The San Bernardino Shootings: Was it Workplace Violence or Domestic Terrorism?

Posted on: December 6th, 2015

I am not trying to take on the those bigger than me but, I see many lessons learned from this San Bernardino tragedy that has increased my passion to do the right thing for the right reasons. Whatever the media, law enforcement, politicians or the employer finally decide to call the San Bernardino Shootings is their prerogative based on their investigations. The law enforcement the effort is commendable leaving no stone unturned, I understand their concern and due diligence .  I have a saying, “I would rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” (I don’t know who said it, I just live by it.) In the meantime, we must collaborate to insure we do not misidentify this incident.  I prefer under speculation and over delivering. A security management consultant with a specialty in workplace violence prevention never limits the options in arriving at the most holistic assessment.

Judging from all the varying raw news reports, it is difficult to dismiss the workplace connection.  After all, there were employee observations and witness accounts pertaining to a possible workplace dispute at the party. 

We know something occurred at the San Bernardino County Health Department holiday party at the Inland Regional Center between employee(s) and Syed Rizwan Farook.  Whatever transpired, it triggered an angry reaction causing the employee to leave the party.  Coincidentally, witness accounts have since described the shooter who had left the party earlier as possibly being Farook.  We will never know what actually escalated to such retaliatory anger unless those involved come forward to disclose their knowledge.

The holistic workplace violence prevention assessment views the workplace incident from a variety of angles in arriving at conclusions and recommendations. Even while law enforcement appropriately pursues the shooting as an act of terrorism, there is some grounded speculation that this incident may relate to employees and a workplace related unresolved dispute. For most of us who view holiday parties as an opportunity to relax and let our hair down, holiday parties and other settings where employees mix joviality with disgruntled attitudes there exist a mixture for fueled hostilities.  Who knows what might have been said at the holiday party or whether there was ill will over a prolonged period of time.  Only an independent critical assessment of the facts, circumstances and observations will help lead to what might have actually triggered the shooting.

What has been reported is that San Bernardino County employees Syed Rizwan Farook and others were engaged in some verbal altercation at the holiday party.  Media reports have also developed varying witness accounts of their observations who said that shortly before Farook stormed out of the party he appeared upset about something.

Others have said that one of the shooters who had his face covered sounded and appeared like the employee in question, saying he appeared similar to the employee who left the party earlier.  What we know as fact is that Farook along with his wife, Tashefeen Malik are dead.

Law enforcement has an obligation to establish what happened, the motive and determine if the shootings were a Mass Shooting, Domestic Terrorism or Workplace Violence. Truthfully, violence of this type in my mind’s eye is “workplace terrorism”! I have written on the topic of workplace violence and domestic terrorism in the past. The fact remains that Mr. Farook was a San Bernardino County employee who either had an unresolved grievance or ongoing dispute with a co-worker(s).  Existing, unresolved workplace disputes and social events sponsored by the employer are nasty combinations for mismanaged grievances and ongoing conflict.  These are observations and clues that can offer perspective and shed some light. Lessons can be learned regardless of the outcome in the need to develop comprehensive workplace violence prevention and violence response policies and plans and training for all levels of the workforce.  

As we view the threat of workplace violence and the impact on the workplace and worker safety, emotions run rampant.  It is not unusual for employee perpetrators of such violence to store weapons and ammunitions prior to their deadly rampage. The Nation’s first workplace mass murder occurred at the Edmonton Post Office, Oklahoma, August 19, 1986. Robert Sherill, letter carrier at the Edmonton Post Office entered the Post Office carrying his mailbag over his shoulder. In the bag were two. 45 caliber semi-automatic pistols, property of the National Guard and his own .22 caliber handgun.  At his home law enforcement found more guns and stacks of magazines, mostly of Soldier of Fortune and Soviet Life. Draw your own conclusions! 

Person’s feelings exposed to ongoing harassment, verbal abuse and unresolved bullying creates a sense of festering and intimidation. Poor management intervention implies disparate treatment, poor supervision and poor leadership create harsh feelings in the hearts and minds of alleged victims.  These feelings in some are sufficient enough to create validation and justification for their intended retaliatory decisions and subsequent actions. We must keep in the mind that mental illness can’t be the rationale used to always describe these “perpetrators”.  

Pre-planning is essential. This particular incident isn’t only about news coverage and reporting speculation, it is about realities that regardless of the speculation, indicates little investment in workplace violence prevention and violence response policy and training. More can be done to increase situational awareness through quality workplace violence prevention training to prepare employees to respond appropriately anywhere to a homicidal threat of  homicidal violence. Such training when designed with the workplace in mind considers the unique worksites and the employee risk factors.

According to news reports there was mass confusion at the Inland Regional Center.  Responding police officers said, fire alarms were blaring and there were employees who were reluctant to comply with their request to exit the center.  Such observations indicate those employees were not aware of what to do during such an emergency.  Training has to prepare the work force to be better prepared and informed of what options and courses of action to take, the police response and police encounter and post incident notification instructions. 

Discovery by law enforcement of 12 pipe bombs, tools and components to construct IEDs or pipe bombs, weapons and ammunition are not out of the norm in describing the active shooter mindset.  Active Shooters typically progress through five stages: fantasy stage, planning stage, preparation stage, approach stage and implementation stage. Each stage has a unique set of behaviors and activities on the way to the final stage. The materials and weapons found at the Farook home appear consistent with the patterned behavior within the active shooter mindset as in the Robert Sherill Post Office Murders cited above. In other words, it would not be unusual to use IEDs to create confusion or distractions. However, there are always distinctions that can be made and applied in any unique situation such as in these shootings.  This tragedy may just as well be a shooting involving domestic terrorism, I want to seize the moment to extract valuable lessons we can learn apply.  But, on the surface it appears to be the act of a disgruntled employee whom for whatever reason(s) transitioned to become an angry killer with possible domestic terrorism implications.

Minor incidents of workplace violence occur daily in every type of business whether you know it or not or care to know about it. Victims of workplace violence often tell their doctors, families, friends, neighbors, law enforcement, and pastor of their frustrations before reporting it to their supervisors out of fear of reprisals.  Lately I can include myself on this list.  

That’s why it’s important for workplace leaders to cautiously consider external statistics not reflective of their own data collection of reported incidents. Considering other national statistics in the implementation of workplace violence prevention and violence response strategy could be faulty.  Avoiding the need to prepare on the probability of occurrence in the end may not be prudent.  Such risk management practices suggest such an incident can never happen and “IF” it does happen the police can handle it. So if it’s a management’s belief that it is highly improbable a workplace shooting will ever happen, the prudent decision to invest may not happen.  Employers have an ethical, moral and legal duty to provide the workforce a safe workplace. Courts do not weigh lack of budgets and corporate culture in considering responsibility. 

Workplaces experience varying levels of verbal abuse, name calling, harassment and intimidating behavior by employees on employees, non-employees and opportunistic criminals.  The concern is whether the workplace has policies and procedures in place to handle such incidents in managing the potentially hostile workplace. 

When organizations fail to recognize the need to take proactive workplace violence prevention measures, they contribute to unintentional consequences and are surprised by employee/former employee acts of violence. From the observations and speculation, the San Bernardino shooting appears to have a workplace relationship. One report said that  Farook and a co-worker had a heated argument over Farook’s Islam Religion several weeks earlier.  As such the consequences are huge in terms of loss of life, physical injury and psychological trauma.  The unfortunate reality is that these incidents force employers to take a closer look at their workplace security and not their workplace violence prevention strategy. And even when post shooting recommendations state specific changes be adopted, these implementations are often slow because of internal disagreements and budgets. In some cases recommendations are not yet adopted.

Surely, we must agree that preparing for the “IF” it happens instead of “WHEN” it happens is not the right business-security approach. “IF” implies denial or reluctance to implement proper procedures and protocols. Employers who dismiss the need for quality workplace violence prevention policies to include procedures, protocols and training are uninformed and unaware of the impact and are misinformed about the value of strategies tied to quality training.  Just having a written workplace violence prevention policy is not enough. the workforce must have knowledge of what to do upon witnessing an incident and when they are victims; and supervisors must know how to assess and evaluate reported incidents.

So, does your company have a workplace violence prevention and violence response policy? Have you been trained on the policy, procedures and protocols? How frequently? On a 1-10 point rating scale, how effective do you rate the training you’ve received? From your experiences, what is your gut feeling about the San Bernardino Tragedy?

Remember! Once a disgruntled employee transitions to thoughts of homicidal violence, those thoughts and subsequent decisions were likely predicated on their validation and justification based on their perceptions of unfairness, disparity and exposure. In the end this may well be a case of “domestic terrorism” tied to an international group.  How prepared are you now? What protective measures are in place?


7 Responses

  1. Tom Rhodes says:


    Since it happened a there was all the discussion about more weapons and Bombs I could not help thinking that there was a bigger plan, which became a workplace terrorist attack because of a workplace argyement. I have a hard time believing all those weapons were for this event.

    Love your post.


    • Felix says:

      Tom, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my article. It was a though decision but after pondering on the value of a good discussion, I decided the ROI outweighed any concerns I might have held. To the average arm chair analyst of which I respect and understand, there are many moving parts to the these shootings which will continue to perplex law enforcement, the workplace, the courts and the ardent readership who only see the domestic terrorist perspective. As I stated on many occasions, I consider the homicidal act of violence on the workforce as an act of terrorism. In this case what we have is a disgruntled employee with speculations of ties and connections to the typical international terrorist our Country and the world is presently combating and I can’t take issue with that level of concern. What I find as a fine line is the existence of an employee conflict allowed to fester in the workplace that was never resolved and that when mixed with the alleged type of vitriol at the holiday party caused the plans already in motion to come to a head as planned. It would be justified and rational for the uninformed to consider this a total terrorist attack without understanding that the holiday party was a publicized event giving sufficient time in the planning process to prepare to exact his vengeance on the day of the holiday party. This outcome is consistent with the behavior of the terrorist and active shooter who both plan methodically. And you might be right in thinking about the connection of more weapons and bombs being a part of a bigger plan. I like your thinking and how you arrived at your thesis and can appreciate you concern.

      These types of incidents though take on a characteristic associated with the behavior of an active shooter which as I stated above is a process. During the Preparation stage of the active shooter mindset and process, the suspect may be obtaining gun powder or other chemicals for his improvised explosive devices. He might break into a house to steal weapons and ammunition and/or hide them away in a designated place closer to where he plans to attack. He may also do a practice run or walk through of the operation, gearing himself up for the assault. Whatever the final determination, it behooves workplaces to start taking workplace violence prevention planning and training a bit more seriously. The implications are huge if we leave such responsibility for “IF” it happens.I appreciate your time Tom Rhodes. That Farook struck during the holiday party might have been a part of his retaliation plan.

  2. Kelly Kasper says:

    Thank you, Felix! This is a great article. I have already shared it with one of my clients.


    • Felix says:

      Thank you, Kelly Kasper. The intent as you gleaned was to show balance in how these situations should approached. The misinformed might jump to a conclusion based on what limit knowledge might be applied. Those of us involved in such matters have an obligation to make tough calls in protecting those involved and applying thoughtful assessments. The observations and implications are serious. There are many take-aways to be considered and implemented. If workplaces are taking a nonchalant view of workplace violence, this incident clearly shows it requires the kind of management commitment usually seen at senior levels of any organization. The traumatic shock of this event will last indefinitely as will the allegations and spectre of negligence.

  3. Felix- fascinating reading. Thank you for this.

    When I first learned about the tragedy in California last December, I immediately thought it was workplace violence more than terrorism and have regarded it as such ever since. Your article helped clarify this point for me.

    The killers here did not go into a concert facility as the incident in Paris or stage a car bomb in the streets of London or highjack planes and slam them into high rise buildings in New York City. In every incident of terrorism I’m aware of strangers are targeted. Not so here. Mr. Farook targeted his co-workers at a company-sponsored training session. How can this NOT be workplace violence?

    • Felix says:

      Thank you for your dialogue Kathleen, I appreciate your interest in workplace violence prevention. Too many theorist and internet miners repeat and regurgitate their realities and myths. To understand workplace violence prevention one must have an acquired mindset. While one can learn about workplace violence prevention it requires an intimate involvement resulting from first hand experience before one can claim expert status.
      When I first learned about the tragedy in California last December, I immediately thought it was workplace violence more than terrorism and have regarded it as such ever since. Your article helped clarify this point for me.

      Your perspective is interesting. The San Bernardino shooting incident is open to discussion in deciding what one can decide. I proffer an observation based on critical assessment but, I leave the conclusions to the readership. While it is easy to be captivated into thinking the incident as a pure terrorism incident, it is not difficult to plot such an incident knowing all the logistics to maximize the impact. As an employee retaliating against vengeful employees offered many options to wit included a workplace convenient venue like the Christmas Party. Employees initially interviewed all offered observations that lend themselves to a workplace related retaliatory response to harassment and abuse. As suggested in your comments, Mr. Farook targeted his co-workers at a company-sponsored training session, what a coincidence. Whatever is the ultimate outcome by law enforcement gets my respect; however, the workplace was the target.

    • Felix says:

      Kathleen, as a workplace violence prevention consultant my purpose is too provide a critical assessment of issues and situations impacting workplace violence prevention. At the same time, I don’t challenge experts who have their positions but rather I offer perspective and rationale. Farook was an employee with access and knowledge of planning and schedules. Early reporting documented employee observations & reports of workplace abuse and harassment. This does not disqualify other mitigating circumstances, I am merely saying that my obligation is to assess and evaluate situations from a root cause analysis in a very positive way.

What are your thoughts?