Growing Role of HR in Enhancing Workplace Security

Explore how Human Resources is partnering with security to foster a safer workplace culture.

About a decade ago, one of my colleagues, Melissa Muir, was working in the courts as a young human resources (HR) manager and was preparing to terminate an employee.  In her effort to minimize embarrassment to the employee, she agreed to meet with him after work hours, at a time when the building would be empty. She also planned to collect his company-issued firearm during that termination meeting.  She happened to mention this plan to a colleague in the security department, and he was able to show her that her termination plan was the HR equivalent of walking down a dark alley alone.  Muir says that conversation with her security colleague marked a turning point for her, providing a vivid example of how HR and security professionals can work together to enhance workplace safety and security.  

This collaboration across HR and security departments is becoming even more important as organizations are facing increased volumes of threats as well as increased fear experienced by some employees returning to work post-pandemic.   Recent data suggest that HR professionals see themselves as having direct responsibility for workplace security when it comes to internal or insider threats.  According to Ontic’s 2022 Mid-Year State of Protective Intelligence Report, 80% of HR executives surveyed believe that they are directly responsible for protecting their company from hostile, harmful, or aggressive employee behavior.  

However, the survey findings also suggested there may be disagreement among departments as to which department should have primary responsibility for threat assessment and threat management.  The majority of HR executives surveyed felt that the Human Resources department should take the lead in their organization’s threat assessment & threat management efforts.  At the same time, the majority of physical security professionals surveyed felt that the Security department should have primary responsibility for threat assessment.   

Having HR professionals see themselves as active participants in an organization’s overall security efforts can benefit workplace safety in a number of ways. HR professionals are well-situated to gather the information that can help employees in crisis get the help they need. They may also be more in tune with employee morale and culture shifts that could lead to discontent and unrest. This sort of information gathering and assessment forms the backbone of the discipline of threat assessment and is essential to help identify behaviors that may be pre-incident indicators of workplace violence, harassment, sabotage, or intellectual property theft. However, human resources professionals can’t be solely responsible for threat assessment at an organization, as threat assessment is most effective when conducted by a multi-disciplinary team that includes security professionals, mental health professionals, legal counsel, and others in partnership with human resource professionals. 

In addition to serving on a multidisciplinary threat assessment team – and possibly taking the lead in an organization’s threat assessment efforts – HR professionals can take other active steps to help enhance their organization’s safety and security.  First, HR professionals can build trust among rank-and-file employees to empower them to report threatening or troubling behavior if they become aware of any.  HR professionals can also help ensure that anonymous tip lines stay anonymous and that referrals to employee assistance programs are non-punitive. 

Finally, HR professionals can help facilitate information-sharing as well as familiarity among their colleagues in physical security, cybersecurity, and legal and compliance departments.  Quite often, we see that these disparate departments have a significant amount of data at their fingertips but don’t have a way to share it effectively – or don’t know the professionals with whom they are sharing the information. HR professionals can take the lead in breaking down those silos and help professionals in these departments become more familiar with each other, understand each other’s responsibilities, and foster effective cross-department collaboration.  

When it comes to organizational security, no one has to “walk down that dark alley alone.”  Whether you are in HR, physical security, cybersecurity, legal, compliance, or employee assistance, working together with colleagues on a multi-disciplinary team can help connect the dots and build a more robust picture of potential threats with the goal of preventing harm, getting help to at-risk employees, and enhancing overall workplace safety.

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Building a Workplace Threat Assessment Program

Dr. Marisa Randazzo, Ph.D.