On June 5, 2017, John Neumann Jr. brought a semiautomatic pistol and a hunting knife into his former workplace. He killed five people before turning his gun against himself in yet another example of workplace violence.
It’s become chillingly commonplace for us to learn that a terminated employee has stormed into his former workplace and killed those he holds accountable. Each time, the rest of us react in stunned disbelief. None of us can quite believe we take our lives in our hands when we go to work.
There have been eight workplace violence killings in the United States thus far in 2017. If you’re an employee or a manager you want to know: What actions can and must employers take to protect employees from workplace violence? Here are a few ways you can protect your workplace.
1. Don’t Hire Danger
Employers need to prevent hiring unstable employee by thoroughly vetting all applicants’ backgrounds and references. Don’t rely on personal references. Even Charles Manson could come up with favorable personal references.
Two of the eight workplace violence incidents in 2017 involved employees with a prior criminal history of violence. The employers either failed to check the employee histories or discounted them.
2. Talk to Your Employees
Your employees provide you with front-line information concerning problems that may fly beneath management’s radar. This information could be about both potential internal and external threats (which include ex-employees or others importing violence into the workplace).
For example, Rick Birdsall, a former employment attorney turned HR consultant, reports that these workplace homicides involved these “external’ threats:
- A disgruntled ex-employee killed five people;
- An estranged husband shot teacher/wife at an elementary school;
- A nurse and several others were killed in a nursing home when the nurses’ estranged boyfriend attacked. The nurse had protective orders against the suspect for domestic violence.”
Birdsall notes, “It is imperative that employees that have requested restraining orders for potential violence or stalking be encouraged to report this to management so appropriate precautions can be taken.” Similarly, employees need to voice their concerns about potentially violent employees. When your employees do voice concerns, listen.
3. Investigate All Threats of Violence
Even the best pre-employment screening can’t weed out every problem employee. According to Birdsall, “One of the workplace homicides this year came totally out of the blue. A 60 year old employee in Texas killed his female supervisor and there was no known history of violence or known animus towards the supervisor.”
Nevertheless, employers can and must immediately investigate threats of violence or abnormally aggressive behaviors and acting out. Train your supervisors to document all violent or potentially violent acts. Hindsight shows that multiple danger signals precede most incidents of workplace violence. In other words, in many cases employers could have prevented tragedy. For example, before Neumann killed his coworkers, a coworker reported that Neumann had previously “attacked and ambushed” him “out of the blue” and “for no reason.”
4. Conduct a Threat Assessment of Terminated Employees
We urge our clients who fire a potentially dangerous employee to conduct a threat assessment when they terminate the employee. Does the employee have a past history of bullying or violence? Other indicators would include an employee obsessed with an “unjust” incident in the past coupled with a “victim” mentality that others would regard as trivial; employees who have escalating conflicts with other employees; employees who make threats of physical; or employees who display an unusual fatalistic preoccupation with weapons.
5. Conduct a Threat Assessment of Your Workplace
You also need to consider the unique nature of your workplace. For example, a law practice focusing on real estate transactions would seem a rather unlikely place to face internal or external threats, unless a member of the staff reports that she is being stalked and harassed by someone “scary.” However, if the law practice specializes in family law the risk is much higher due to the highly and emotionally charged environment.
You would think medical practices and facilities would be an unlikely target—but it just happened. Violence was imported into a skilled nursing facility of all places. Emergency rooms can be highly emotional places, but a skilled nursing facility? That would be the last place most of us would consider.
Retail stores face external risks of robbery, but factories, plants, warehouses and the like have a higher risk of internal conflicts.
Employers need to evaluate the risks they face to take precautions to protect their employees. This includes devising a prevention and response plan along with training.
Birdsall also urges managers to be flexible in their planning. “Your threat assessment can change in a heartbeat so you must have a plan for both threat directions. If the threat is internal—that is, employees in conflict—then policies and actions to prevent weapons in the workplace may be a viable answer. If the threat is external then the considerations are entirely different. Workplaces present a higher risk of external threats because they are a known intersection of time and place. Workplaces may also present as an easier target if they have known policies against potential defensive measures whether lethal or non-lethal.”
6. Safeguard Your Workplace
Security measures in your workplace may include securing and/or restricting entrances; adding escape routes; utilizing employee identification badges to make it easier to identify persons who do not belong; making available non-lethal defense measures, such as pepper spray; employing internal lethal defense measures, but only if someone has the necessary skill and training or, alternatively, hiring armed security guards. The precautions you take depend on the nature of the threat and can change on a moment’s notice.
“A ‘no-trespass’ letter can, in many jurisdictions, be given to terminated employees or otherwise unwelcome people that may pose a risk,” says Birdsall. “This gives law enforcement additional tools under trespass laws to address unwelcome visits before problems escalate. Employee vigilance and early detection under these circumstances can make all the difference.”
Birdsall also suggests that employers look at how they orient employees in their workspaces to reduce risk of injury by workplace violence coupled with a response plan based on the physical layout of the business premises. “Employees working on premises with multiple escape routes have more options—flight, hide or fight—than a workplace with only one entrance and exit— fight only.”
Regardless of what policies an employer creates, no employer can guarantee that workplace violence will not occur. Because of this, all employers need to prepare their employees in terms of “flight, hide, and fight.”
But one thing is for sure: the many incidences of workplace violence tell every employer that they can’t view it as a random event. “Every employer that has experienced workplace violence never thought it would happen to them,” says Birdsall. “Employers must take a proactive stance to monitor potentially explosive workplace situations. Employees, too, have a responsibility to ensure their own safety by promptly reporting all potentially threatening violations of the workplace violence policy to their supervisors. They need to be encouraged to do so without fear of retaliation for reporting these types of issues.” The life they save may be yours.