Home > Emergency Response, Safety, Security > It’s never the quiet one..

It’s never the quiet one..

  • Atlanta, Georgia, July 1999. A stock market day trader goes on a day-long shooting rampage, killing 12 people including his wife and two children before taking his own life.
  • Chicago, August 2003. A worker who was laid off shoots and kills six of his former co-workers with a semi-automatic pistol. The shooter had a lengthy arrest record, including for weapons offenses.
  • Brookfield, Wisconsin, March 2005. A man fires 22 rounds during a church service, killing seven people.
  • Blacksburg, Virginia, April 2007. A student shoots 47 people at Virginia Tech, killing 32 before he commits suicide, in the deadliest mass shooting in the United States.
  • North Carolina. March 29, 2009. A heavily-armed gunman shoots dead eight people, many elderly and sick patients, in a North Carolina nursing home.

“Going postal” they call it.. say those words and nearly everyone immediately knows what you’re talking about.

Forget the fact that in the last ten years there have been nineteen mass shootings in the US, and not a single one involving the postal service. The point is that when these things happen, the tendency is to point, ooh, ahh, crack some jokes to ward off the scariness, and then move on to the next headline. What we should be doing is making the best out of a horrible situation by learning the lessons it teaches.

Workplace violence is awful, and to deal with it, we tend to describe it as a random act by an unstable person. The fact is- unstable or not- people simply do not suddenly snap for no reason and start hurling lead and other dangerous materials at other people. There are always signs, the faraway thunder usually ignored. Workplace violence doesn’t always mean that someone enters the workplace and starts shooting at anything that moves. It also includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, bullying, stalking, threats, physical attack, domestic violence or property damage and includes acts of violence committed by employees, clients, customers, relatives, acquaintances or strangers against employees in the workplace.  According to a USA TODAY article five years ago, “In an average week in U.S. workplaces, one employee is killed and at least 25 are seriously injured in violent assaults by current or former co-workers.”

Because of economic pressures, instances of Workplace Violence are becoming even more likely to occur. More than ever, it is imperative that companies plan for and develop policies and procedures to deal with violence in their workplace.  In the USA TODAY article,  analysis found that “many companies fail to identify risks or teach managers how to defuse the tensions that can precipitate an attack. They frequently fail to react when workers say that they’re scared. And they often fail to take extra precautions to enhance security, even after an event such as a firing or disciplinary hearing that could trigger an attack.”

There are essential elements for such plans and procedures:

  • Create a Response Plan – This response plan will not be general in scope. It will specify parameters of what is appropriate when; what is tolerable behavior on the premises; what behavior will lead to removal from the premises; and when it is appropriate to disable an employee and call the authorities.
  • Build and train a response team – Nooo.. not a paramilitary SWAT team to swoop in and save the day, but a team of people to include HR, security, business unit management and, if possible, a trained mediator and a crisis counselor. These team members must be trained sufficiently enough to be able to carry out the response plan.
  • Be aware of state or local laws – Rights and responsibilities in a crisis may vary significantly, depending on the situation and who may be involved. Is the person actually threatening people, or just acting strange? Your local law enforcement agency is the go to source for guidance.
  •  Watch for warning signs – HR is on the front line here, alongside supervision and management. Reports from employees, clients or customers about someones erratic or strange behavior should never be taken lightly. Triggering events such as layoffs, terminations, or being passed over for promotion should include precautionary measures to prevent disruptive or violent incidents.
  • Be proactive – Segregate bickering employees’ work spaces to minimize their interaction; give a comp day (or several) for an angry employee to cool off; or give him/her a lateral transfer to eliminate a strained employee-manager relationship. Remove the source of stress, or move the employee away from it. Take discipline and performance reviews out of managers hands and give them to a neutral third party.  Interpersonal issues in the workplace are often an indicator of problems with personal relationships outside the workplace such as divorce, serious illness in the family or other emotional stresses. In these cases, the employee may be reaching a breaking point and need little to push him or her over the edge. A good manager will be able to not only discern when an employee is having a difficult time- either at home or at work- and be ready and able to provide guidance and resources to alleviate the stress.
  • Mediate –  A neutral person should intervene. The mediator should not be a uniformed security officer, police officer or high-ranking executive. Those people connote authority, and in a potentially violent situation, authority can make a person feel cornered and trigger violence. A good choice for this role could be a plainclothes security staffer, unknown to the employee, trained in mediation and crisis counseling. You have to have a competent person who knows how to de-escalate the situation” through dialogue.
  • Relocate – If possible, take the person to a neutral location in the office. This further removes him from the source of his anger. This site should be chosen during planning; it should move the potential for violence away from other employees and give a pre-selected team member time to call the authorities if the team leader believes that’s necessary. If the person is, or appears likely to become violent, or if there is doubt, law enforcement should be notified and responding. Do not wait until violence actually occurs.
  • Escort and warn, or disable. By now, the situation likely will have moved one of two directions: Either the person will have become violent, or he will have calmed down. If the person turns violent, disable him/her by pinning him to the ground, for example. Get police onsite as soon as possible. If the person appears to be calmed down, escort him completely off the premises. Companies often make the mistake of escorting someone only out of the building, and then the person returns through a back door or waits for his target to exit the building. If the person is a non-employee, or is “soon to be”, you must give the person a “trespass warning.” This is a declarative statement informing the person that he is no longer welcome on the property. There is specific statutory language that varies from state to state that you want to use when giving this warning, so it is best that such warning is given, in writing, by responding law enforcement. With that, the crisis should be defused. But you still have some work to do.
  • Stay vigilant –  If the person is an employee,  immediatley revoke his/her workplace access privileges. Cancel access cards and network accounts. Inform other tenants in the building of the incident; include a picture if possible. Brief security officers at entry points so that they’ll be on the lookout. In most cases, time calms down the angry person, so if youve made it this far without violence, chances are there will be none. But in a few cases, a desperate person will plan a return. If that happens, the more prepared you are, the better.

-Ed Sterrett
Central Florida Safety Academy

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