Fixated behaviour Risk Management in a Corporate setting
Fixated behaviour Risk Management techniques, until recently the preserve of forensic psychiatrists operating from a tiny number of specialist police threat assessment units across Europe and the United States, are now being adopted by corporate brands to help protect workplaces and employees.
The written and spoken pre-cursor indicators associated with a higher risk of unwanted security and reputational outcomes are now understood, and companies can take advantage of the fact by applying structured and evidence-based approaches to identifying and responding to communicated risk.
What is fixated behaviour?
We all fixate, on our spouse or partner, our children, our work, or the sporting pursuits and hobbies that we enjoy. These normal fixations inform how we relate to one another and how we prioritise the giving of our time and attention.
In risk management terms, ‘Fixate’ is used to describe those suffering a pathological fixation: often socially isolated individuals with an ‘obsessional pre-occupation pursued to an irrational degree’, usually in the form of idiosyncratic quests, grudges or grievances. Such fixations frequently develop as a result of mental illness, personality disorder, or cognitive distortions that impair an individual’s ability to communicate, problem solve or recognise and respond appropriately to social cues.
In a corporate setting, this behaviour presents across a number of business functions, including legal, HR, security, customer relations, web and social media management, line management and the private offices of senior executives. It is typified by intrusive and harassing communication, the conduct of on-line hate campaigns, workplace bullying, insider activity, employee stalking, or vexatious litigation.
Particularly common are efforts, usually by a customer, service user or former employee, to right a perceived wrong allegedly perpetrated by an organisation or an individual seen as representing that organisation. Motivated by retribution or claims for redress or acknowledgement, these quests often lead to highly persistent and unreasonable complaining or litigious behaviour, or disruptive acts and attention-seeking stunts at company offices.
Occasionally, as options are perceived by an individual to be running out, behaviour can escalate to threats and individual acts of violence.
Intrusive and hostile action by the fixated is often preceded by antecedent behaviour in the form of communication.
Communications from the fixated, for the most part, do not fall into the category of the floridly unwell. They commonly appear coherent in form, do not constitute a breach of the law, but are unreasonable or inappropriate in content and characterised by a sense of overriding entitlement, intensity and determination.
The cost of fixated behaviour
Organisations that find themselves the focus of fixated individuals invariably absorb the associated financial and human cost for longer than necessary, or feel it more acutely than necessary. This is usually because warning indicators are ignored or missed; because they are misinterpreted and responded to inappropriately; because, in lieu of a more nuanced understanding, risk management decisions are taken purely on ‘gut-feel’ or ‘instinct’; or because, as time goes on, cases of fixated behaviour become viewed as purely legal problems, encouraging and all but guaranteeing persistence.
If fixated behaviour goes unrecognised when it presents, or is responded to inappropriately or too late, the cost can be high.
Personal injury and physical damage to buildings or company assets bring obvious and immediate human and direct costs. But as well as the psychological distress and interference with work function and performance for individual victims, spend on security, legal and reputational management can escalate quickly, across separate departments, separate budgets and under different risk managers.
Towards a structured and evidence-based approach
One of the most striking and common features, both with private companies and agencies of government, is the similarity in the way they tend to handle inappropriate or worrying communications from members of the public.
Specific threats, or similar breaches of the law, are usually referred straight to the police. But by no means all fixated communication meets this test. Rather, they are demanding, angry, delusional, chaotic, explicit, or threatening in a less direct manner.
For risk managers, very little by way of structured framework or evidential guidance exists as to the degree of risk likely to be associated with a problematic e-mail, letter, call, social media posting or approach, or how to prioritise appropriate responses. Applying third-party social media scanning in this context provides companies with an illusory sense of ‘protection’, reaching out in to the ether with search algorithms insensitive to fixated risk, whist ignoring that communicated directly to its post-rooms, reception desks, executive offices, customer services teams, and the in-boxes of employees.
However, developments in forensic psychiatry and psychology in the last decade have led to evidence-based screening and assessment tools for managing fixated risk. Their development and availability in the private sector ‘raise the bar’ on the standard that should be adopted when it comes to identifying and managing communicated risk on behalf of employees, top corporate talent and brands. Indeed, it is becoming harder to justify their absence from risk management in this context.
Adopting a structured approach to screening communication empowers the risk manager, allowing identification and initial assessment to take place in-house, without necessitating immediate recourse to a third-party. While some communications may require active intervention, the effect is that no risk-bearing communication is overlooked, and a highly nuanced view of risk becomes available, not just in terms of violence – statistically the least likely to occur – but in the domains of escalation, recurrence, disruption and psychological damage to the victim, all of which can have significant human, operational and financial implications.
To ignore communications that appear, obsessed, angry, demanding, amorous, unreasonable, deluded or nonsensical is to increase workplace vulnerability, expend resources unnecessarily, and expose employees and brands to unnecessary human, financial and reputational damage.
The factors in fixated communications that are associated with a higher risk of unwanted human, legal and reputational outcomes are now understood. And the tools to identify and assess those indicators are no longer the preserve of specialist policing units or impenetrable ‘risk-calculating’ software solutions. ‘Gut-feel’ and ‘instinct’ have a role to play in managing such risk on behalf of brands in the public eye. But in isolation they are difficult to defend from a corporate risk management perspective.
Theseus Fixated Risk Management