibiting behavior that involves all of the TEDD elements, it is likely that the target is being watched or followed.
Physical Security Enhancements for the Home Office
A home should remain a home first and foremost. It must continue to be a place of comfort and a refuge, but as a hybrid home/office, it may be necessary to “harden” the home and the part of the home used as an office, just as an employer would in a more traditional office setting. Options for consideration in hardening the home office include both interior and exterior enhancements, such as:
- Installing and consistently using solid doors and good deadbolt locks on all exterior doors.
- Keeping bushes and trees trimmed to provide a clear view of the yard and nearby homes, and to allow neighbors to have a view of the employee’s home to alert them if someone or something seems out of place.
- Installing a wide-angle viewer in the door the home office, especially if the office is detached from the main house.
- Installing motion-sensor activated lighting that will come on if someone is walking around the home after dark.
- Installing an alarm system and/or subscribing to a home alarm service. The Internet of Things (IoT) has created a flood of new, low-cost doorbell video cameras and other applications that allow home owners or home office workers to view activities in and around their homes from their smart phones, both while in the home or away.
- Checking that the house number is clearly displayed so police and other emergency vehicles can find the house quickly.
- Ensuring that every window in the house has a working key lock or is securely pinned.
- Hanging window treatments that obstruct the view into the office. This can help prevent others from seeing what equipment is in the office or learning the employee’s work routine.
- Arranging office furniture in a way that provides a clear path of escape if necessary.
- Identifying a safe room close to the office space.
If there is a bathroom or other interior room (i.e., no windows) in or near the home office, this can be retrofitted as a shelter or safe room by:
- Installing a heavy, solid hardwood or metal-clad door and door frame.
- Ensuring that the door is lockable from the inside, and having a keyed lock and sturdy deadbolt lock installed into the frame of the door.
- Checking that hinge pins are protected against removal.
- Ensuring that there is a viable cell phone signal from inside the identified saferoom to call 911 when the door is closed.
It is also helpful to always keep a cellphone nearby when working from the home office. It may be wise to keep a spare phone charger cable and plug tucked away in the saferoom, as well.
A Security Plan is More Important than having Security Stuff
Having a plan, sharing it with employers and family member, and rehearsing it mentally and physically, can quicken reaction times and deprive a would-be attacker of their tactical advantage in the critical first minutes of a violent encounter.
Employers and employees must work proactively and collaboratively to identify and mitigate the risk of violence in home offices.
Developing an awareness of the risk of workplace violence in the home office empowers employees, and gives them a sense of security and well-being, allowing them to realize and enjoy the benefits of working from home. As President Kennedy had famously said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” Home Office Safety and Security Week is intended to shine sunlight onto the problem of workplace violence and other risks in home offices in order to encourage employers and employees to proactively identify and address potential threats.
- Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, Nancy Pennington, Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2, 25-38 (1989).
- Gary Klein, Harvard Business Review, 2007 http://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem/ar/1
- Kevine Reeves, Effective Techniques to Train Your Situational Awareness and Recognize Change. Imminent Threat Solutions. April 13, 2013. http://www.itstactical.com/intellicom/mindset/3-effective-techniques-to-train-your-situational-awareness-and-recognize-change/