Preventing Violence in Today's Workplace

Feb. 1, 2006
Workplace crime and aggressive behavior experts look at what can be done to prevent workplace shootings before they occur

On Monday, Jan. 30, 2006, a female ex-employee walked into a U.S. Post Office processing facility near Santa Barbara, Calif., and opened fire on employees. At the end of the incident six people were dead, another seriously injured, and then the shooter turned the gun on herself. Without surprise, the major news media reported that the shooter was believed to have had mental problems that may have exacerbated the situation.

Where do these kind of incidents start? What should security persons know about preventing these kinds of scenarios before they occur?

Profiling the Crime

Rosemary J. Erickson, Ph.D., a forensic sociologist and president of Athena Research Corporation, who deals with workplace crime prevention, says that the incident at the Goleta, Calif.-facility, doesn't fit the typically profile of workplace violence.

"In general, about 75 percent of workplace violence incidents are robbery-related," says Erickson. "The multiple homicide incidents perpetrated by someone inside the company are really only about 10 percent. While these are the events that tend to get the most exposure, they are by far much less common than the scenario of the criminal coming into the company for a robbery. So, after the 75 percent that are robbery-type crimes, you have 25 percent left, and much of those are domestic-violence related, such as a husband attacking a wife at the workplace. Then the last 10 percent is the type of incident that happened at the postal facility in California.

"Another important part of the profile is that 90 percent of violent crimes at the workplace are by males, so even if you're on alert for this kind of behavior, you're looking for a male, not the woman," continues Erickson. "So you can start to see how rare this kind of incident is where a female employee commits a multiple homicide/suicide."

But even though the statistics mark Monday's workplace homicide as an unlikely incident, Erickson says that she has been seeing an up-tick in these kinds of incidents that don't fit into the typical criminal profile.

"This multiple slaying is where I'm seeing an increase. While crime on the whole has been declining, we're seeing homicides increasing, especially instances of multiple slayings, so this is erratic in terms of the overall picture."

Erickson says that employers and security personnel can work up a profile of the kind of person that is likely to commit a workplace shooting.

"The warning signs are anger, first and foremost. Employers have to be able to gauge that anger, whether that's during a firing process or just in the normal workplace environment," says Erickson. "In terms of the profile, they tend to be loners, they tend not to have made close relationships with others in the workplace, they may have made threats, and sometimes they may have an obsession with weapons."

Preventing Workplace Shootings

But while profiles can be used to identity potential "unknowns" visiting the facility, profiles are, at least at some level, a reactionary tool. Erickson, as well as a number of other aggressive behavior mitigation trainers, agrees that preventing these kinds of situations has a lot more to do with improving workplace emotions than it does with efficient revoking of access control privileges.

"There is so much of an emphasis on cyber solutions," says Erickson, "but what I always try to bring HR and security back to is that it is a human that commits these crimes. We can get caught up in the cyber solutions and we can get too focused on the hardware and the gates and the cameras, but it's important not to forget that the human element is in play."

Paul Mains, a security consultant and president of West Bay Security Training in Auburndale, Fla., says that kind of reactive attitude is starting to diminish.

"I think that it's changing," says Mains. "My background is chiefly police, and the police model is typically reactive. But in corporate security and in guard services, we see more proactive use of security, and that fits hand-in-glove with how we have to respond."

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.

"There was a comment in an article from one of the plant's employees," says O'Malley, "and it was to point that, the way they treated their employees, it was a wonder that the incident had not happened earlier."

To that, says Mains, there's not much to say other than the company could have better spent time preventing these situations than dealing with the after-effects.

"It would certainly cost less to take care of these kinds of situations with training," says Mains, "than to deal with the murders of employees and the serious liability repercussions."

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