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7 Ways Employers Can Prepare for Violent Attacks

HR Column
A gunman opened fire on a group of people holding a fundraiser for a girls’ soccer team at a Walmart Supercenter in El Paso, TX, killing 22 people. Thirteen hours later, a gunman opened fire in Ohio, killing nine people. Less than a week later, panicked customers fled from a Walmart Store in Louisiana after two men drew weapons during an argument.

At a Walmart in Springfield, MO, police charged Dmitriy Andreychenko with making a terrorist threat that sparked a mass panic. The 20-year-old man claimed he was conducting a “social experiment” when he entered a Walmart wearing body armor and carrying a loaded rifle. He claimed he wanted to see whether his Second Amendment rights would be honored in a public area.

Forms of workplace violence

Workplace violence can take various forms, including:

  • Verbal threats,
  • Acts of aggression,
  • Verbal or physical intimidation,
  • Harassment,
  • Menacing gestures and body language,
  • Stalking,
  • Physical abuse toward other personnel,
  • Attempted or actual coercion,
  • Bringing weapons to the workplace or brandishing them, or
  • Disorderly conduct involving a lone worker or aimed at coworkers.

What employers can do

1. Be realistic

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that an average of nearly two million US workers report being victims of workplace violence. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 500 workplace homicides in 2016. Thus, the first step is to recognize it can happen in your town and even at your workplace.

2. Review hiring processes

Minimizing the risk of hiring violent employees is a good starting point to mitigating the risk of a violent workplace incident. An employer cannot adopt a blanket prohibition against hiring employees with felony convictions. However, successfully walking the line between complying with requirements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) while protecting the company can be one effective measure to keep potentially violent employees out of the organization.

3. Develop policies

Policies and procedures addressing workplace violence can provide instrumental level-setting for the organization. If the company has a zero-tolerance policy toward violence and intimidation, defining what that means can provide valuable instruction to employees in how they should respond to actual and potential threats.

4. Train employees

There are no formal government standards in place for training workers. As a starting point, employers can leverage their existing policies for emergency evacuation procedures. Employees should know what to do in case of an attack. Some experts recommend instructing employees to run, hide, or fight — in that order. While the approach has been subject to some criticism and refinement, it does provide useful guidance. Using a checklist can be helpful in ensuring all critical aspects of the violence response are covered.

5. Practice periodically

There is a big difference between theoretical instruction and actual practice. Practicing potential threat scenarios, role-playing, and drills can help to form habits in employees that come in handy if panic slows mental processing.

6. Recognize warning signs

According to OSHA, employees are more likely to commit violent acts if they exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Lodging sudden and persistent complaints about unfair treatment;
  • Blaming other coworkers or groups for problems and refusing to accept criticism about work performance;
  • Changing behavior and a notable decline in performance at work;
  • Making implied or express threats;
  • Increased absenteeism;
  • Deterioration of personal hygiene; and
  • Swearing, slamming doors, and other evidence of poor self-control.

7. Notify employees of banned individuals

Suspension or termination can trigger violence. If an employee is suspended or terminated and there is a risk of retaliation, it is sometimes difficult to determine how much attention to call to the individual, especially if no investigation has yet conclusively provided cause for concern.

The employee’s supervisor, human resources, the legal department, and other relevant stakeholders should ideally come together to assess the risk and develop an appropriate proactive plan. It might be prudent to notify local police and institute patrols around the workplace.

It also might be necessary to post photos of the employee in prominent areas alerting employees not to allow the employee onto the premises and to notify company security or the police if the employee is seen in the workplace or attempting to gain access.

About the Author

Spiwe L. JeffersonSpiwe L. Jefferson is chief counsel of ChristLight Productions Ltd., patron fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and governance committee chair of the board of The BrandLab. She is a member of the ACC employment and labor, law department management, and litigation networks.


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