Tragedy Reminds Us to Take Preventive Steps

October 1, 2012

(Prepared at the Request of Employee Relations Insight)

It has happened again in our community; the details are still fuzzy, but we do know that a terminated employee opened fire in his workplace, killing five and wounding others. What a terrifying experience it must be to be in your place of work and to have it transform so quickly from safe to life threatening. While some will call for gun control and the media will dissect every detail they can, employers should once again be reminded that this CAN happen here.

Workplace violence has many roots, but research tells us that the most fundamental reasons that people turn to workplace violence are as simple as 1,2,3

1) The personality of the high risk employee. Research tells us that the potential for violence is greatest in those with “trait anger,” which means they are always mad at something; chronic negativity, a tendency to embrace revenge as a legitimate response to an ill deed, and exposure to violence. Behavioral interviewing, giving candidates an opportunity to offer their reactions to scenarios, or to tell you how they have resolved conflicts in the past can open a window on to a person’s thinking about how to respond to a wrong they have experienced, or what they view as the most challenging interpersonal conflict they had to deal with. Check references; offer confidentiality if someone says they cannot tell you more than their hire date. Consider checking secondary references by asking the named referrer for someone else in their organization that has worked with the candidate. If you cannot get someone to be forthcoming, you can ask them to hang up if they would not hire the employee again.

Employees who discuss abuse, cruelty, punishment and the use of weapons frequently in the workplace should be viewed as risks and assessed. So too should substantial changes in demeanor as they may become sullen, withdrawn or aggressive.

2) The circumstances the employee is in. According to my old friend Harry Brull, a long time consultant with Personnel Decisions Inc, there is no evidence that employees “suddenly snap,” but instead there is deterioration under time. Two key experiences that might lead to violence in an employee is the employee’s perception that he or she cannot satisfactorily perform (or be viewed as satisfactorily perform) while at the same time, in some other part of his or her life the employee is also experiencing instability. Thus, an employee who is being asked to work with new technology and is not “catching on” might be frustrated and worried. If that employee is also involved with drug or alcohol abuse, or dealing with a family crisis, or anticipating a Reduction in Force, you have the combination of poor performance and instability that will combine with personality to incline someone towards violence. For this reason, when employees express concerns about the behavior of someone whose performance is subpar, or supervisors get “gut” feelings that someone is destabilized and failing, or when the employee’s attitude takes a serious nosedive, there should be an assessment of risk, consideration of a referral to EAP and determination about what can be done to assist the employee. Terminations should be handled with great care, off site and with the intention of offering the terminated employee hope for the future. If there is any concern about risk, an expert should be engaged to assist in the process.

3) The environment of the workplace can help “harden” against potential violence. As a matter of practice, employees should be taught a code word or action that can be used to signal risk in customer service areas. In one organization I worked with, turning a particular lamp on or off in the reception area was a code for “need help.” Lockdown procedures, lines of egress and emergency evacuation procedures should be as routine as fire drills. Building security should always be a concern, and keys and passes should always be collected from departing employees. Supervisors should be well trained to understand high risk situations and be able to seek assistance in managing them. People who engage in workplace violence have access, familiarity with the environment and the factor of surprise and lack of preparation in their favor. Particularly when there has been a recent termination, the measures described above should be enforced.

Not every incident of workplace violence can be prevented, and certainly nothing contained here is intended to blame the tragic victims here in Minneapolis or anywhere else. Rather, let’s use this as an opportunity to remember that so often, when these crises happen, people look back and say “I knew something was amiss.” Review your plans, train your supervisors, and screen your employees well.

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