Can HR Help Prevent Shootings in the Workplace?


By Damaune Journey June 19, 2015

It’s one of the most-feared workplace situations an HR professional could ever encounter: an active shooter at large in the building, putting lives at risk as the seconds tick by. Unfortunately, a study recently released by the FBI showed that between 2000 and 2013, active-shooter events in the United States increased in frequency and number of casualties.

While building security staff are usually the first line of defense in these situations, HR professionals can play an important role by cultivating a mindset focused on early detection—with the goal of preventing these types of situations from happening in the first place. Additionally, new technology can be an ally in quickly pinpointing violent situations and activating first responders.

The Changing Role of HR

HR professionals are increasingly dealing with a range of complex issues, from business continuity planning, to workplace bullying, to violent personnel issues such as shootings in the workplace.

With so many societal and personal challenges facing people daily, employment may be the most stable part of an employee’s life. If this stability is shaken by organizational change, some might react in unhealthy and sometimes vicious ways, traumatically impacting and affecting the personal safety of customers or other employees.

It may seem that these situations are too unpredictable to head off. Yet HR’s traditional role of supporting a safe and welcoming work environment makes the function a natural extension of your organization’s efforts to prevent workplace threats.

When we hear about workplace shootings on the news, witnesses may remark that no one had any idea the perpetrator was dissatisfied at work or planning an attack—and many incidences do occur suddenly and without warning.

Yet HR professionals specialize in evaluating people and situations carefully and in reading between the lines—whether it’s in an interview setting or a sexual harassment investigation. That same expertise and intuition can be leveraged to identify potentially negative situations before they progress to violence.

Recent active-shooter research shows that there is actually a substantial time continuum of possible threat detection beginning when the shooter initially forms the intent to commit mass violence. It may start with posting dark thoughts on social media or alerting friends, then proceed to acquiring a firearm and purchasing ammunition before actually arriving at the workplace with the intent to kill.

Everything prior to the shooter’s arrival at the site can be classified as “early detection” and offers the opportunity to interdict an event before it happens. In counterterrorist circles, early detection is the purview of intelligence agencies and legal interception operations. Yet HR staff can apply skills traditionally used in other HR situations to identify and de-escalate potentially violent situations that might otherwise result in an active-shooter scenario.

These steps could include:

  • Reviewing and practicing conflict resolution and violence de-escalation techniques, by training managers to take steps when needed and training HR staff to step in when additional support is required.
  • Cultivating a workplace culture that allows employee concerns to be vented and heard in a safe, respectful manner—particularly during times of organizational change.
  • Planning for what situations require immediate intervention, such as involving building security staff, activating emergency procedures or alerting local law enforcement.

Early detection presents both tremendous benefits as well as challenges. The unique skills that HR staff already possess can be fine-tuned to include an awareness of—and a commitment to—recognizing and addressing the early signs of potential violence in employee actions, statements and behaviors.

When Early Detection Fails

Improving an organization’s ability to mitigate active-shooter incidents involves developing a mindset of awareness and early detection. It also requires developing protocols and using technology to minimize delays in threat detection; the initiation of internal protective measures; and the rapid activation of police, fire and medical first responders. It’s crystal clear: In situations where early detection has failed and a shooter is active in the building, time is of the essence.

All of these factors are important components of a threat identification and management plan. The most compelling finding from years of research on the topic is that minimizing the time between the detection of a threat and the initiation of internal protective measures, activation of public safety responders and engagement of the shooter is a prime determinant of lives saved or lost.

Active-shooter research also shows in many cases that there may only be a 10-minute window of opportunity to intervene decisively, contain an active shooter and minimize harm. When a substantial amount of this time is spent following existing protocols, with no technological assistance or speed improvement, the results can be tragic.

New technology platforms, such as acoustic gunshot detection and location, can offer tremendous benefits in mitigating active-shooter incidents occurring in a workplace environment.

Data shows that active-shooter attacks often begin outside the building and progress indoors. In Newtown, Conn., for example, the assailant “shot his way in” through a locked outside door and then proceeded with his attack. Thus, the first line of defense lies outside your company’s facility, in a zone of protection surrounding it or comprising the entire outdoor area of a larger facility of many buildings. A combination of both indoor and outdoor gunshot detection is optimal.

One of the most challenging problems in developing responses to active-shooter scenarios is the inability for most people at any given facility to recognize the sound of gunfire when it first happens. Especially when surrounded by building walls that attenuate sound, most people simply do not have the practical, real-world experience with firearms discharges to make an immediate, experienced assessment of the threat. New gunshot detection technology utilizes a network of both indoor and outdoor acoustic sensors to detect the precise location of gunfire in seconds, eliminating that ambiguity.

There is no set formula for identifying when or where an employee, a family member or a wronged customer might attack your facility, and what weapon they might use.

However, because HR professionals possess certain skills, as well as knowledge of employee behavior, the company’s unique culture and current environment, and conflict identification and resolution techniques, they can play an invaluable role in recognizing and ameliorating violent scenarios before they occur. It can further bolster your organization’s violent-incident or active-shooter response plan to leverage tools and technology that can help mitigate and manage the risks.

While the definition and responsibilities of maintaining a safe workplace may be changing for HR professionals, one thing is clear: Coupling smart, well-prepared staff and employees with cutting-edge technology can save lives.

Damaune Journey is vice president of security solutions for SST Inc., a gunfire detection and location technology service provider.

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