Is a violence-free workplace in your forecast?
Larry J. Chavez, B.A., M.P.A.
Critical Incident Associates
Foremost on the mind of every executive is keeping the organization afloat in the face of vigorous and unrelenting challenges - all this while adrift in a sea of uncertainties over the economy, outside scrutiny and a multitude of internal issues. It’s the internal issues, more specifically the people problems that can occasionally go awry.
Workplace violence sits on the extreme end of the scale of problems involving people. Like a stored up charge of energy, it waits for certain conditions to exist to unleash its destructive force. A single act of workplace violence exposes innocent people to unimaginable horrors, and leaves its host organization reeling in an aftermath of legal problems that can endure for years. One such incident occurred on the morning after Christmas in the year 2000.
The offices of Edgewater Technologies of Wakefield, Massachusetts were disrupted by a deafening succession of blasts from the muzzle of an AK-47 assault rifle, something employees in a high-tech firm would never expect to hear. This awesome and destructive weapon of war was in the vengeful and merciless hands of Michael McDermott, a 46-year-old software engineer. He was on a mission to punish members of Edgewater’s human resource and accounting staff for a recent IRS wage garnishment that had been imposed upon him. This was a matter over which his intended victims had no control, but McDermott’s perception was his reality and he viewed these innocent employees as collaborators with his federal foe. So, with each pull of the trigger, a fellow employee fell until the number tolled seven. Within minutes, those McDermott had selected for execution lay dead at or near their desks. An eerie silence followed, broken only by the occasional sound of an employee scampering to safety.
Typical of most workplace killers, McDermott did not kill any more than those he had targeted. Spent from his ordeal, he sat in the company’s reception area waiting for the inevitable. Like so many other workplace killers, McDermott crossed the line into the darkness of the criminal realm never to return to the world of relative civility he had known. Life as he knew it was over. As police approached, McDermott offered no resistance.
As if things were not chaotic enough at Edgewater that morning, the powerful engine of the media rumbled to life with the singular purpose of fulfilling the demand for information by those who find workplace violence cases sensational, spectacular and, sadly, intriguing. Within an hour of McDermott’s shots, millions of people were being informed of the events as they unfolded. People, many time zones away, were viewing real-time images of SWAT teams and ambulances attending to the bloody aftermath. As the sun set that day, the names “Wakefield”, “Edgewater” and “McDermott” were echoed hundreds of times until they became linked, intertwined and inseparable.
As horrifying as the Wakefield incident was, there are cases on record that exceed it in terms of loss of life and sheer destructive force. But, what is most disheartening is the fact that scenes such as this have been repeated hundreds of times across the American landscape and are continuing with no end in sight.
Concern for workplace security peaked in the days following September 11, 2001. People began to fear the foreign terrorist threat – but no such attacks ever materialized in the American workplace. Workplace violence incidents, on the other hand, occurred with regularity. Since 9-11, a total of 87 fatal incidents of workplace violence have occurred resulting in the deaths of 139 people and the wounding of 95 more – not at the hands of foreign terrorists, but at the hands of people within our own ranks, those we trusted with the key to the office, the password to our computer system and the right to be among us. We hired him, we nurtured him and he turned on us. The amount of carnage suffered within this brief period alone ought to send a message to decision-makers that workplace violence can no longer be ignored. This is supported by a 2002 survey of corporate security professionals who identified workplace violence as the greatest single security threat facing organizations – above international terrorism.
Where have organizations gone wrong? As a professional violence prevention trainer, I have made some observations. There is first good news. Thankfully, the human resource profession has taken the issue seriously and has made some strides in dealing with the problem through the establishment of policy and the application of sound employee acquisition practices. As a result, many organizations are beginning to screen applicants with violence prevention in mind.
Now the bad news - it is not enough to have an anti-violence policy on the wall and an employee manual on the shelf that purports to address the problem. There is a woeful lack of violence prevention awareness where it counts the most – among first-line supervisors. These people are the eyes and ears of every organization. They see every person within their area of responsibility every single day and are more likely than anyone else to observe a potentially violent situation in its earliest stages. But they cannot do what’s expected of them without proper training. According to a 1999 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, only 35% of organizations train managers and supervisors to identify warning signs of violent behavior.
While basic workplace violence awareness training would suffice for employees, first-line supervisors should be provided formal instruction and the opportunity to take part in hypothetical, problem-solving scenarios. They must be trained to identify the warning signs of impending violence and to conduct basic threat assessment to support the documentation and reporting of potentially dangerous situations. They must also be trained to recognize, identify and eliminate organizational risk factors that could lead to violence and, equally important, supervisors should be given instruction on how to defuse hostile or potentially violent employees.
Sadly, too many organizations have failed to provide workplace violence prevention training for supervisors and this has led to some tragic outcomes. There are many cases on record in which supervisors had advance knowledge of an employee’s dangerous tendencies, yet failed to act to protect innocent employees. One of the most chilling examples came from a quote of a retired supervisor of a Mississippi-based U.S. defense contractor following a workplace massacre.
“When I first heard about [the shootings], he [Williams] came to my mind…he had talked about wanting to kill people saying ‘I am capable of doing it.’” (Source: Associated Press and Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi, July 8, 2003)
The supervisor was referring to Doug Williams, an employee with whom he had worked prior to retirement. Williams was responsible for the July 8, 2003 shooting of 14 co-workers, killing 6, before committing suicide. With the knowledge this supervisor possessed, it is reasonable to assume that some effort could have been made to protect innocent employees. Whether this was a case of supervisory negligence or a lack of training, lawyers of the aggrieved families will no doubt pursue the matter further.
No organization can afford to maintain a climate of negligence where lives of innocent people hang in the balance. In 1999, a jury awarded $7.9 million dollars to the families of two men killed in a workplace violence incident in North Carolina. According to the attorney for the family, "…This man was a ticking time bomb and the management knew it, yet they did nothing to protect their employees…" (Associated Press, May 5, 1999). No executive would relish having to take the witness stand to defend such a failure.
The cost of a single fatal incident of workplace violence far exceeds the minor cost of the training that may have prevented it. Although declining budgets are often blamed for training cutbacks, a new application of an old concept in training can be employed to resolve the problem - regional training cooperatives. Used extensively by the public sector, they can also serve the private sector. These are informal alliances of regional training coordinators who pool their resources to bring quality training to a large number of organizations within a geographical area. In this manner, small organizations receive the same quality training as their larger counterparts. Coordinating such an event to address workplace violence would be an ideal leadership role for professional organizations representing the fields of human resources, risk management or safety for two important reasons: (1) they are stakeholders on the issue of organizational safety and (2) their professional affiliations cross organizational lines allowing them to interact and coordinate their efforts.
With executive emphasis on workplace violence prevention, coupled with the commitment to provide training, it is possible to establish a safe and peaceful work environment. Once achieved, employees are free to be productive, knowing that their safety is your concern. Managers and supervisors are transformed into valuable problem-solvers, part of the solution to workplace violence and not part of the problem.
A violence-free workplace is in the forecast for all who commit to it.
Larry J. Chavez, B.A., M.P.A., is a nationally recognized expert on workplace violence and crisis communication. Through his Workplace Violence 101 traveling workshop, he specializes in training managers, supervisors and employees to deal with, and prevent, violence within their organizations. A retired 31-year law enforcement veteran and former senior hostage negotiator, he has authored many articles on workplace violence and has been called upon for his expertise by such media organizations as the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Fox News, MSNBC and the Christian Science Monitor. In 1999, he honored an invitation to make a presentation before the United Nations World Health Organization Symposium on Violence and Health on the subject of Workplace Violence, The American Experience.
Website: http://www.workplaceviolence101.com | Phone: 916-354-2265