In the six-month period from August 2015 through February 2016, three episodes of deadly workplace violence occurred on the East Coast, the West Coast and in America's heartland.
August 2015: Two people were killed and one seriously injured in Virginia, when a disgruntled ex-employee shot two former colleagues on live television: 24-year-old Alison Parker, a WDBJ-TV7 news reporter, and Adam Ward, a 27-year-old videographer.
Ward was filming Parker as she interviewed chamber of commerce executive Vicki Gardner, who was seriously injured but survived probably because the killer's Glock ran out of bullets.
December 2015: In California, a county health inspector and his wife burst into a rented banquet room where approximately 80 of his colleagues were attending a holiday party. Fourteen people were killed and 22 were injured. The killers conducted a mass shooting and an attempted bombing during the attack.
February 2016: In Kansas, a painter shot and killed three people and injured 14 more at the lawn care equipment manufacturing company where he worked. A co-worker reported that approximately two hours after they’d clocked in, he saw the perpetrator begin shooting at people in the factory's parking lot.
Reducing workplace violence
As a former human resources director, my responsibilities included serving as a member of the company's safety committee. Back then when the topic of workplace violence came up, our greatest concern focused on issues like the occasional shoving match and heated arguments between co-workers. We never imagined that shootings would be an issue.
However, workplace violence cannot be taken lightly. Outdated notions of “it can't happen here,” must be disregarded.
Employee safety should be a top priority for every organization. The following three tips can help minimize some of the risk from workplace violence.
1. Encourage employees to speak up
Employees concerned about the conduct of others in the workplace should be told to listen to their internal voice rather than disregard it.
Some employees believe that by ignoring someone's inappropriate words or conduct, it will dissipate or disappear. Sometimes it does. Other times, unfortunately, it escalates.
Employees should be advised to report safety concerns to a human resources officer, supervisor or other appropriate party. Organizational leaders should never look the other way if they observe or become aware of inappropriate workplace behaviors. If there is an immediate threat or concern for safety, law enforcement should be contacted.
2. Safety committee's role
Workplace violence and its prevention should be placed on the safety committee's meeting agenda. It should be studied, addressed and discussed at least as frequently as things such as occupational accidents and injuries.
The safety committee must be empowered to do its job effectively. For example, there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that when employees exercise internal human resource grievance procedures to report conduct that includes episodes of workplace violence, said information is brought to the safety committee's attention. Too often it is not.
Safety committees should comprise individuals from line staff to the highest-ranking management official or an appropriate designee. This ensures feedback and representation from the entire workplace.
The committee must do more than simply discuss workplace safety during meetings. The role of the safety committee is to be proactive with a focus on recommending ways to prevent future violence from occurring. The commitment to develop a safe working environment should be ongoing.
For instance, the safety committee should develop appropriate written safety procedures and protocols. All-employee training sessions designed to educate staff on what workplace violence is and specific steps to take in order to voice any concerns should be conducted regularly.
Additionally, if such external sources as the organization's Employee Practices liability insurer or Workers’ Compensation carrier offers training or proposed standardized written policies, the organization should take advantage of them.
When workplace violence takes its deadliest form, law enforcement is always contacted and should be considered an additional resource for prevention-related activities.
Management should consult with the authorities and obtain their advice regarding workplace safety, invite them to meet with the safety committee and participate in employee training sessions.
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WDBJ-TV7 meteorologist Leo Hirsbrunner, right, wipes his eyes during the early morning newscast as anchors Kimberly McBroom, center, and guest anchor Steve Grant deliver the news at the station in Roanoke, Va., Aug. 27, 2015. Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed during a live broadcast the day before, while on assignment. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP Photo)
3. Behavioral-based interviewing
One of the best ways to develop a safe workplace is to avoid hiring employees who are disruptive and have been behavioral problems for past employers. In other words, avoid mis-hires and only bring the best candidates for all job openings on board.
How is this accomplished at a time when past employers typically provide little more than confirmation of date of employment, job titles, salary, and possibly a “yes” or “no” answer to “Would you rehire?”
One way is the use of focused interviewing techniques, a process which involves such tools as behavioral-based interviewing questions and active listening.
While it may not be possible to predict whether any applicant is prone to violence, the Virginia shooter had a background of workplace-based problems that were chillingly similar to those he exhibited at WDBJ before he was hired.
For instance, it was reported that he engaged in odd behaviors and had difficulty getting along with others while on at least one prior employer's payroll. This was similar to the on-the-job conduct that led in part to the decision to terminate him after less than a year of service with WDBJ.
Behavioral-based interviewing involves the use of pointed and probing job-specific questions that require applicants to relate how they behaved in previous workplaces.
In the case of a customer service representative job opening, a traditional interview question might be, “Do you handle customer complaints well?”
Conversely, the behavioral-based inquiry would ask, “Provide me with a situation when you dealt with a difficult customer. Why do you feel the customer was difficult? How did you handle it? What was the ultimate outcome?”
Past behaviors can be an important indicator of future conduct. Using a combination of the right interview questions with active listening skills and body language observations can assist an interviewer in identifying potential problems.
Some other things to observe are whether the person's non-verbal cues match what he or she is saying, the candidate's demeanor and body language. All of these provide clues for a careful observer and insight into an individual's character, personality and honesty.
There is no magic formula to identifying individuals who could become violent, but careful observation during the hiring process, proactive planning and encouraging employees to speak up when they see something troubling can help mitigate some of the dangers.
Kathleen M. Bonczyk, Esq., is a consultant, educator, licensed attorney and former human resources executive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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