Q: I work in a quasi-governmental organization. My office is a public-access point for journalists, organizations and regular citizens to chime in and share information about issues of public interest. We often get phone calls and letters from people who seem unstable. Some see dark conspiracies, some report suffering fantastical events such as being killed repeatedly and brought back to life. Most of these callers just want to talk, and some of their stories are quite sad.
Interns handle most of these phone calls, and we train them in how to maintain boundaries. They are not to put up with abuse, and they are to alert us if they are uncomfortable. We try to be helpful and refer callers to other organizations when appropriate. So far, we are not aware of callers escalating their engagement to in-person meetings, but when drop-by visitors want to meet in person, we have staff meet them in the lobby near the guard station.
Could we be making things worse by engaging with these callers? Are there best practices we should be following? Recent news reports about violent incidents in public places, and imagining how encounters with callers could go bad, seem to warrant a review of our policies.
A: Like government and political offices, law firms, health clinics and media outlets, your organization has to walk a fine line between being responsive to a public clientele and being vulnerable to potential threats from that clientele.
Are you making things worse by engaging with unstable callers? “Isolation is one of the key problems” with troubled individuals, says Chuck Tobin, president and CEO of threat assessment firm At-Risk International and former director of security for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Tobin recommends being “respectful in engagement” and “creating a community of care”—so your policy of helping when possible is not only compassionate but also probably does more good than harm. Still, you are presumably not responsible for managing these people’s well-being, and you don’t want staff burning up time and resources that should be spent fulfilling your primary mission.
Training interns in boundary-setting and escalating concerns to senior employees is also a smart measure. But what do you then do with those escalated concerns? What if the same caller makes multiple contacts to different people or becomes fixated on an issue or a member of your staff? How do you keep track of those repeat contacts?
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Finally, while your organization has a responsibility to provide a safe workspace for its employees, your preventive measures should be based on a realistic perception of the threats you face—not on preconceived notions about people with mental illness or fear stoked by what seems like a weekly/daily/hourly cycle of national tragedies.
For these reasons, you might consider investing in a threat assessment and security consultation to help your organization refine its system for handling public contacts efficiently and safely.
As part of that system, Tobin recommends having a centralized reporting mechanism with a team of people trained in monitoring and assessing potential threats and developing appropriate responses. Everyone in your organization should be made aware of when and how to report concerns to the central team.
If you’re too small to afford a consultation, Tobin recommends some resources that may help you develop your own practices and policies with a clear-eyed, reality-based mind-set:
The FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center report, “Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks” includes practical, concrete strategies and guidelines in assessing and managing threats.
The Society for Human Resource Management released a survey on workplace violence in March and offers a tool kit, “Understanding Workplace Violence Prevention and Response.” (It requires a login.)
For professionals in law enforcement, security, legal and mental-health-care fields who want practical training in threat assessment, the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals provides education and certification to its members.