How to Avoid Potentially Violent Situations During Claims Investigations

By Denise Johnson | July 24, 2013

Working in unfamiliar locations on stressful losses, usually alone, adjusters in the field can be at a disadvantage when it comes to knowing if a situation with a policyholder or claimant could turn ugly.

In a recent interview with Claims Journal, Dr. Alan Friedman, a Chicago-based clinical and forensic psychologist and violence deterrent specialist, explained how adjusters can identify, avoid and diffuse potentially violent situations they might encounter in the field or while on catastrophe duty.

Dr. Friedman, who will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming 2013 First Party Claims Conference, focuses his practice on designing strategies to help people remain safe.

“Making proactive attempts to plan ahead is what I try to help individuals and companies think about, because without a plan in place or awareness people are more vulnerable,” Dr. Friedman said.

He said adjusters can and should look to identify potentially problematic situations.

“We can’t identify all situations, but many times there are indicators ahead of time that can give you clues. The first thing I would say is if an adjuster has a feeling, which we often refer to as intuition, that they’re dealing with a claimant who is angry or potentially volatile, they need to pay attention to their intuition. There are a number of signals that claimants could give ahead of time to an adjuster before they even meet through email contact or actual phone contact that suggest that the claimant is volatile and vulnerable to losing control of their emotions,” the violence deterrence specialist said.

“Things to look for in those situations range from what we call emotional ability where the person gets hyper-excited on the phone, then they calm themselves down. Then they become hyper-excited again. To actually making direct or even indirect threats to the adjuster such as, ‘If I don’t get this compensation I’m entitled to,’ or, ‘If I don’t get this benefit, then this and this and this will happen or follow,’” he said.

According to Dr. Friedman, if that happens the adjuster shouldn’t enter the situation with the claimant or policyholder unless convinced the person has calmed down and is in control of his or her emotions.

Indicators can be in the form of verbal or even nonverbal communications, he said.

“Before you even show up to a potential situation that could involve violence, understand that claimants typically, especially if they’ve suffered some sort of catastrophic loss, are at their emotionally worst state of mind. They’re in a state of feeling deprived and they’re looking to the adjuster who represents the insurance company and their policy to bring hope and restore some kind of equilibrium in their life,” Dr. Friedman said.

“In some cases their expectations are realistic but when their expectations are unrealistic, the adjuster needs to understand that they need to help reshape those expectations. Otherwise, the claimant is going to have expectations that are not going to be fulfilled. When that happens, they can become very angry which can evolve into hostility.”

According to the Chicago psychologist, the expectations need to be presented and framed in a realistic way so the claimant isn’t expecting to get benefits they’re not going to get.

“In my experience, that is when I’ve seen cases evolve into stalking or harassment and bullying of the adjuster,” Dr. Friedman said.

Losses arising from catastrophes can be especially sensitive.

“So, if in person, you’re sitting down with an individual who just suffered some sort of catastrophic loss or was exposed to a traumatic stressor, whether it was a flood, a tornado, a hurricane, whatever the case may be. This person is likely to still be emotionally raw and vulnerable. They might even be suffering from what psychologists refer to as an acute stress reaction, which precedes the development of what we all have heard as PTSD or post‑traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

Adjusters handling catastrophe losses in person should watch for cues, he said.

“In those cases, when you’re one-on-one with the person, if the person is starting to escalate and get hostile verbally, making accusations, pointing their fingers, getting heated, you want to do whatever you can try to neutralize their emotions,” he said.

Adjusters should listen empathetically and avoid getting defensive.

“So if they say, ‘Look. I’m entitled to this. I was promised this. When am I going to get it?’ Instead of saying things back and counter aggressing against them such as, ‘You were never promised this. This isn’t want your policy says,’ you want to try to underscore and emphasize their underlying emotions, to let them know you understand why they’re upset. That you’d feel the same way in their situation and you’re going to do everything you can to address the situation to your fullest ability without making other promises,” Dr. Friedman said.

Addressing their emotional state should help neutralize the situation.

“Because when a person feels that they’re not being ignored and their concerns are not being trivialized or minimized, then they feel like they’re being heard and listened to. But when they begin to feel ignored or somehow diminished or the subject is being changed because the adjuster feels uncomfortable dealing with this angry person, then things could escalate. If things do escalate in a situation like that, you don’t want to plan your escape in the moment. You want to think ahead,” he said.

Dr. Friedman recommended adjusters plan an escape route when handling losses in the field.

“For example, if you’re in somebody’s home, you don’t want to be the furthest from the door. You want to be closest to the door, if that’s possible. You don’t want to be in an environment where you could be trapped. So think ahead about your escape plan,” he said.

He recommended adjusters conduct research when they plan to visit unfamiliar locations.

“If they are going out to a field situation where they’re not familiar, try to look at the statistics in that area ahead of time, such as the crime statistics which anybody can Google these days to find out what kind of a neighborhood you’re going into. What are the demographics in that neighborhood? What kinds of situations might have happened in the past with the person that you might be concerned about because of a prior phone call that made you uncomfortable? There are a lot of public domain records available on people that are not intrusive or in violation of the law. Simply by Googling their name, you might find out that a person has a history of domestic batteries against a spouse. Now, you know that the person has a history of violence. This is a person that you want to be careful around,” he said.

Planning ahead is the best way to avoid potentially violent situations.

“Initially, as an adjuster, you’re seen as a person bringing hope to a situation but sometimes hope can turn to despair if, as I said earlier, the person’s expectations are unrealistic. Gathering as much information ahead of time as you can, if you have a cause to do that, makes a lot of sense,” Dr. Friedman said.

He provided additional tips to help adjusters stay safe in the field:

  • Don’t go into dark places by yourself.
  • Make sure your colleagues know where you’re going, when you’re going to be there, and check in with them.
  • Adjusters should consider having an unpublished phone number or screening devices in place on their phones or caller ID.
  • If threatened, drive home via a different route and try to vary routes to and from work. Get an escort to your car.

Though many adjusters working in the field may never experience a violent situation, Dr. Friedman emphasized that it is better to be prepared than to be caught off guard.

“I think that, for the most part, most people do not become violent in claimant/adjuster kinds of relationships even when people are disappointed. But under adverse circumstances, many so‑called normal individuals who have lost many things in a catastrophic loss become highly volatile and are at risk. So, I would say don’t take for granted that everybody is safe. I would say go in the other way. I would rather see people err on the side of commission by being over aware than omission by taking it for granted that this is just another routine claim situation,” he said.

He also emphasized that time spent on the phone with a claimant or policyholder can be invaluable when it comes to evaluating a person’s overall mood and personality.

“If you can possibly spend a few minutes, if not more, on the phone ahead of time talking to the person, getting to know a little bit about them before you arrive for a claim situation. If that’s practical, it makes sense to do it, because that serves as a prescreen for how a person’s demeanor might be when you meet them. It gives you an opportunity to create a working alliance with the person and even a rapport ahead of time, telling them you’re looking forward to seeing them to help them. Ask them on the phone, lastly and importantly, do they have any major concerns right now and what are they. They might say, ‘Well, I’m afraid my claim will be denied’ or ‘I’ve been ripped off before by this company or another insurance company.’ It tells you basically how they think and they’re approaching the situation. That might give you some clues,” Dr. Friedman explained.

Listen to the interview.

Latest Comments

  • August 5, 2013 at 9:30 am
    maqui says:
    This...My friends, is an area commonly referred to as..Left Field, way out there, in the warning track.
  • July 28, 2013 at 10:27 pm
    Carl says:
    Notice the advice is to avoid or back off from emotional people. This is basically Eric Holder's preference. Well what emotion is the tell tale emotion of danger ? Unfortunate... read more
  • July 25, 2013 at 9:10 am
    JohnH says:
    I have learned the hard way , been threatened on many occasions over the years. I make it a habit never to deny a claim on site.

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