Bulletproof Practice

By Robert J. Grossman Nov 1, 2002
HR Magazine, November 2002

As frequent targets of workplace viokence, HR professionals have two ways to stop a bullet. The safest is through preventive measures and policies.

It’s been seven years since the fateful day when Janet Robinson, a housing specialist with the Richmond, Calif., Housing Authority, had lunch with receptionist Michael Pearson. Pearson, who had just been written up by his supervisor, said he felt like committing a mass murder, says Robinson, who laughed it off as a joke. He seemed to laugh, too, she recalls, and added, “I won’t kill you, though.”

But over the weekend, the conversation weighed on Robinson’s mind, so she reported it to her supervisors. They consulted with HR, and the decision was made to fire Pearson the next day. The plan, she says, was for a supervisor to deliver the bad news to Pearson, who then would be escorted from the building.

But Pearson wasn’t ushered out.

Instead, he was allowed to return to his desk. He then went into a restroom where he had stashed a gun, and began looking for people who, in his mind, had wronged him.

First to fall was supervisor Lorraine Talley, shot in the head. Robinson and co-worker Barbara Garcia heard the gunfire and tried to hide under a table, but Pearson cornered them. “He shot Barbara twice,” Robinson says. “She died on top of me.”

Robinson pleaded for her life. She says Pearson replied: “I told you I wouldn’t shoot you.” He left the room and minutes later surrendered to police.

“If I hadn’t treated Michael with respect, even though he was sick, he would have killed me too,” she says.

Robinson, who opted to become a schoolteacher rather than return to the housing authority, believes HR could have been better prepared to handle Pearson’s dismissal that day in 1995. “HR made the decision to terminate him too quickly, and they didn’t provide us with any protection,” she says. “They should have handled it differently, maybe providing counseling. They should have made sure he was escorted out.”

Seven years later, however, even with heightened workplace security concerns brought about by September 2001’s catastrophic events still reasonably fresh in their minds, most employers remain unprepared to deal with violent episodes in the workplace. Employers are increasingly being sued for negligence and injuries resulting from workplace violence—and could pay $5 million to $6 million for settlements and verdicts, according to attorney Alan Kaminsky, partner at Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker in New York. However, he says, most organizations have yet to establish a program to help employees recognize potentially violent situations and prevent confrontations.

“Ten percent of companies have a program that you could sit on the stand and defend,” says consultant Larry Chavez, a former crisis negotiator for the Sacramento Police Department and founder of Critical Incident Associates, a Rancho Murieta, Calif., company that trains managers in workplace violence prevention. Chavez estimates that 40 percent of companies have programs in name only, and that 50 percent have no programs at all.

Workplace-violence expert Corinne Peek-Asa, associate professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, says companies with nominal programs have typically “hired a consultant who brought in a big book that included a detailed plan. But they never followed up. They sought to inoculate themselves with paper. It happens a lot.”

Even employers that have suffered repeated incidents of workplace violence aren’t taking adequate steps to prevent a recurrence, experts say. In a study of more than 500 small California businesses (including restaurants, grocery stores and motels), Peek-Asa found that most had minuscule protection programs in place—even if they had been robbed as many as three times in a year.

“Prevention is a low priority in most organizations,” says William Frank, chairman of CareerLab, a consulting firm in Denver. “Corporations are reactive, focusing on the bottom line. They see prevention programs as window dressing.”

Failure to act, however, can place employees in harm’s way—especially front-line supervisors and HR professionals, who often are the targets of disgruntled employees.

HR is “the lightning rod for workplace violence,” says Stephen Doherty, chief of police in Wakefield, Mass., site of the December 2000 fatal shooting at Edgewater Technology that claimed the lives of Cheryl Troy, senior vice president for HR and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and human relations specialist Craig Wood.

“Other than ‘You’re hired,’ what good news does HR deliver?” says Doherty. “If you get promoted, your supervisor tells you, not HR. But if [employers] cut your expenses, recall the company car or fire you, it’s always HR’s job to deliver the bad news.”

And, as Janet Robinson can attest, one unpleasant message may be all it takes to push a violent employee over the edge.

Everywhere, Every Day

Homicides in the workplace—677 last year—represent a relatively small share of the 18,000 to 20,000 homicides nationwide, says Eugene Rugala, supervisory special agent at the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico, Va. But according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, each year about 1 million workers are victims of nonfatal workplace violence. “Most are simple assaults,” says Rugala.

Yet the costs are enormous. Paula Leslie, founder of Essential Life Strategies, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif., says that statistics, including some from the National Center for Health Statistics, indicate that the annual tab for violence as well as stress-inducing hostility in the workplace comes to about “$13.5 billion in medical costs [and] 500,000 workers missing 1.75 million days of work.”

As frightening as the numbers are, the situation may, in fact, be even worse. “Our guess is that half of the violent incidents are not reported,” says Peek-Asa. “Some industries, like fast-food chains, don’t share their data.”

“Nobody’s immune—there’s some level of violence going on everywhere,” says Rugala. “Statistically, workplace homicide is an infrequent event. What’s not infrequent is that you have this other behavior that managers have to deal with every day—assaults, stalking, domestic violence.”

If there is any hope to be drawn from these disheartening statistics, it may be offered by Rugala, who says that violence develops over time—which means HR professionals may have a chance to spot and stop it before it happens.

“Nobody just snaps,” says Rugala. “You’ll see behavior that builds up. Then there’s a triggering event—a reprimand, a layoff, a demotion—that causes somebody to put into place their plan to act out violently. But they’ve been thinking about it beforehand. It’s premeditated.”

Employers, then, need to have a premeditated response.

Start with a Policy and a Plan

An anti-violence strategy, experts say, begins with a “zero tolerance” policy and a written plan backing it up. Must it be on paper? Absolutely, says Ron Libengood, principal consultant at SecuraComm Consulting in Pittsburgh. “A written plan may not work as written, but an unwritten plan never works.”

A typical zero tolerance policy prohibits intimidation, threats of violence (bodily harm or property damage) and acts of violence (regardless of whether they cause harm or damage). Intimidation generally means actions or words that cause another person to reasonably fear for his or her safety or the safety of others.

An employee who violates a zero tolerance policy may be referred for counseling or other help, such as a substance abuse program. Or the violator may be subject to criminal prosecution as well as discipline up to and including dismissal in accord with applicable HR and collective bargaining agreements.

Zero tolerance is now the policy for Richmond’s municipal agencies, says City Manager Isiah Turner, who was deputy city manager at the time of the housing authority shootings, “the most tragic event” in the city government’s history. “Any threats of violence are taken seriously,” Turner says. “If there’s any question, we have our police, HR, the city attorney and the affected department head meet with any employee we feel has tried to intimidate or threaten anyone.”

Most plans have three components—preventive measures, procedures for dealing with a potentially violent employee and post-incident management.

  • The pre-incident component explains zero tolerance, giving clear examples. It covers hiring procedures, training and methods of assessing and reporting threats. It can set forth the consequences of violating the zero tolerance—perhaps referral for counseling through the employee assistance program (EAP), disciplinary action such as suspension, or termination.

At Intel Corp., a pioneer in addressing workplace violence, the pre-incident phase consists of four types of training. One educates senior managers on workplace violence. Another focuses on threat assessment for the workplace response team, made up of individuals from HR, security, HR-legal and occupational health. It can also include an outside consultant.

A third type of training helps line managers and HR—the front-line people—learn how to tell if a particular type of behavior could be an indicator of future violence. The fourth type of training is a one-hour class for employees on zero tolerance and how management will respond to threats or violence.

  • The second component of most plans—the incident phase—lays out responsibilities and procedures when a potentially violent person is identified. This phase at Intel addresses reporting, investigating and risk assessment by a team that has 24-hour access to a violence assessment expert.

  • The “post-incident” component deals with crisis management, including strategies for handling employee stress and public relations after a violent event. At Intel, this phase focuses on what happens after the police leave. It expands the workplace response team to include media experts and spells out the processes for responding to queries and for analyzing the incident. Internal communication as well as public relations are important at this stage.

“When you break down past incidents, you’ll find that in most cases, with an effective plan in place, you could have mitigated the violence,” says Tim Garcia, investigative program manager at Intel in Chandler, Ariz. Garcia offers Intel’s program to other companies seeking guidance on preventing workplace violence.

Garcia says that since 1996 the company’s workplace response teams have dealt with hundreds of cases of potential workplace violence—none of which resulted in death or serious injury.

Don’t Go It Alone

Once employers create a policy, the next step is to put together a team that will decide whether a situation involving a problem employee can be handled in-house or requires the help of outside experts.

At every site in Intel, for example, HR professionals and line managers refer cases to the workplace response team, which decides if a situation is potentially violent and then determines whether or not to notify the police or to bring in an outside consultant to conduct a risk assessment.

The team is notified in advance of layoffs and individual terminations that may prove stressful. “We do all our work prior to the terminations,” Garcia says. “The program has the ability to postpone the termination in order to put protective measures in place. Never terminate an employee until you know all the ramifications.”

Kenneth Collins, president of Collins Associates, a consulting firm in Orinda, Calif., agrees that immediate termination isn’t always an employer’s best option. “Sometimes it might be in the company’s best interest to suspend, not terminate, allowing for a cooling-off period,” says Collins, a member of the SHRM Workplace Health, Safety and Security Committee. “Or it may be preferable to refer the worker to the EAP program. Bottom line: It’s often possible to work with the person to eliminate the behavior.”

An important tool for HR, Collins says, is the power to require a “fitness for duty evaluation” before keeping the person on the job.

Employers also can get outside advice on workplace security. Police and sheriff’s departments usually don’t charge for sending officers to visit a company’s site to familiarize themselves with the layout and to offer suggestions on violence prevention.

For example, since the Edgewater tragedy, involvement in the workplace has become the passion of police chief Doherty, putting him at the forefront of the move to build working partnerships between police and HR.

“If you study critical incidents, it’s clear that [having established] a prior relationship with local law enforcement is crucial,” he says. “Not only so the police know your physical layout, but because they can provide invaluable consulting services.”

Establish ties with law enforcement as a pre-emptive measure—don’t wait for violence to erupt before you pick up the phone, says Doherty. “When you call me in an emergency, it’s too late.”

Mike Crane, senior vice president at IPC International Corp., a security company based in Bannockburn, Ill., cites an example where a police partnership paid off. “We disciplined a white-collar manager for violating the company dress code—wearing jeans instead of business casual. He told a co-worker, ‘That’s ridiculous, I’m not doing it; I’m going home and get my AK-47.’ She was concerned and told HR, which, after conferring with legal counsel, called in the police.

“They investigated and found the worker had many guns—including an AK-47—in his garage. As a result, we removed him from the workforce and were able to have him involuntarily committed.”

Employers can also tap the expertise of private security and safety firms that specialize in audits for a fee and can be called in as needed. Many such firms can be found on the Internet or through referrals from companies that have had audits performed in their workplaces.

Beware of the Last Straw

Although HR is often caught between the need to act with deliberation and the pressures from line managers to get a problem employee “out the door now,” says Frank, it’s best to proceed cautiously to minimize the risks. And risks are everywhere, even in seemingly routine actions such as announcing minor changes in benefits. Such announcements may tip the balance for an employee already under stress. “Employees have a number of things going on in their lives below the surface,” he says. “They could have a mother with cancer, a son rejected from college.”

Supervisors face as much risk from workplace violence as HR does, so it’s important for HR to help supervisors “develop conflict resolution skills as well as management skills,” says Steve Kaufer, co-founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, Calif. If a worker feels treated unfairly and the matter isn’t handled effectively, he says, “the feelings continue to build up until they surface into some form of violence.”

Know the Signs of Possible Trouble

It’s crucial for HR professionals to be sensitive to behavior that might signal a propensity for violence. Although some experts caution against demographic profiling on grounds that it’s not trustworthy, Don Grimme, president of GHR Training Solutions in Coral Springs, Fla., says you can prevent violence if you know what to look for.

Consultant Leslie, author of Anger in the Workplace: A Catalyst for Change (Essential Life Strategies, 1998), says to watch for these red flags:

  • A history of violence toward people or animals.

  • A migratory job history.

  • Career frustration.

  • Emotional problems, drug or alcohol abuse or a suddenly withdrawn personality.

  • Antagonistic relations with others, fighting, feelings of persecution.

  • Obsession (with violence or with a romantic interest) or political zealotry.

  • Familiarity with weapons.

Grimme and many other experts agree that those characteristics are reliable warning signs. He says a history of violence should be enough to eliminate a prospective hire, and the other traits should be viewed cumulatively, with two or three sufficient to rule out an applicant.

Frank recommends pre-employment testing of finalists. “We use an instrument with about 170 questions that takes about three-quarters of an hour,” he says.

But some experts urge caution in applying formulas. Harley Stock, forensic psychologist with the Incident Management Group, a security firm in Plantation, Fla., says, “Psychological profiles don’t work because they’re more likely to miss someone than include someone. You need to do an actuarial risk assessment, not a profile. For example, a person with a mental disorder who is using drugs and alcohol is between eight and 25 times more likely than the other guy to be violent. It’s all based on an assessment of behavioral risk.”

Stock consults for companies—Intel among them—and governments throughout the world. He often is brought in on volatile cases. “A lot of people threaten; few actually do anything,” he says. “Our job is distinguishing between those who will act out and those who won’t. We come up with a risk management statement that says how, given these variables, we can manipulate them to reduce the risk. For example, if there’s a pathological relationship between two people, we’ll separate them to reduce the risk.”

Background and Reference Checks

Convinced that past behavior is often predictive, many experts urge HR to be more diligent in background and reference checking to weed out potentially violent people. Failure to do so can be a big mistake. Consultant Chavez cites the example of a hotel that did no background check on a “towel bearer” because he wouldn’t be handling money or dealing with people. “This angry towel bearer killed four employees and one patron,” says Chavez.

Of course, background checks are not foolproof, says Mark Bishop, vice president for HR at Gambro Healthcare in Lakewood, Colo. Nonetheless, doing them “reduces your vulnerability in a negligence claim.”

To dig beyond the references an applicant supplies, ask a reference for the name of someone else you can contact. Another way to get information from people who may be reluctant—or unable, because of company policies—to disclose details is to secure a release from the job applicant.

Even if a reference refuses to supply information, the fact that you made this effort helps demonstrate due diligence, says Edwin Foulke, an attorney with the Jackson Lewis firm in Greenville, S.C., and a member of the SHRM Workplace Health, Safey and Security Committe.

Above all, be prepared. “The biggest thing to avoid is not to have a program in place, to take the approach, ‘This won’t happen to us,’” says Intel’s Garcia.

“Get ready now,” counsels Bishop. “Find out what to do before an incident occurs. When it happens, you won’t have time.”

Robert J. Grossman, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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