Representor Summer 2019 - Feature Article

Workplace Violence: It Would Never Happen Here

by Nancye M. Combs, AEP, SPHR

When the reporter announced the names and job titles of the victims at the Henry Pratt Company shooting, I prayed it was not one of my clients, association members, or an HR colleague. Then, my mind visualized the typical termination interview that plays out in American companies every day.

The plant manager recommends termination after a long series of attempts to solve a problem and return the employee to a positive relationship with the company. The HR manager prepares the termination documents and arranges the meeting. The intern serves as the witness to the termination. The plant manager presents the reasons for termination. The union representative is present because the contract states he can be present to represent his member. The employee arrives at the meeting aware termination is likely. He is ready with his weapon of choice hidden in his pocket and disaster looms. All the other wounded or killed are called “collateral damage.”

Is that what happened in Aurora, Ill.? We may never know the motivation, but if we can take away anything positive, we must learn from it and dispel any thought that “It would never happen here” because it can happen anywhere.

Every business owner or manager is subconsciously aware of the possibility that employee violence is possible. The probability moves to the conscious mind during times of sudden, unpopular change, disciplinary interviews and termination. Vulnerability to employee violence is increased because employment relationships operate in an open environment.

Unlike institutional environments, such as prisons and mental health hospitals, where much of the activity is continuously restricted, employee environments are loosely controlled. Employees bring “personal baggage” to the workplace that preoccupies their minds and creates additional stress.

The latest culprit, illegal drugs, radically changes the behavior of the otherwise, normal employee. Introducing drugs into the system has varying effects on people and on the same people at different times. It is a workplace dilemma with which we continually struggle.

Additionally, we recognize that human behavior is never 100 percent predictable, although we know more about it today than ever before. The dynamics of life and work create the need for management to always be sensitive to problem employees. There are many ways we can reduce the odds of becoming the victim of a potentially violent employee.

Selection procedures. Be certain there is a “keeper at the gate of employment.” Selection procedures, such as testing and reference checking, must not be overlooked or set aside in the interest of the expedient hire or to save money. Making a quick decision, absent the safeguards that help weed out the troublemakers, increases the odds of getting an unstable employee.

Background check. Do you work with a violent ex-offender? You do not know if you do not check backgrounds. The single most reliable predictor of future behavior is what the employee has done in the past. Failure to check into the past of potential employees begs trouble. In addition, it is critical to match employees to jobs.
Job match. Placing an employee in a job for which he/she is not suited, by reason of skill or personality, can produce a “problem employee.” A job mismatch increases the stress level of the employee. Poor performance fuels insecurity and coworkers can be cruel. Workplace bullies share the blame for many acts of violence.

Training. Train your key people, those in management and conflict resolution positions, in the skill of problem solving. Most supervisors have been promoted through the ranks and are excellent technicians or craftspeople. They have little or no training to handle difficult communication problems, yet they are expected to solve these kinds of problems on the firing line every day.

Conflict resolution. The well-meaning supervisor, who is untrained, can actually fuel the flames of violence, without an awareness of the potential harm. Supervisors who are skilled in conflict resolution techniques, the techniques for administering emotional first aid, are valuable resources to the organization. Research of incidents involving workplace killers illustrates how often poor management has contributed to violence in the workplace.

Policies and procedures. Uniformly enforce operating policies and procedures. If company-wide policies were created for the good of all, enforce them. When policies are haphazardly enforced, we run the risk of a breakdown in operating standards and morale. We run the risk of an employee feeling he/she is being singled out and treated unfairly.

Enforcing policies related to security can be difficult when employees are familiar with each other. We feel awkward requiring signatures, badges and package searches from people we know and work with daily. Awkwardness leads to laxity and laxity to vulnerability. In addition, when employees know policies are being enforced uniformly, they recognize how hard it is to circumvent them.

Sensitivity. Be especially sensitive at the time of employee discharge. Involuntarily separation (discharge) is the capital punishment of employment. The action is emotionally charged and brings with it destruction of self-esteem, fear about economic survival, and feelings of being personally singled out for unfair treatment.

Here are some precautions you can take:

1. Use a system that lets you coach and counsel before you discharge. Coaching allows you to inform the employee that a problem exists and the behavior needs to change. Counseling allows you to tell the employee the coaching has not worked and it is now time to correct the behavior. During the counseling interview, it is important to say, “The problem has reached a time that it must be solved or we will not be able to keep you as our employee.” If termination becomes necessary for an unsolved problem, send any potentially troubled employee home on “administrative leave pending a final decision.” If the final decision is termination, why bring that person back to your office? Notify the employee by mail. After all, the decision is final and exposure to potential violence is unnecessary.

2. For terminations at the company property, never handle this conversation in your office. You can be trapped! Handle it in a conference room or common area that will let you get away in the event of any disruption.

3. If you are concerned about the behavior or intentions of any disruptive person, notify your local police department. Do not ask them to help you terminate the person. Ask them to sit in your parking lot or in your lobby. While helping the management at a nursing home, I watched how the behavior of a loud, abusive, angry, employee evaporated when she learned the police officer in the lobby was there in case he was needed.

4. Let employees know about any potentially disruptive person and tell them to call 911 instantly without any approval if they feel in danger, or receive/hear any threats.

No-fault concept. Consider “no-fault termination” of employment whenever possible. Generally, the no-fault concept is associated with divorce. It reduces some of the emotional charge at a stressful time. Whenever possible, end the employment relationship without a “bad guy.” Accept that anyone can wind-up in the wrong job, the wrong company, or the wrong occupation. Successful separation, with the dignity of the employee intact, is the goal of the effective and wise manager.

There are three goals of any employee discharge:

1. The employee goes away peacefully with his/her dignity intact.
2. No one is injured or killed.
3. The company does not get sued.

These things will not guarantee that you will never be the subject of employee violence, but it is the kind of preventive medicine that contributes to a healthy working environment.

Nancye M. Combs, AEP, SPHR

Nancye Combs is a voice of authority on human resources and organizational development. She speaks, consults, writes and offers expert witness testimony on workplace issues. She is president and CEO of HR Enterprise, Inc., in Louisville, Ky., and spent 20 years as a corporate business executive before founding a consulting practice. She provides management advisory services to hundreds of executives in business, industry, education, and government in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. She was named one of the top women business owners in Louisville and received the Award of Professional Excellence from the Louisville Society for Human Resource Management, which awards a scholarship in her name.

Combs can be reached at, or at 502-896-0503.