It’s 9 a.m., and the morning meeting begins with coffee and gunfire.
At least, it sounds like gunfire. The choices are clear. Turn to colleagues and discuss the situation, or leave immediately.
Experts at a workplace violence seminar held in Maryland on Dec. 7, 2010, say each second spent trying to figure out what do next instead of reacting quickly places lives in jeopardy. It might sound like paranoia, but security professionals say employees should plan for worst-case scenarios because not knowing exactly what to do could mean the difference between life and death. (For suggestions on developing a plan, see the sidebar to this story and SHRM'sToolkit Dealing with Violence in the Workplace).
Stop the Problem Before It Can Start
Early prevention is critical, said Brent O’Bryan, SPHR, regional director, human capital management, for AlliedBarton Security Services. The seminar was sponsored by AlliedBarton and the suburban Maryland chapter of ASIS International for law enforcement officers, security officers and HR professionals.
“It begins by not letting [violent employees] in the door in the first place,” he said. Hiring managers need to be cognizant of following the same rules of background checks for every employee—including those employees who might be hired because of nepotism.
O’Bryan said hiring managers cannot be afraid of asking candidates “uncomfortable questions.” Go ahead, he said, ask them “if they’ve ever stolen anything or if they’ve ever had any conflicts.”
After all, he said, “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
O’Bryan said HR professionals must be mindful, too, of terminating problem employees. “Always remember that in this situation, termination is the capital punishment of the business world.”
He said some of the mistakes that happen when terminating problem employees include:
- Not telling employees the real reasons for their termination. “Just because they’re getting fired doesn’t mean they’re stupid. If you haven’t laid off anyone in the past two years, they’re going to know something is fishy.” This could either end with a workplace violence scenario or a lawsuit.
- Poorly planned termination meeting. “Make sure you have a plan,” said O’Bryan. “If you have physical security, have them on notice. You may want them there or nearby—it’s a wise practice.”
- Emotion rather than facts. “Try to avoid making an intense situation worse.”
- Not treating employees with dignity. “Make sure they know when that COBRA letter is coming, that they understand when their last check is coming, when their reference letter is coming.”
- Not firing someone who should be fired. “We’ve had situations where people have had success but have left a trail of wounded people behind them,” he said of high performers who have been bad at managing people.
- Treating the event too lightly. “When there’s a separation that can be a flashpoint—that’s where you have workplace violence issues most often.”
Watch for Triggers
Experts with the Center for Personal Protection & Safety say that when people who have survived workplace shootings that were committed by other employees remember the incident, they say there were often signs that something was wrong—that there were behaviors that should have caused concern. Generally, any behavior that makes employees uncomfortable or leaves them feeling intimidated is a cause for alarm.
These behaviors include being disruptive, aggressive and hostile. Also: exhibiting prolonged anger, holding grudges, being hypersensitive to criticism, blaming others, being preoccupied with violence and being sad for a long period of time. Experts say what begins as sadness can lead to depression and suicide. Individuals who are contemplating suicide might think about taking their lives and the lives of others as well.
“You need to be aware of the behaviors of people,” said retired Police Chief Dave Crawford of the Laurel, Md., Police Department.
“As managers and supervisors we have not only a legal obligation but a moral obligation to protect our workforce,” he said. “If you have your blinders on, you don’t see symptoms.”
There are other signs. If someone who usually is friendly and outgoing becomes quiet and disengaged, that could be a cause for concern.
Sometimes people who experience a loss, a death, a reprimand, financial trouble, a layoff or termination can snap. Be mindful, too, of people who are the victims of stalking or domestic violence. Their personal lives might put their colleagues at risk.
“Make sure employees are aware of employee assistance plans. Make sure they know it’s there for them in cases like domestic violence,” O’Bryan said. He added that wellness programs that limit stress can help significantly. “When you limit stress in the workplace, you limit the potential of workplace violence.”
Experts say alert employees should take these behaviors and threats seriously and should be encouraged to report anything out of the ordinary to HR—whether it is anonymously or not. Employees should be encouraged not to worry about not wanting people to get in trouble or fired.
But awareness isn’t the only weapon against workplace violence, officials said. “Another thing is action,” Crawford said. “It’s not enough to look around and know that there’s a potential problem.”
Security training shouldn’t just be for HR professionals, O’Bryan added, “it should be for every employee. Make sure everyone who is working at the workplace knows what to do,” he said.
Shots Fired? Here’s a Plan
If a shooter enters the workplace, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends:
- Evacuate with an escape route in mind. Don’t wait for others; leave belongings behind. Don’t help wounded co-workers. Call 911 when safe and provide a physical description of the shooter or shooters, number of weapons and potential victims.
- Hide. Close and lock or barricade doors. Silence cell phones. Be quiet. Don’t huddle in groups. Experts say it’s harder for a gunman to shoot at individual targets.
- Jump the shooter. As a last resort and only when danger isn’t imminent, attempt to disrupt and or incapacitate the shooter by yelling, throwing something or getting a group of people to tackle the culprit.
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Preparation Makes Safe Employees, Experts Say, SHRM Online Safety & Security Discipline, September 2010
Dealing with Violence in the Workplace, SHRM Research, March 2010
Shots Fired: Guidance for Surviving an Active Shooter Situation, Center for Personal Protection & Safety