Companies need to plan and continuously evaluate situations to avoid workplace violence

February 25, 2019

The recent horrific workplace shooting at a suburban Chicago manufacturing warehouse is a stark reminder of the potential perils of workplace violence.

The 45-year-old employee killed five coworkers and injured five police officers after being told he was being terminated, according to reports. Three of his victims were reportedly in the room with him during the termination meeting, including the plant manager, the human resources director and an HR intern who began the job on the day of the killing.

While we can never know for sure the motives of a killer or whether it will happen in our workplaces, organizations need to plan for the unlikely event and continuously evaluate situations and circumstances in the workplace that may trigger an act of workplace violence. Here are some steps:

• Develop a policy against violence: Organizations should develop a policy against workplace violence and then communicate the policy on a regular basis.

The policy needs to be broad to include not just direct threats or physical aggression, but also psychological abuse, yelling, creating an intimidating presence and threats of suicide.

Any acts of intimidation that lead another person to be fearful should amount to a violation.

• Hold employees accountable: Too often employers ignore acts of intimidation until the matter has escalated.

If an employee slams a door, yells at a coworker, points in a coworker’s face, becomes aggressive or behaves in any way that could be intimidating, the employee’s conduct must be addressed immediately.

Frequently, employees who are held accountable early for their actions will either improve or leave the organization quickly without being invested in the organization.

I find that when an employee’s misconduct has been tolerated for a long time, the employee becomes invested in the company. When the employer finally decides to take action in these cases, the employee has a stronger negative reaction.

• Troubled people/troubling situation: Many people exhibit troubling behaviors at work who will not commit workplace violence. Many other people suffer from mental illness who will not commit workplace violence.

The trigger points occur when troubled people get into a troubling situation.

This is the most difficult analysis – to determine when these trigger points will occur.

One strategy to avoid a trigger is to make sure that employees enjoy transparency and respect during any disciplinary process.

Even if someone has embezzled funds or engaged in severe misconduct, employers should respectfully explain the basis for the decision and then professionally address the process of exiting the employee.

Employees who feel they are treated fairly will be less likely to behave violently.

• Get help if needed: Employers should seek help from employee assistant program counselors or workplace violence experts such as the Threat Assessment Group if an employer has an employee who has been demonstrating concerning aggressive behaviors causing the employer to fear for coworker safety.

Vendors with employee assistant programs have resources on staff who can provide advice to the employer or management in these situations if a disciplinary action is being considered against a troubled person.

If an employer has a reasonable fear of violence, contact the police, but in my experience they only can get involved if there is an actual threat – and by then it’s too late.

• Prepare: Now is the time to set a plan in place in case of an active shooter.

I recently conducted training around the country for an employer and, regardless of the location, each meeting started with a discussion of an exit plan in case of an emergency.

I was fascinated how the company was able to be so intentional across all of their sites around safety and emergency planning.

Employers can get assistance from local authorities on emergency planning.

Local police can help with making sure you have the right processes and facilities to give employees and visitors the best chance of survival in an emergency. Safety experts also can assist with this planning.