NECN: Peter Howe, Stoneham/North Attleborough, Mass.) – It’s a question no boss ever wants to think about — but then along comes a workplace shooting like Tuesday’s Connecticut horror: How do I keep my employees safe from a disgruntled, possibly deadly, colleague?
Security experts say it’s impossible to prevent all incidents. But they say there is a lot bosses and supervisors should think about to significantly reduce the risk of workplace conflict turning murderous.
“When you’re going to fire an employee, or you suspect that something’s wrong with an employee and you’re going to counsel them, the best thing to do is a threat assessment,” says Daniel M. O’Neill, president and CEO of Applied Risk Management in Stoneham, Mass. . A former Army Ranger and Harvard Business School graduate, O’Neill co-authored with three colleagues a book after the Virginia Tech shootings called “The Handbook For Campus Threat Assessment & Management Teams.”
He says bosses disciplining or firing someone — like Hartford Distributors was doing with alleged mass-murderer Omar Thornton, 34, after accusing him of stealing beer from the company — can’t ask enough questions about the problem worker ahead of time. Questions O’Neill urges supervisors to ask the problem worker’s co-workers include: “Do they have a history of violence or becoming violent? Is there any fascination with weapons? Does the person have weapons? Is there increased alcohol consumption? Financial problems? You want to create a full picture of the person before the termination.”
Experts also say when it comes to workplace security, take a cue from homeland security: If you see something, say something.
Fred T. Leland Jr. is director and principal trainer with Law Enforcement & Security Consulting in North Attleborough, Mass., and a lieutenant with the Walpole, Mass., police. Of spotting disgruntled workers who may turn homicidal, Leland says, “The number one thing we can do is take advantage of people is how I like to put it, the people who work in your office space.”
Leland says it’s impossible to stop all incidents, but says, “We can prevent a lot of these things from happening if only we take the steps early on. In most of those scenarios, you’ll find out later on that people felt something was wrong, and that intuition we’ve been trained to ignore for years” by a culture that teaches us to “mind your own business.” Leland says he encourages clients he talks to to create a culture where employees feel safe reporting concerns and fears.
Leland and O’Neill agree, in dealing with an employee you fear could get violent, don’t hesitate to call 911 beforehand. “If you think there’s a serious threat, you could call the police, and have a police presence at the termination,” O’Neill said. After extensive dealings with police departments around the country, he said, “Most police departments would be open to that idea, especially if you explain the seriousness of the threat.”
And finally, while stressing that, obviously, absolutely nothing explains away or justifies murder, O’Neill said he will be interested to learn more about just how bad — and how racist — the work environment truly was for Thornton at Hartford Distributors. Both he and O’Neill have said they have learned that in preventing workplace violence, efforts to maintain as humane and civil a workplace as possible are proven to have a huge impact on the risk of violence.