Handling death threats at work
October 28, 2018 4:29 AM   Subscribe

I do somewhat controversial work at a local government agency. We just got a potentially credible threat of violence related to my job. The system is doing its system things to figure out what happened and protect the staff. This is the first time this has happened to me - how have others dealt with this?

This was an anonymous and disturbing threat of violence, and I'm unaccustomed to this despite having done controversial public work for my whole career.

I'm trying to brush it off as a troll (which is probably is), but I find this unsettling, and I'm simultaneously worried and beating myself up for not having a thicker skin. I know this happens to some people all the time - what advice do you have for dealing with the feelings side of it?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This happened to me recently. It was helpful that my workplace did some things to make me feel safer, but for my own feelings I have been just really upping my self care: going to the gym more to work out my rage, taking hot baths to help me relax, picking up a more challenging version of my favorite hobby to occupy my brain more deeply. I pulled my old favorite quilt out and put it on my bed for comfort. I considered going back for some more EMDR trauma therapy but I haven't been having severe PTSD symptoms so I didn't, but that's an option.

I've also been working from home a bit more; your job may be willing to be flexible on this? The first few days after the incident I just steered clear, and didn't feel really much guilt at all about working from home.

It was important to me to not minimize how I felt. I don't think that it's possible to have thick enough skin that a death threat doesn't bother you! It is okay to be bothered by this. And it is okay to be kind to yourself throughout being bothered. I will say that time helps, this happened to me two weeks ago and I feel a lot better about it today than I did the day it happened. Take care and be kind to yourself.
posted by sockermom at 4:51 AM on October 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

I worked at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where this thing was a daily issue (and where, shortly after I left, one of our guards, Stephen Tyrone Johns, was murdered on the job).

The contempt that I feel for the kind of people making these threats, and their cause, helped a lot in getting me through the door every morning.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:05 AM on October 28, 2018 [17 favorites]

I worked someplace where I found out that button under the desk called the police. Probably not expensive, train temporary staff. Get a camera for the entry and a sign For security, camera in use..
posted by theora55 at 5:19 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

According to my aunt, who was on the receiving end of this most of her career, the first few are the hardest. In the long run she and her staff took the approach that if a person really wanted to do harm there would be no warning first, and forty years of unrealized threats seem to have born that out.

Not that she ever got used to it. She says one of the best things about retirement is not having that as part of her life any more.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:01 AM on October 28, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is an issue at my current job and was at my former job as well. If you message me sharing what is already being done, I can go through additional safety measures we take.
posted by Toddles at 6:15 AM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry you're dealing with this, but glad you asked the question, I'm looking forward to reading the answers. A few things that have helped me: first, I took a one-day personal defense course, and just talking through different scenarios helps create a mindset of handling an attacker rather than being immediately defeated by an attacker. It gets rid of that paralyzing fear. Second, in any attack scenario, you have the choice of running, hiding, or fighting. I would periodically (and randomly) quiz myself throughout the day - if something happened RIGHT NOW, where would I run? Where would I hide? How would I fight? It only takes 30 seconds to look around and locate the nearest door, imagine yourself hiding behind the nearest filing cabinet, or imagine yourself grabbing the nearby fire extinguisher and walloping an attacker on the head. Again, envisioning this regularly helps create the mindset of reacting to an attack rather than being paralyzed with fear.

Like ryanshepard, hatred of people that try to control others with violence gets me through a lot. I'm not a great activist like others in the Metafilter community, but my contribution is steadily carrying out the laws of the American people and not being swayed by intimidation (while, hopefully, the rest of America figures out how to improve our society).

That said, if this becomes a long-term problem and you decide you just don't want to deal with this anymore, there is no shame in getting a different job (I've been considering making a similar leap). Most people never have to confront this and shouldn't judge you on decisions regarding your personal safety.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 6:19 AM on October 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

From an anonymous member:
In my job I occasionally have to deal with Sovereign Citizens, in situations where I am required to make decisions which can have fairly serious consequences for them. I've had a few death threats as a result.

Some of them are obviously not genuine threats - non-specific rants wishing I'd DIAF or a car crash or hoping I'll end up in jail one day where I'll get shivved. But occasionally the threat has been more specific and personally directed towards me. Unfortunately, the response from our security people has been less than robust at times.

In the worst example, one person went on a SovCit Facebook Group, published my decision on his case and whipped up sufficient vitriol against me that one person suggested - and got considerable support for - the idea that they needed to find out where I live, and that I should be hounded into committing suicide.

I live in a cul-de-sac in a forest, where there are only 16 properties. I try to stay anonymous outside of work (not on LinkedIn, only work stuff in my real name, and a couple of other people with the same name who are much higher profile who appear first on Google searches). But if they were somehow able to find out the street (from the historic voter's roll), it would be very easy to find out which is my property. I felt scared and vulnerable.

I reported this to Security at work, who said "Ah, it's only Facebook, nothing to worry about". I was less than happy with this, and escalated it to my boss. She used to work for a government agency dealing with security issues, and she agreed with me that it was serious enough to be a genuine threat. We raised it with our director of security, who thankfully also agreed it was worth taking action on. The police became involved, and they gave me advice on home security and checked up on me regularly for a few weeks until it blew over. But it was worrying at the time, and a whole different ballgame from the people who are just ranting in an email.

I felt uneasy and wary for a while, and changed my routine, which upset me. I usually walk to the station, but took the car for a few weeks. I am still antsy about home security and it's made me almost a little OCD about making sure doors and windows are locked, security lights work, and the chain is on the door. I am thinking about getting a video doorbell, but feel that this would almost be 'giving in' to them by continuing to feel scared when there's a knock at the door.

If security at work hadn't (eventually) taken it seriously, I'd have contacted the police myself. Trust your gut.
posted by taz at 6:23 AM on October 28, 2018 [13 favorites]

Since this is a staffwide issue, I think it might be appropriate to get an relevantly-experienced psychologist/therapist/trauma advocate in to do at least a lunch & learn or half-day session on techniques for managing this extremely specific form of stress. There are processing and narrative-reformatting techniques that you should all learn in order to not make each other worse (basically, there are good ways to process shared experiences like this together, and then there are ways to rabbithole and scare each other and/or be dismissive of another person's different reactions, and it's hard to avoid the bad ways if you aren't keeping it in mind), plus you need to talk about how to/not to take this stuff home.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:28 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I haven't dealt with anonymous threats -- which I imagine would add a whole other layer of uncertainty and fear -- but I've had clients make potentially credible threats of violence against me. What helped the least was minimizing my fear and having my boss immediately minimize my fear. (She was supportive of my contacting the sheriff, which I would have done even if she hadn't been supportive, but I think she was trying to be comforting by saying, "Oh, it's not a big deal, he won't actually hurt you," but that made me feel like I wasn't being heard.) So, don't minimize your own feelings, and be careful about conversations with co-workers who do. Getting death threats is scary. It's ok to be scared. If you find the fear paralyzing or overwhelmingly distressing, then it may be helpful to talk it through with a therapist or trained professional. But allow yourself to have your feelings.
posted by lazuli at 9:10 AM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I represented survivors of domestic violence in high-conflict family court cases, I found that getting to know and being friendly with bailiffs and other security guards was helpful for feeling more calm in environments where threat was presumed, and my job was to either directly negotiate with and/or present evidence about it. If your agency has security guards, you can chat with them, ask for their safety advice, and find out if they can help with things like walking people to their cars in the parking lot.

I was warned by a mentor to always lock my car doors in the courthouse parking lot, and one of my legal aid offices provided security training that included ideas like always keep a dish of paperclips on your desk, so it can be flung in an attacking person's face to buy time to escape, because people will reflexively put their hands up to shield their eyes. We also rearranged the furniture in our offices so we had the most direct route to the exit. I find it calming to review security protocols, but YMMV.

Now that I started physical therapy for TMJ etc., I've been reflecting on some of my past self-management techniques. I find PT is helping me notice how much stress I've internalized, I think because it is helping me learn how to process and release it. I'm still new to physical therapy, but I think it could have been helpful back in the day when it was part of my job to mentally armor up before walking into a courthouse.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:49 AM on October 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

From an anonymous member:
The most helpful thing that I found was being told that in work situations it's almost never about you. Threats are either expressions of anger or attempts at control, and what they are angry with or feel out of control of is a situation. It's not a threat to you as a person; it's a threat towards whoever happens to be fulfilling the role that you are doing, or towards whoever happens to be the 'face' of the organisation the person is angry with. Obviously this is less helpful if, to take an example from upthread, you're Jewish and working for a Holocaust Memorial Museum, as there is hate directed towards you personally.

I agree with upthread that the first few are the hardest, and after that it becomes a background stress. That's not to diminish the experience - violence, potential violence and threats of violence wear you down in ways that other stresses don't. But the first ones are shocking in ways that later ones, for all the evocation of a stress response, just aren't.

And absolutely trust your gut. I know it's less of a thing for anonymous threats, but every time that I've felt uncomfortable with someone threatening, they have gone on to assault someone.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:12 AM on October 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

We got death threats back in the day over an issue now that seems almost quaint. We already had panic buttons in our workplace, which helped. Your agency should look into that, if feasible.

I see no reason why you should minimize your feelings or criticize yourself for having them. Someone made a threat to you, in a world where far too many loons are deciding to act on threats. Physical exercise to burn off the stress is good. So is having a plan. I don't recommend perseverating on it, but think out what you do if the guy came in the front door or approached you when you were walking from the office to your car/transit, and physically walk through the routes you'd take to get away. Your brain is freaking out because this is a new and unknown threat, so the more you *calmly* rehearse your response, the less the adrenaline is likely to bother you. It's not a good time to get a gun, but one of those self-defense keychains may help with your nerves--just make sure it's legal in your state. Make sure not to say anything on social media about where you'll be for a while. And use caution in handling letters from unknown sources.
posted by praemunire at 10:13 AM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my small urban office, we have a safe word that everyone knows. So, let's say the word was "attic" (our office has no attic), and I said out loud to another member of the staff something like "Say, Bob, is anyone coming to look at the attic today?" It actually means "Bob call 911 right now and get the police here immediately."

I only offer this as a discreet solution for getting help if, God forbid, someone actually shows up to you office.
posted by 4ster at 1:09 PM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

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