Career Clinic: Handling threatening clients

A: It is important that we do not see being frightened and anxious as a sign of professional or personal weakness. It is essential that we acknowledge that some people are threatening or dangerous.

It is also important that we then determine what action should be taken to minimise the danger that may be posed. This is a responsibility for each of us, and also for our employers. We might call this a “risk assessment”, and there should be procedures within organisations about how risk assessments are to be undertaken, recorded and, importantly, acted upon.

Discussing experiences of threats with managers and colleagues should help to reflect on the level of risk someone might present and also what action is to be taken. Bottling up fear and anxiety, and not sharing it with supervisors and colleagues, is not only personally harmful but it can also leave colleagues and others exposed if they should then be in contact with the person who is abusive.

And determining what response should be given when someone is threatening and abusive should include a focus on keeping workers safe as well as considering the safety of children and adults close to the threatening person.

If someone is seen to be a threat and danger to others this should override any embargo of confidentiality. It may require that the information is shared with other agencies, both to protect their workers but also to gather their assistance in tackling the posed threat. This would include collating information and, when necessary, looking for action to be taken by the police.

And it may be necessary to confront the person who is being threatening and intimidating. Sometimes this can be helpful in changing behaviours, but it can also be helpful in making explicit that the power-play being used through aggressive behaviour has been recognised but not accepted.

Protecting ourselves may include doubling-up and co-working with people who are threatening and only meeting them in venues where others are present and able to provide assistance.

But let’s remember that we should always be ready to anticipate and react to people who may become aggressive and violent. It is why when home visiting we should always, whether during or outside the normal office day, keep colleagues informed about our locations and check back in to sign off when finished.

It is also why training in assessing danger is so important, if possible to diffuse anger and threat, and to keep in mind how to withdraw and escape if this should be necessary.

But the big message is not to ignore threat and intimidation. If we are anxious there is likely to be a rational reason for our fear. Sharing our experience, and planning a response, is a personal and professional responsibility we have for ourselves and for others.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St Georges, University of London, and is a former director of social services and BASW chair


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