“He was such a nice guy…” or was he?

“He was a great guy. I would never have thought he would do something like this.” Similar statements are common on the news after a workplace violence incident. Neighbors and casual acquaintances will frequently describe the killer as someone who seemed “fine” and appeared to be a “nice guy.” When we ask those who actually spent the most time with the person, namely his coworkers, again and again, a completely different picture emerges.

While there is undoubtedly no entirely definitive profile of a workplace violence killer, certain characteristics and patterns emerge in numerous cases too often to ignore. These similarities are present time after time, and yet workplaces still remain unaware or uninformed as to pre-incident indicators and what to do once they recognize such behaviors. Granted, we have taken some action regarding our response to active shooter scenarios. Many companies, schools, hospitals, and other entities now have active shooter procedures, where in years past there were none. These procedures are undeniably a vital component of any current security plan. But prevention measures are just as vital, if not more so.

Experience has shown that employee discipline and termination can be an extremely volatile time; therefore it is crucial for companies to train managers and supervisors in best methods of disciplining and terminating employees in order to avoid pitfalls that put them at risk. I have discovered that managers are commonly put into their positions with little or no training on how to handle such situations. This is unfair to the supervisor and those he or she supervises. Providing managers with tools and skills to handle difficult circumstances and to de-escalate potentially violent situations is essential. Additionally, policies must be drafted, clearly communicated to all employees, and enforced equally. Once a policy violation occurs, the offender should be notified and appropriate action must follow. Swift, reasonable, and impartial discipline that is well documented is a must. Procedures should also be drawn up to cover the termination process itself – escorting the former employee off property, retrieving keys and badges, changing access codes, etc.

Equally important is educating front line employees to recognize and report pre-incident indicators and behaviors that often precede violence. These employees are frequently the first to recognize behavioral changes and warning signs. After one workshop covering workplace violence prevention, an audience member shared his story with me. He was working in a factory several years before when his coworker, angry about not receiving a promotion, came to work and killed the manager. This man went on to say that he was sorry that he had not received workplace violence prevention training before the incident occurred because he now recognized behaviors in the individual who did the killing that he hadn’t been trained to recognize before. His compelling words were, “Maybe if we had had this type of training, this incident could have been prevented.” Prevention training will not stop every workplace violence incident, but if it prevents even one, isn’t it worth it?

It is not unusual for the number of calls to a business’ human resources department to rise dramatically after a training session that includes recognizing behaviors of concern for violence. Those in attendance begin to notice and identify behavior patterns in coworkers that should be brought to the attention of a supervisor or human resources representative. These employees are key in a successful prevention program, but only if their concerns are reported and taken seriously.

On September 14, 1989, Joseph Wesbecker walked into his employer’s office, the Standard Gravure printing plant in Louisville, Kentucky, and began a killing spree. When he had finished, seven people were dead and fifteen others wounded. In the book Violence in the Workplace by S. Anthony Baron, the author states, “In the aftermath it became evident that Wesbecker’s murderous fury had not only been predictable, it had almost become inevitable.” One of Wesbecker’s coworkers was quoted as saying, “You didn’t have to be a genius to figure out something bad was going to happen…when he was put on disability he made some threats, not veiled threats, that he’d get even with them. He was talking about it for a year.”

Sadly, this sentiment is not uncommon. I have reviewed case after case of workplace violence occurrences where obvious warnings were ignored or not properly addressed. As is oftentimes the case, there were noticeable changes in Wesbecker before the Standard Gravure incident. And in many instances, the actual CHANGE in the person is one of the most critical factors to consider. A dramatic transformation – a withdrawal from those around him, a significant change in appearance, a marked drop in productivity, unusual outbursts, and veiled or blatant threats are a few on a larger list of behaviors that warrant further observation, investigation and possibly an intervention.

I recently spoke with a human resources representative from a manufacturing company. They had terminated an employee who had exhibited bizarre and threatening behavior. This individual had made his coworkers feel uneasy and afraid to come to work. At one point, the HR representative asked me if I thought she was overreacting. My response was, “Absolutely not.” One of the challenges of dealing with these cases is the fact that we don’t always know what we prevent, we only know what we miss.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to examine past cases in order to extract any morsel of information that we can use going forward to educate, inform, and better protect our most valuable asset – our people.
Every workplace, large or small, must evaluate their place of business with critical eyes, looking for weaknesses. Once these weaknesses are identified, immediate steps must be taken to eliminate those vulnerabilities – whether it be in the area of physical security, personnel, policy, or training. Only when we give prevention the time and attention it deserves will we be begin to have a comprehensive and effective workplace violence program.