Employers Can Take Steps to Mitigate Risk Of Workplace Mass Homicides, Experts Say

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In light of the recent mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., human resources professionals may want to re-evaluate their violence prevention strategies.

According to a report released Aug. 6 by Alexandria, Va.-based ASIS International Foundation Inc., an organization for security professionals, employers should develop policies and practices to address workers who make threats against others in the workplace, because they could pose a risk for workplace mass homicides (WMH).

The ASIS report, Mass Homicides by Employees in the American Workplace, analyzed 44 cases of WMH from 1986 to 2011.

Triggering events occur in most cases of WMH, the report said, and the most common precipitating factors are termination or a negative job performance review, interpersonal problems among workers, and constant teasing and ostracizing by co-workers.

In 43 percent of the cases of WMH examined in the report, offenders warned their victims or someone in the workplace before they killed, and some warnings were explicit to the point that shooters stated they would return to their workplace to settle a score.

Employers can best mitigate the risk of workplace violence by articulating clear and comprehensive expectations about what is acceptable and unacceptable employee behavior, said Philip Deming, a consultant with Philip S. Deming & Associates in King of Prussia, Pa., a firm specializing in human resources and security risk management.

“Management has to be seriously committed to following through on all of these [policy] obligations,” Deming told BNA Aug. 13. Managers with too much work and too few employees may not be as vigilant or effective at enforcing a workplace violence prevention policy, he warned.

WMH Characteristics

While government statistics on workplace homicides indicate that the rate of violent crime against employed persons has declined since 1993, WMH incidents by employees have increased in recent years, the ASIS report found.

According to the report, WMH by employees occurs at an average of two incidents yearly, with an average of almost 12 victims killed per year. WMH is characterized by at least three fatalities in one violent act, the report said, and is most commonly committed by white males between the ages of 30 and 60. However, the report noted that the earlier notion of workplace shooters always being male and blue-collar is beginning to change, with the growing realization that managerial and professional workers, as well as women, could become workplace killers.

Mass shooting at work do not generally take place immediately after the triggering events, the report said. Only seven of the 44 cases studied by the report occurred within 24 hours, and cases where the offenders committed massacres within a month were responsible for only 31 percent of all WMH incidents. Approximately 75 percent of WMH occur several months to a year after triggering events, the report found.

Contrary to popular belief, workplace shooters do not typically have a history of criminal activity or drug use, the report said. About 73 percent of employees who have committed WMH did not have a criminal record before the incident, and over 93 percent had no history of drug use.

According to the report, these findings underscore that the “phenomenon of WMH by employees presents inescapable and challenging problems, which each workplace potentially could experience.”

States Relax Gun Restrictions

According to the report, every single instance of WMH included use of a firearm. State statutes allowing workers to have guns on company property can complicate the situation for employers.

Recently, a number of states have passed laws or have pending legislation that would expand the locations where individuals may carry firearms, attorney Michael Abcarian, a partner at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Dallas, told BNA Aug. 15.

For example, Texas passed a law allowing employees to lock their firearms in their cars in employer parking lots, and this has greatly concerned employers, Abcarian said. Employers, however, continue to have the right to prohibit firearms in working areas, he said.

Additional states that regulate employees' ability to bring guns to work premises include Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Mass Shootings Detailed

The report outlined recent examples of WMH, including:

• On Aug. 3, 2010, a 34-year-old warehouse driver for a beer distributor opened fire killing eight and wounding several more at his workplace. The shooting occurred right after a disciplinary hearing in connection with a theft.

• On Feb. 15, 2010, a 44-year-old biology professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville opened fire and killed three faculty members and wounded several more. The shooting occurred immediately after her tenure application was denied by the university.

• On Nov. 14, 2008, a 47-year-old computer engineer for a Silicon Valley firm opened fire, fatally shooting three of his former bosses. Laid off the previous week, the employee returned to the office asking for a meeting with company officials, including the chief executive officer, the vice president of operations, and the director of HR.


Simple Solutions for Prevention

“A workplace violence issue is just another form of a man-made disaster,” Jeffrey Slotnick, chief operating officer and chairman of the ASIS International Physical Security Council, told BNA Aug. 13.

Many companies do not have a comprehensive violence prevention plan, however, because of poor understanding of the employer policy or workplace politics that prevent the type of comprehensive collaboration needed, Slotnick said.

According to Slotnick, HR leaders should “break down [the] corporate silos” and collaborate with leadership from all aspects of an enterprise.

Slotnick recommended that HR bring in a third party for honest and constructive feedback on what the actual status of the organization is and identifying top risks.

The ASIS report recommended creating a support system for departing employees, which could be a critical measure to minimize the risk of WMH. Management should also not only oversee employees' job performance, but also seek to improve the overall working environment and foster a “supportive ethos” toward employees, ASIS said.

Overall, the principle of “right job, right person” should be practiced more widely, according to the report. For example, the report said, following a period of declining work performance, Joseph Wesbecker, a 47-year-old printing plant worker, killed seven people on Sept. 14, 1989.

Deming recommended employers implement call lines or other anonymous channels to report employee problems or threats.

Centralized records systems are particularly helpful in keeping tabs on complaints that could indicate an employee on the verge of a violent act, Deming said.

There also have to be appropriate methods in place to capture all of the data needed to prevent adverse events, Slotnick said. Data and information are needed to establish a baseline for workplace violence measurement and planning, he said. Additionally, he said, the same data are needed to assess how well policies are working to prevent incidents.

By Genevieve Douglas  

The ASIS report is available at http://op.bna.com/hl.nsf/r?