The issue of threats in the workplace is a serious matter for managers and for those employees who are subjected to the fear and intimidation that can accompany a threat. Managers have a duty to respond quickly and decisively. But when is a threat really a threat, and what action is appropriate?
In the federal workplace, managers and human resources professionals use a five-part formula to determine how serious the threat is. This formula is often referred to as the Metz factors, a name taken from the court case that decided when a threat is a threat. The Metz factors are: the listener’s reactions; the listener’s apprehension of harm; the speaker’s intent; any conditional nature of the statements; and the attendant circumstances.
The first two Metz factors center on the person who heard the threat. How seriously did the listener take the threat? Was he nonchalant or concerned? Did the listener wait hours before reporting the threatening comment, or was the issue raised immediately? These are probably the most important parts of assessing a threat. If a supervisor or co-worker feels that harm may occur and acts as if that is genuinely believed, it is more likely that a threat would be considered real and serious.
The speaker’s intent is sometimes difficult to ascertain. What is meant by the statement, “I’ll take you out?” Does it mean physical violence or the filing of an equal employment opportunity complaint? If the speaker’s intent is physical violence, immediate administrative leave and a probable proposed removal are appropriate responses. But if the speaker is talking about an EEO complaint, a reaction by a manager could be viewed as reprisal.
Context is important in determining the speaker’s intent. What else was being discussed when the threat was made? Was the speaker physically agitated? Was the speaker mentioning legal process and the exercise of rights? These are important considerations and increase the need for immediate and detailed documentation describing the context of the statements. It is appropriate to include in this documentation the tone of voice, the body language and other characteristics that might show out-of-control behavior consistent with a threat of physical violence.
A conditional threat, the fourth Metz factor, could require lesser penalties, but not always. Consider the following threat to the supervisor: “Get off my back or watch your back the next time you go through the parking lot at night.” Technically, the threat is conditional, but the supervisor has an obligation to supervise, which could be construed by the subordinate as being on his back. The comment is meant to intimidate a manager and is most likely a serious threat, assuming the manager interprets it that way. Sometimes the “conditions” surrounding a conditional threat can be so remote that a listener would not be concerned. Again, context is important.
The final factor, the attendant circumstances, requires care to ascertain. When is a threat real and when is it just venting? Sometimes a threat will be made to a third person and directed to a supervisor or a co-worker who is not present. When confronted, the speaker may say he was not serious and was just getting frustrations off his chest. But the fact that the listener reported the comment may tell a different story.
If the Metz factors indicate that the threat was not serious or perhaps not a threat at all, a manager might feel comfortable returning the employee to work, but may want to impose some penalty, perhaps for a lesser charge such as disruptive behavior.
But whenever a manager thinks that a threat might be real, the most important immediate action is to remove the speaker from the workplace and place him on administrative leave while the Metz factors are reviewed and evaluated to determine appropriate action.
Office of Personnel Management regulations at 5 CFR §752.404 provide this authority to managers.