When HR is a Matter of Life and Death: What Employers Can Do to Prevent Mass Shootings

In the past when my team would get too intense about an employee relations issue that could have been easily prevented had the supervisor only LISTENED TO US (ok, maybe I got slightly peeved about it too), I would say things like, “calm down everyone, we aren’t performing brain surgery here,” or “let’s remember that this isn’t life and death.” Although I wasn’t objectively wrong, the disturbing increase in mass shootings in our country, particularly those directed at workplaces, does bring new perspective to these statements. You see, in a world where disappointment correlates with a shooting rampage, mishandling of employee relations scenarios has been effectively thrust into the realm of life and death.

The National Safety Council published the following list of warning signs that might signal future workplace violence:

  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs;
  • Unexplained absenteeism, change in behavior or decline in job performance;
  • Depression, withdrawal or suicidal comments;
  • Resistance to changes at work or persistent complaining about unfair treatment;
  • Violation of company policies;
  • Emotional responses to criticism, mood swings; and
  • Paranoia.

If you work in HR you are probably reading this list and going, “Yep, those are the exact situations that I deal with on a daily basis.” If you are like me, you are probably also thinking, “Several of those are clear cause for disciplinary action…and even termination of employment.” Then, you might be thinking, “Is she about to tell me that I cannot fire someone for screaming at a coworker while on a drunken bender?!” No, I am not about to tell you that you cannot fire someone for screaming at a coworker while on a drunken bender. However, I would like for you to be able to do it without risking your life.

So, let’s talk about what we might be able to do to keep these warning signs from turning into yet another mass shooting.

1) Interview smart.

In my experience, most interviewers learn very little about an applicant during an interview because they ask banal questions like, “Why did you leave your last employer?” How are you going to build a relationship of trust when you are asking to be lied to from the get-go?! Instead, interview questions should prompt an interesting conversation, and ideally that conversation will be difficult for a sociopath to fake. Without getting into those touchy subjects that we have to avoid in interviews, you should still be able to gather information about an applicant’s life goals (both short term and long term), values, communication style, ego, etc. Remember, not every applicant has a sparkling personality, but not every job calls for one. What I mean is that you don’t need to be looking for the applicant you “like.” Narcissists and sociopaths are often very likeable. This exercise is about finding the one who is capable of loyalty/commitment and will do a great job while appropriately handling a reasonable amount of work stress.

Shameless Plug: Check out this Forbes HR Council article for some innovative interview questions including one from yours truly.

2) No surprises.

Even for your most stable team member, nothing is worse than unexpected criticism that feels completely out of left field. For less stable employees, an unexpected change in their job status can lead to violence. You can avoid the big “Surprise, you’re fired!” by starting out with an active (i.e. not gathering dust) employee handbook and clear job descriptions, then following up with frequent feedback including weekly check-ins, quarterly informal performance reviews, and annual evaluations. I feel the need to remind you that these are all utterly worthless if you are not direct about poor job performance and clear about expectations for improvement. Imagine a world where poor performers never get fired because they leave on their own accord before termination becomes necessary. That dream can be your reality if you can get your leadership team past their fear of confrontation and/or their belief that a positive culture is a free-range culture.

3) Fair and Square.

It is hard for employees to complain about unfair treatment in an environment where everyone is treated fairly. This culture of trust must start at the executive level and diffuse itself throughout the entire organization. We do not make little jokes about our “favorites.” We do not have favorites. We have empathy and do not bully. We pay people on time. We pay people what they are worth, not the lowest amount we can get them to take. We expect the same level of productivity from everyone (regardless of whether they smoke). We recognize and reward the contributions of everyone, not just the gregarious ones. No one in the organization is invisible. Everyone in the organization knows they can expect to be treated fairly, therefore everyone is empowered to immediately report any unfair treatment knowing full well that it will be addressed.

4) Offer an Employee Assistance Program.

When a member of the team is struggling with depression, substance abuse, or a wide variety of other personal matters, it is likely that the struggle will come through in the individual’s work. An employee assistance program (EAP) is exactly what it sounds like: “A work-based intervention program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance.” Typically these programs are provided at no cost to the employee and deliver therapy services via phone, video-chat, online chat, e-mail, or face-to-face counseling. This type of intervention can help the employee grasp and process complex emotions, then hopefully inspire the employee to seek further intervention if necessary, to get back on track. Being able to defer to this type of intervention also helps to protect the organization and its other employees against any violent tendencies that may have been associated with the team member’s struggle had he or she not gotten help.

5) Emergency Action Plan.

No matter the size of your organization, you need an emergency action plan including an evacuation plan and a defined meet-up point in the event of an emergency. Having a plan in place can save lives in the event of a workplace shooting. I know it is not pleasant, but every employee needs to have an individual plan for RUN, HIDE, FIGHT:

  • RUN: Which exits are available to the employee and what are the various routes to reach them? Employees should be trained that they are not to take any personal items or attempt to save their coworkers. They should run with their hands visible so they are not mistaken for the shooter. This is the best opportunity for survival.
  • HIDE: Each employee should select a place in or around the employee’s work area to hide if running is not an option. Employees should be trained to lock all doors between the employee and the shooter, to silence cell phones, and not to emerge from the hiding spot until they are certain that law enforcement is present.
  • FIGHT: This should be the absolute last resort and employees need to know that. Employees should only fight when their lives are in imminent danger. They should be trained to attempt to incapacitate the shooter, acting with physical aggression and throwing items at the shooter.

There is no way that a blog could cover all aspects of such a nuanced subject, and there is no question that this content is oversimplified, but I hope these tips can be of assistance during this alarming time. Please reach out to Human Resources Experience if we can help your organization mitigate the risk of violence in the workplace.