Risk Assessment: What You Should Know
David J. Baxter
The Accidental Jurist, April 2003

When you're looking for a lawyer, you don't just pick someone blindly out of the telephone book. At the very least, you'd select one based on advertised areas of expertise (criminal, family, real estate, civil, etc.) and match his or her expertise to your specific requirements at the time. More than likely, you'd seek a recommendation from someone you know who has been in a similar situation or had similar needs for legal advice and representation. Clearly, all lawyers are not created equal, the same is true for psychologists.

So if you have concerns about an employee's emotional health or stability, and specifically that person's potential for workplace violence, the first thing you need to do is to locate a psychologist or other mental health professional (1) who has some experience and expertise in the area of workplace violence, and (2) who has the requisite training and expertise to conduct an adequate empirically-based assessment of the risk that employee might present.

In any assessment of risk involving a question of danger to self or others, there are a few basic requirements. First, it is very clear from research on 'prediction of dangerousness' that basing such predictions solely on clinical interviews and clinical intuition is little better than a guess "empirical research tells us in effect that clinical prediction adds little or no predictive accuracy to what is already available from past history (i.e., the old adage that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour)". Thus, we need objective estimates of risk which evaluate factors known to be empirically related to certain types of potentially dangerous behaviour. Second, in conducting a risk assessment for any forensic issue, the psychologist needs to be aware that there is a significant potential for dissimulation (whether that be in the direction of minimization or exaggeration) and to ensure that the assessment instruments used to determine risk are therefore capable of detecting dissimulation and taking it into account in interpreting and drawing conclusions from the assessment.

Exactly which psychological tests are used in a risk assessment depends to some extent on the questions which are being asked in the assessment, but there is usually more than one standardized and empirically-validated test that could be appropriate. Consequently, in test selection, it is critical that the psychologist has adequate training and experience with particular tests and their use with specific forensic clients. Beyond this, the selection of tests should be guided by the following criteria:

1. the tests should have a reasonably large research database and preferably will have been validated in languages and cultures other than English and western nations;
2. they should either include "validity scales" which allow one to determine the extent to which the client was minimizing or exaggerating or otherwise attempting to distort the assessment findings, or the nature of the test should be such that it is virtually impossible to "fake";
3. the tests should be capable of detecting subtle signs of borderline psychotic thinking and evaluating critical factors such as adequacy of impulse controls, propensity for aggressive acting-out, paranoid ideas, etc.; and
4. the assessment battery should include one of the empirically-derived tests developed specifically to provide numerical estimates of risk for future criminal or antisocial acts.

In seeking expert advice on risk assessment, it is important that you satisfy yourself and your clients that the individual you consult has had sufficient training and experience to develop an understanding of the important empirical predictors of dangerousness in the specific venue of concern (e.g., workplace violence, domestic violence, child abuse, etc.), as well as adequate training and experience in the use of the psychological tests which are to be used in conducting the assessment.

More information:
Criminal-Forensic Psychology
The Accidental Jurist