Preventing Violence in Today's Workplace

Workplace crime and aggressive behavior experts look at what can be done to prevent workplace shootings before they occur

Michael O'Malley, a former Pennsylvania police officer and police trainer and now owner of Personal Protection Consultants Inc., is a trainer who uses the Management of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB) program to teach scenario de-escalation. O'Malley says that there has to be a shift in the corporate workplace from one of reactive response to one of proactive policies.

"When you look at how most companies think of workplace violence, they tend to think of it in terms of the response," says O'Malley. "They think in terms of where do we take employees and how do we conduct the lock-down. Most companies aren't being proactive. But after an event like Monday's, I'd almost guarantee that the post office is going to look at a program on how to de-escalate situations. Some industries, like healthcare, have been very proactive. They look at how to de-escalate these situations."

He adds that a lot of situations, even if they've built up during the normal work environment, can be mitigated during the firing process.

"You have to be able to recognize body language, and what kind of body language you're presenting, how you sit, what kind of personal space you're giving the employee," says O'Malley, who recommends that all managers be trained in aggressive behavior mitigation. "You also have to consider your facial expressions, and whether you're just talking to them, or are you listening as well?"

"I think a lot of de-escalation can occur just from giving them eye contact, giving head nods to show you are listening, letting them vent some and allowing them to explain their situation. Gestures, your posture and your facial expressions are very important."

He adds that the "cornering" of an employee can also lead someone from a level of anxiety, into verbal aggression and even physical aggression. He warns against bringing too many people in on a firing process, and says that with too many faces looking at the employee, they can start to be cornered. He says those feelings are not only affected by how many people are part of the process, but how they're situated in the room, and even if an antagonizing manager is present.

O'Malley recommends keeping the numbers down to simply one HR persona and possibly a "contact cover" to be a firing ombudsman of sorts. That person can be a manager who had good rapport with the employee, or perhaps the employee's union representative. Security can be kept nearby, but not in the room unless there's been a history of the employee making threats to co-workers or managers.

Erickson says it gets back to being human.

"When it's time to let someone go, the most important thing is that you have to show your empathy, and not do it in a cold-hearted way," explains Erickson. "You have to humanize the situation, because your decision is affecting their life."

Where It Has to Start

After the kind of incident we saw Monday at the postal facility, it's a natural reaction for the security department to kick themselves for allowing such an event to filter through the cracks. But if Mains, O'Malley and Erickson are right, these kinds of events can often by-pass security departments, which are often better set up to challenge external threats than they are to deal with internal threats by current and former personnel.

Mains says while the security department may have the training in incident de-escalation, that education has to extend beyond the company's security command center and guard staff.

"In terms of the building blocks for this kind of awareness, all of the company's employees should have the awareness and training about potential violent incidents," says Mains. "The key really is total employee education. These kinds of incidents have become more pronounced in the recent past, and it's clear that a lot of companies have their heads in the sand about these kinds of attacks. There is a great deal of 'management by crisis,' where things don't happen until an incident occurs."

O'Malley says that the cumulative effect of how employees and managers relate pays dividends in terms of workplace violence. In January 2005, an employee at a Jeep assembly plant in Toledo, Ohio, returned to kill a manager and wounded two employees before killing himself in the process.