Shootings at Work: Responding to the Unthinkable

Advice HR managers can share with employees

By Jessica Peralta Dec 10, 2015
Most of us feel safe at work and, for the most part, we are. But workplace violence seems be happening with greater frequency, as the nation was reminded by last week’s shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., at a workplace holiday party that left 14 people dead and 21 injured.

About 5 percent of all businesses experience an incident of workplace violence each year, with this rate climbing to 50 percent at organizations with more than 1,000 employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The FBI found last year that an active shooting incident in the U.S. occurs, on average, once every three weeks. It reported that the majority of those incidents occur at businesses (45.6 percent), followed by schools (16.9 percent) and government properties (6.9 percent). In addition, a 2012 Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 36 percent of organizations reported incidents of workplace violence in 2011.

What should employees do if confronted with a person with a gun at work?

“If you hear gunshots, you should hit the floor and scramble for cover,” said Dindy Robinson, an HR consultant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who developed a detailed emergency plan for the Fort Worth City Hall that ultimately proved useful when a man entered the building with a gun. A panic alarm was sounded, and the building was evacuated without casualties.

“Things can be very scary and confusing during a shooting incident, and it can be difficult to tell where the gunfire is coming from,” Robinson said. “There may also be crossfire if there are security guards or police, or even armed co-workers. So take cover for long enough to figure out what is going on. Determine where the shooters are located, and then examine your options.”

Security expert Jeff Zisner, president and CEO of Aegis Security & Investigations, based in California, said that when faced with a shooting situation, it’s key to evaluate your surroundings before acting. For instance, he said, look around you at entry and exit points, and if possible, try to ascertain the shooters’ motives or goals.

Run: Get to an exit as quickly as possible, Robinson said. Warn others and help them escape if you can, but if they choose not to leave, get out yourself.

“Don’t stop to grab your phone, your purse or your pictures of your children,” Robinson said. “Once you get out of the building, run in a [winding] manner and get as far away from the building as possible. Don’t stop in the parking lot to wait for your friends, and don’t stop to call 911 or your parents or your boyfriend. Just get out of there.”

Hide: If you can’t get out, find the closest room that can be locked or barricaded. Bar the door, close window blinds, turn off the lights and stay quiet. Place as many large objects between yourself and the door as possible.

“Do not open the door, even if somebody outside says they are the police or—and this will be harder—even if the person outside says they need a place to hide from the shooter,” Robinson said. Call 911, she said, only if you feel your voice won’t attract the shooter’s attention.

Arnette Heintze, CEO of Illinois-based Hillard Heintze investigation and security risk management company, worked in the Secret Service for 20 years. He advised hiding behind or under something “even if you don’t think there’s anything to hide behind—[use] a chair, a table, a door.”

In places where there are several people hiding, Robinson said, everyone should spread out to create confusion for the shooter and make it harder for him or her to focus on a single target.

Fight: The last resort is to fight. Look for anything around you that can be used as a weapon, including books, a stapler or a fire extinguisher. If you are in a group, enlist the help of others in distracting and fighting the attacker by screaming, throwing things, and trying to confuse him or her.

“Attack the subject as a group and use body weight to hold him down,” said Steve Albrecht, a California-based threat assessment expert, HR trainer and security consultant who is retired from the San Diego Police Department. “Even an attacker armed with a gun can be stopped by a small group of committed people. Grab his gun arm as soon as he crosses the doorway.”

Jessica Peralta is a freelance writer based in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

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