We all heard the news early on August 26, 2015: TV anchor Alison Parker and camera man Adam Ward were executed on live tv by a former co-worker. It was shocking, horrifying and unimaginable.
In the aftermath, it is not surprising that the media and the public are trying to piece together how this tragedy happened. The analysis includes dissecting the employer’s response to threats made by the killer (I refuse to identify him by name) when he worked at the station, the employer’s response and the resulting termination.
Here are some things to think about in your own workplace when it comes to workplace violence.
1. Trust your instincts. If you think someone is acting “crazy” or is unstable, they probably are. Don’t be in denial, don’t make excuses. Most of us are familiar with rational, reasonable responses to situations even if we don’t agree with how someone is handling a particular situation. When someone is in denial of their own contributory behavior to conflict in the workplace, coupled with threats – you cannot look away. Remember, you typically cannot reason with someone who is not reasonable.
2. Give employees tools to work on interpersonal skills. The documents I reviewed in the underlying case the employee filed show that the employer required the employee to remedy the “rift” with co-workers. I saw no evidence the employer gave this employee the tools to fix the “rift” or guidance on how to do so. In order to set an employee up for success, it is incumbent on HR and management to provide training, coaching and resources. Additionally, as noted above, if the employee is in denial that their conduct is a contributing factor – encouraging them to fix the “rift” simply won’t work because they see the problem resting with everyone else but themselves.
3. An EAP is not the solution for someone who is in denial and poses a threat. We know that the employer mandated that the employee see the company’s EAP counselors. My view is that this is a wholly inappropriate solution. AN EAP is a confidential counseling benefit. The employer does not inform the EAP of the issues surrounding the need for the employee to attend the counseling. Typically, an EAP is for someone who has identified their issues – divorce, health, financial, depression or other issues.
4. Call in Threat Assessment professionals. Most of us are ill-equipped to properly handle issues related to mental illness – but there are professionals out there who can assist. I recently handled an investigation where it was clear the complainant was “quirky” but also had a different sense of reality than others in the workplace. This is not uncommon. However, early on in the investigation the complainant stated to a co-worker that she had a concealed weapon and if she wanted to she could “kill Jerry.” I saw the email summary and immediately contacted the company attorney and CEO. I explained the investigation was being placed on hold and recommended a threat assessment professional be brought in. The company agreed and the person who received the threat was interviewed. Ultimately, it was determined that the complainant did not pose a threat to anyone in the workplace as it was unlikely she would act on the threat. The investigation then continued.
While I think it can be unfair to “Monday morning quarterback”, it seems clear the employer should have brought in a threat assessment professional. Other employees were fearful and the conduct had been escalating over a relatively short period of time. A threat assessment professional can also be extremely valuable in helping to figure out the best way to proceed with termination to try and provide the best outcome for a peaceful resolution. Remember, there are no guarantees in life and this tragedy occurred two years after the termination. Was it foreseeable that the terminated employee would come back at a later time? I have no answer.
I encourage each of you to have the number of one or two reputable threat assessment professionals – just in case. Better to be safe…than very sorry.