Avoiding Workplace Violence
It’s been a couple weeks now since the tragic shooting of two television station employees in Virginia. First, let me say that we join everyone else in the country in extending our sympathy and shared grief to the families and coworkers of the victims, Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
And we keep getting calls from employers who are, understandably, scared.
There are no foolproof strategies for dealing with what that man did. In hindsight, the employment lawsuits (three of them), erratic behavior, and his constant victim mentality create a picture that could have forewarned of the trouble to come. But, frankly, there are plenty of people out there who are unhappy and struggling, at work and in life, who do not handle their problems by hurting others.
Today, I want to address how we, as employers, can take reasonable precautions by addressing three areas that are typically involved before, during, and after a workplace violence event.
- Recognizing that a person may be a danger, or could spin out of control
- Doing what you can to address the person or the situation so that you and the surrounding circumstances are least likely to trigger them
- Planning for, and reacting to, unthinkably violent events
This isn’t a “magic formula” type of answer, but it can help.
But…was the shooting on August 26 racially motivated, or workplace violence?
There’s been a lot of talk about racial motivations for this particular violent event. To consider something a person’s “motivation,” it needs to be the cause of a particular outcome. In this instance, all the news coverage I’ve seen and read so far indicates that, while the killer’s rage was fueled by racially-charged recent events, his primary upsets, going back for years, were always about work. His is a classic example of a victim mentality. To make things worse, he was a loner and isolated himself in all areas of life.
These kinds of folks feel that they have been wronged and then seek to justify their actions by lashing out in a way which, they think, will ultimately show them as the true victim of other people’s actions. Keeping that in mind, and given the fact that the killer had a history of workplace issues and lawsuits, I come to the conclusion that this is a clear case of workplace violence. So…
How can we, as employers, recognize a person or situation that could spin out of control?
This is not an exact science. Typically, employees get most upset when they are fired or when they feel they are not being heard. Heck, never mind employees—no one likes to feel dismissed. Even mentally ill people are affected when what they perceive as “truth” is ignored or not understood by others.
If you feel like a person has the potential to be a problem, it should affect how you plan any situation in which they are involved. And if you think you need to take additional steps to protect yourself and your employees, remember that the sheriff is always just one call away.
How can we avoid triggering them?
Granted, people who get “triggered” can be hard to read, and sometimes explode on their own with little rhyme or reason. But other times it’s much easier to see the potential for a major issue on the horizon.
Here’s an example. Several years ago, we had a doctor call in to relay that a new employee had just shared a disturbing story with another employee. Put simply, the employee claimed to be part of a militia group, and went on to describe something he had to do during the initiation process that involved the use of a gun. Suffice to say, it freaked both the doctor and me out, but it sure was a warning sign.
Ultimately, the practice was able to ease this person out within just a couple of weeks. We recognized the issue and took measured steps to move the employee out and to protect the employees. Throughout this time, we—myself and the doctor, who did all the hard work and most of the worrying—also had an alternative plan for what to do if this employee started to become a threat.
The doctor’s primary concern was that, if he called the authorities, given the story that the employee had told, he was the type of person who would come back and commit violence against those he felt were responsible. I don’t think anyone has a clear answer of what to do in these instances. All we can do is hope for the best and plan for the worst.
That example turned out OK. The guy was a nut and talked about shooting things. Potential was high. Luckily, proactive planning and cautious steps in this case were sufficient.
In many other instances, while the signs of potential violence are much harder to pick up, if you pay attention you may just be able to see that there is a problem and plan accordingly. There’s no easy answer, but firing with dignity is one method that can help. Part of this strategy involves keeping the firing meeting short and limiting opportunities for the employee to become triggered. At this link, about halfway down the page, you’ll find some additional guidance on firing with dignity.
How can we plan for, and react to, unthinkable “what-ifs”?
What if something unforeseen happens? Or, employees aside, what if an irate spouse or a former worker shows up or threatens violence against your practice or an employee? We’ve written an extensive article on employer (and company) precautions for workplace violence. You can find it here, on Dentistry IQ.
Don’t take chances. If you feel there is a problem, and you think you need help, or to call the police, do it.
Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature, and is not intended to replace good counsel about a specific issue with either your attorney or your favorite HR expert.