Mass Shootings in the Workplace

by | Jun 4, 2021 | Gary's Blog

In order to connect the dots, we must first collect the dots.  With the recent number of mass shootings in the workplace, people are wondering how to prevent such tragedies.  Just because your workplace could experience a targeted act of violence does not mean your organization will experience this type of event.  Like the strategies used to prevent school shootings, there is no single solution.  Organizations wanting to protect their employees and customers must use a layered approach using both company policy and employee training.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as: Violent Acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault or intimidation and harassment including sexual harassment, directed toward persons at work or on duty where an employee is verbally or physically attacked, harassed, injured, or killed.

Workplace violence happens on a continuum.  No one just snaps and the events are not random.  These killers are on a pathway to violence that is often caused by stressors in their life.  FBI studies have shown this pathway is dynamic and training employees to look for behaviors of concern and getting help for the employee can alter the pathway and prevent the violence.  The earlier the intervention the better chance of success.

For every death due to workplace violence, there are over six million incidents of threats or intimidations.  Most of these incidents go unreported and can progress to the next level.  Although most employers have sexual harassment policies, they fail to train their employees this is a form of violence.  Employees who commit sexual harassment are not going to progress active shooters, but training employees how to identify and report all violence is the key to preventing behaviors from escalating. The organization is not training their employees how to identify an active shooter, but how to identify and articulate behaviors that cause concern.  For example, from a training program, an employee understands a coworker is violating their personal space to intimidate them.  They follow company policy and report the behavior.  With this information, Human Resources can check with the employee’s supervisor.  They learn this employee has not been completing assignments, has uncharacteristically missed multiple days of work, is often sullen, and no longer eats lunch with their co-workers.  A discussion with a co-worker reveals the employee is having difficulty with their finances because they are taking care of a sick parent.  Depending on the employee’s behavior, it may be necessary to contact Law Enforcement in the jurisdiction of the organization or where the employee lives.  The organization learns of reports of domestic disputes at the employee’s home.  Is this employee on a pathway to violence?  Possibly, but because the organization is connecting the dots, they can see the stressors in the employee’s life. Using tools like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) they can get help for the employee.

This process for investigating concerns was pioneered by the US Secret Service and is known as a threat assessment. The Secret Service has shown targeted acts of violence can be prevented using threat assessment teams.  Because the information needed to prevent the attack is often scattered and fragmented, employees must be trained to look for the behavioral warning signs and have a policy to follow to report the behavior.

Why not just fire the employee?  This may eventually happen, but it should not be the end goal.  Termination is an added stressor.  Many times, an active shooter is a former employee.  Therefore, the ultimate goal is to get help for the employee to help them off of the pathway to violence.

In After Action Reports on active shooter events, it is learned the killer exhibited multiple behaviors that, on their own, may not have raised concern.  Had all those concerns been collected and shared it is highly likely the active shooter event could have been prevented.  In order to connect the dots, we first need to collect the dots.

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