How Can HR Professionals Respond to an Active-Shooter Situation in the Workplace?

'Disgruntled' Former Employee Responsible for Workplace Shooting in Orlando

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​A former employee at an Orlando factory fatally shot five co-workers before committing suicide at the worksite on June 5. The tragic event may stir up fears for HR professionals who often must resolve workplace conflicts. 

HR departments need to make sure they have policies and practices so that employees feel comfortable reporting their concerns about other employees' behavior, said Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta. There may be warning signs, and there should be a practical system in place for workers to openly and honestly report unusual actions so that it can be investigated, he added.

The "if you see something, say something" slogan found on public transportation also can be applied to the workplace, noted Jason Keck, an attorney with the Chicago office of Fisher Phillips.

Tragedy in Florida

The shooter in Orlando, Army veteran John Robert Neumann Jr., had been fired in April from Fiamma Inc., an RV awning and accessory manufacturer.

Authorities said Neumann entered the building through a rear door and sought out specific Fiamma employees while allowing others to leave unharmed, according to The Washington Post.

There may have been indications that he would be violent—but they weren't clear. Neumann reportedly hit another co-worker in 2014, but that co-worker wasn't a victim in the shooting, CNN reports. Neumann had been arrested in the past, but for nonviolent offences: marijuana possession and driving under the influence. Police said he seemed to be a "disgruntled former employee acting alone with no ties to terror or subversive groups," according to CNN.

"The company is heartbroken following the unspeakable attack upon our loved ones and employees," Fiamma said in a statement on its website. The incident happened nearly a year after the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead.

Crisis Management

Workplace homicides are on the rise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There were 417 cases in 2015—a 2 percent increase from 2014—and shootings rose by 15 percent, which was the first increase since 2012.

About 43 percent of female workers killed at the workplace were attacked by a relative or domestic partner—as compared to only 2 percent of male decedents.

Fights between co-workers are common and often aren't reported, Keck said. But they may be a sign of worse violence to come. "Employers need to be vigilant and understand that these things can happen."

So what can HR professionals do to help keep their workplaces safe?

Employers should devote the time and resources necessary to prepare to respond to a crisis, Keck said. "You can never be fully prepared for a violent situation, but there are some things you can do to develop an effective disaster plan."

First, address company culture, he noted. Employers should create an environment where workers feel comfortable talking about their concerns—whether about co-workers, former employees, family members or acquaintances who may be abusive—and they should be prepared to act when those concerns are aired, Keck said.

For example, an employer may want to give a worker time off to go to court to get a restraining order in a domestic violence situation. Many cities and states are dealing with the issue by requiring employers to offer sick and safe leave, which can typically be used by victims of domestic violence.

It's important for businesses to set up a crisis management team, said Luther Wright Jr., an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Nashville. HR, security, maintenance and information technology professionals should be on the team.

Leaders from all these areas of the business can come together and use their expertise to develop a program for the organization, Wright said.

The team members should examine the worksite's physical security, policies and practices and design a preventative plan that is consistent with the dynamics of their workplace and industry, he added. They can look at the entrances and exits to the worksite and assess whether a single access point, swipe-card access, bullet-proof glass or other safety precautions are appropriate.

Keck said creating office maps that identify where people sit or where they are likely to be working in the building can help the employer account for workers and can also be helpful to law enforcement agents when they arrive on the scene during an incident.

Businesses also need to ensure that they have effective supervisor training. This is particularly critical for frontline supervisors who should feel empowered to alert the crisis management team of any incidents and should be able to identify the types of behaviors that may occur before violent incidents happen, Wright noted.

Safety Drills

When violent incidents do occur at the worksite, there should be a procedure for employees to follow, Mavity said. He said it's not enough to just have a policy in the handbook and to show a workplace safety video. Rather, the company should provide practical training on how to react in a hostile situation.

Wright said most companies have a fire drill at least once or twice a year and employers should also conduct a workplace violence drill. It's good for employees to know where the closest stairwells and hiding places are and what doors lock from the inside, he said.

Employers should tell workers that company resources like cash and equipment aren't important, particularly if there's a robbery, Keck noted. Employees should be told to do what they need to do to protect themselves and not to focus on protecting company property.

He said businesses should inform their neighbors of any upcoming drills. They don't want to unnecessarily alarm other business, and it's possible that other companies in the building may want to participate in the drill.

SHRM Resources for HR Professionals

Express Request: Workplace Violence Prevention 
While the topic of workplace violence typically ends up in the headlines only after a serious incident, organizations have a responsibility to their employees to educate and prepare for the possibility of workplace violence. Being proactive about workplace violence prevention, preparation and response requires a multi-disciplinary approach involving the management, law enforcement and all employees. Commitment from senior executives to risk management demands a zero-tolerance workplace violence policy and program and dedicated financial resources and time for training.

Toolkit: Managing Difficult Employees and Disruptive Behaviors

This toolkit looks at some of the most common disruptive employee behaviors, identifies the potential risks to the organization if the behavior is not corrected, considers some of the reasons for such problems and offers strategies for constructively managing the performance of difficult employees.

Sample: Workplace Violence Prevention Policy

The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to maintain reasonably safe and healthy workplaces, which extends to some incidents of workplace violence. Here is a sample policy on workplace violence prevention. 

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