In February, a recently fired worker killed five people at an Aurora, Ill., manufacturing plant. A 24-hour window in September saw shootings at a software company in Wisconsin, a municipal building in Pennsylvania and a Rite Aid distribution center in Maryland. Such workplace mass shootings have pushed the issue of violence to the forefront of many employers’ minds. Once there were fire drills. Today, employees are also prepped on what to do if there’s an active shooter.
Researchers still “don’t know a lot about gun violence at work,” according to Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social policy, and a violence-prevention expert. “These incidents, while evoking lots of fear, are relatively rare,” Sorenson told MarketWatch. “And because they’re so rare, they’re hard to study and they’re hard to predict.”
‘These incidents, while evoking lots of fear, are relatively rare. And because they’re so rare, they’re hard to study and they’re hard to predict.’
But all workplaces can take steps to help prevent tragedy, experts say. Two prevailing myths about workplace violence are “We know everybody; it can’t happen here” and “There’s nothing we could do to prevent it; these people just snap,” said Marisa Randazzo, the CEO of SIGMA Threat Management Associates and a former chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service.
We have grown depressingly accustomed to seeing news items about students or workers in lockdown due to an active shooter. “I feel we’re at risk of being at a point where people give up trying because they feel like it’s just an inevitable part of every day,” Randazzo, who also serves as Georgetown University’s threat assessment director, told MarketWatch. “The fact is that it’s not.”
U.S. workplaces saw 458 homicides in 2017 and 500 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and 351 of those 2017 homicides involved shooting. There’s been little change in the number of workplaces homicides over the last decade: There were 468 in 2011. About one in four American workers is aware that any workplace-violence incident ever occurred where they work, according to a recent survey published by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).
The number of firearm workplace homicides rose 16.4% 11.2% between 2015 to 2016, while robbery crimes are trending downward.
What’s more, firearm workplace homicides that aren’t part of a robbery appear to be on the rise, according to an analysis of 2011 to 2015 BLS data recently published in the journal Injury Epidemiology. Those instances now make up nearly half of all workplace homicides with a firearm, as robbery crimes have trended downward. The number of firearm workplace homicides increased 16.4% between 2014 and 2015 and increased another 11.2% between 2015 and 2016.
“From 2011 to 2016, the portion of workplace homicides committed with firearms was roughly 80%,” the authors found. “In one study analyzing workplace homicides in North Carolina from 1994 to 1998, the authors concluded that workplaces that permit employees to carry a firearm had nearly five-times greater odds of having a workplace homicide compared to workplaces that prohibited weapons.”
Reports of all kinds of workplace violence have also increased, according to the SHRM. Nearly half of SHRM members surveyed recently said their workplace had ever experienced a workplace-violence incident, a jump from 36% seven years earlier. That uptick could be explained by “changing attitudes towards workplace behavior,” SHRM suggested, as human-resources workers have grown to regard “more types of behavior as problematic and indicative of future workplace violence.”
The most common circumstance for non-robbery workplace killings: arguments involving customers and/or coworkers.
Every member of a company can do their part. Here’s how employers, managers, workers and HR professionals can help prevent gun violence at work, according to experts:
Have more than a zero-tolerance policy. Workplace-violence prevention shouldn’t be limited to traditional zero-tolerance policies for threats, fights and sexual harassment, said Matthew Doherty, a senior vice president for threat and violence risk management at the security-consulting firm Hillard Heintze. “This goes way beyond zero-tolerance policies,” Doherty told MarketWatch.
Educate employees on warning signs that could potentially lead to a workplace-violence incident if left unchecked, Doherty said. These might include a marked change in behavior, sudden withdrawal, depression or disgruntlement, he said, none of which would fall under a typical zero-tolerance policy.
Educate employees on possible warning signs. These could include a marked change in behavior, sudden withdrawal, depression or disgruntlement.
Half of mass workplace shooters had already exhibited signs of a crisis, according to research by criminal justice professors James Densley and Jillian Peterson, who study mass shooters in a Justice Department-funded project.
Create a relaxed, open and transparent work culture. Fostering a hostile, fearful environment to keep an eye out for potential perpetrators also doesn’t help. Randazzo warned against having employees memorize a list of warning signs or red flags, suggesting that could create a “chilling atmosphere” that erodes trust among coworkers. She recommended simply telling employees to speak up if they see any behavior that makes them worry about their own or someone else’s safety.
Don’t respond to reports in a punitive nature. While there may indeed be times you react with termination, suspension or involvement of law enforcement after learning about an incident, “that shouldn’t be your default reaction,” said Joel Dvoskin, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the University of Arizona who consults on workplace-violence prevention. Employees will be less likely to speak up if they fear the company will overreact or punish the person they’re reporting, he added.
Establish mental-health support and policies, and be open about them. Dvoskin recommends a “beneficent” response aimed at helping the person. That might involve referring them to an employee-assistance program, arranging for them to receive mental-health care, transitioning them to a role that better suits them, facilitating additional training or mediating a dispute, he said. Even if the employee needs to be terminated, consider severance or outplacement assistance, he said.
Show compassion rather than fear or recrimination. Don’t ever disrespect the person or try to humiliate them, Dvoskin added. “You don’t help troubled people mainly to prevent gun violence — you help troubled people because they need help,” Dvoskin said. “That helps your organization in a lot of ways,” including productivity and morale.
Make people comfortable with reporting concerns. “If the organization’s response is reflexively punitive, then the stakes are high if I really need to be sure that I’m right,” Dvoskin said. “If the response is not punitive — if it’s thoughtful and measured and helpful — then so what if I’m wrong?” Let workers know they won’t be thrown under the bus for reporting misbehavior, ensure confidentiality and encourage them to be as accurate and detailed as possible in their report, Dvoskin said.
“This is not a whistleblowing exercise. This is not to get your coworker or an outsider in trouble,” Doherty said. “It’s to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Even if you’re low on the totem pole, “never be afraid to speak up,” said Randazzo. “[It] doesn’t matter what your position is in the company,” she said. “You may be the first to know about some troubling behavior, and you can make a difference by speaking up and letting someone know.”
If you don’t feel like you can tell your boss — or if it’s your boss’s behavior in question — try approaching corporate security, HR, an employee-relations representative or even local law enforcement, she said. Many companies’ whistleblower tiplines for fraud and mismanagement can also be used to report safety concerns.
Threat assessment can help figure out if someone is on the path to violence, as well as in uncovering whatever problems or desperation they might be facing.
Assemble a threat-management team, said Doherty, or at least outsource one. This multidisciplinary, collaborative effort among a company’s security team (which may be aware of some incident involving the person), human resources department (which may be privy to something in the person’s personnel file) and legal department (which may know of an outside lawsuit or protective order) can also include senior leaders, local law enforcement, labor unions and other experts.
It’s good for different departments within a company to talk: The team can get to the bottom of whether someone engaged in threatening behavior and what, if anything, needs to be done.
“A threat-management team is exactly the team that can be trained to look at that and decide, ‘Yes, we need to take measures’ or ‘No, don’t need to worry about it,’” Randazzo said. Threat assessment can help in figuring out whether someone is on the path to violence, as well as in uncovering whatever problems or desperation they might be facing. “If we can figure out what’s underlying someone’s resorting to violence, then we can move them off the pathway,” she said.
Be aware of domestic-violence issues. One in three workplace homicides among U.S. women between 2003 and 2008 was perpetrated by someone with a personal relationship to the employee, according to one 2012 study, and a majority of those were intimate partners. Encourage employees to bring their protective orders to the attention of the company and refer them to domestic-violence advocacy resources, Doherty said.
Allow flexibility in whom employees can tell, Randazzo added: If they’re reluctant to disclose to their boss a restraining order against a former partner, for instance, they can go to corporate security, HR or someone in their employee-assistance program.
Take a climate survey to gauge how employees feel about issues like workplace safety and fairness. Keep the survey quick, Randazzo said, and be transparent about the results even if they’re unflattering.
If you work in HR, try to have a greater presence with staff. HR tends to see employees on their best and worst days, when they’re hired and fired, said Trisha Zulic, a special-expertise panelist for SHRM. “Unfortunately, sometimes by just sitting in the office all day, we only hear what we’re being told versus the actuality of what’s happening,” she said. “If we integrate ourselves more,” Zulic added, “we might be able to get people to open up, or to see why people are behaving in a way they shouldn’t.”
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