Is he the next one? Workplace Violence – Quote by Margaret Spence
Once again this week, a murderous gunman opened fire in a crowded American workplace. And once again, the ensuing investigation leads to the maddening, frustrating conclusion that it could have been prevented, if only someone connected the dots earlier. If only the right paperwork had made it to the right desk. If only someone had said something. If only.
In the coming months, we’ll learn more about the breakdowns in the military and defense industry’s background checks system that allowed Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis to remain in good standing as a contract employee against all good sense.
But the Sept. 16 tragedy in Southeast D.C. makes us all wonder how to spot a colleague headed down a violent path and what — if anything — we can do about it.
Even if you notice a warning sign, then what? Both employment laws and modern office culture make many managers and co-workers afraid to act decisively when it comes to the touchy subject of mental health or family problems.
“All of us have an obligation and accountability to not ignore the red flags when we feel it in our gut,” said Kathy Albarado, president and CEO of Helios HR in Reston. “We see the red flags, but we choose to ignore them because we don’t have the data, we might be wrong, we might be embarrassed.”
Those fears are not unfounded. The Americans with Disabilities Act, health information privacy and anti-discrimination laws all strictly limit what actions workplaces can take once someone sees a “red flag.” Massive court judgments can cripple a company that improperly uses mental health information or acts against a worker without legal justification.
“Employers are in a very difficult position,” said Christopher Locke, a partner at Epstein Becker Green PC and former special agent in the Washington Field Office of the FBI. “These behaviors can affect the workplace, but they don’t have complete authority to investigate them or stop them.”
And there’s the fear of making it worse — or becoming a target yourself. It’s tempting for a boss to simply slough off a minor incident rather than dive into a legally dicey, time-consuming process.
The last thing any boss wants to do is get it wrong, and so many of the “red flags” that seem so obvious after a tragedy fall into a frustrating gray area beforehand, Locke said.
But it’s possible to act aggressively while staying in compliance with the law, experts said. Their top advice: Don’t let little things linger, be consistent and get over the powerful office norm to stay out of it.
“If you’re seeing little problems, it’s important to react to that, to try to prevent them from becoming bigger problems,” Locke said.
Remember: There is no legal right to force an employee to share their personal lives with you. So start with an open-ended question — “I’ve noticed a change, is everything OK?” — and make liberal use of an employee assistance program that can step in as a third-party buffer if necessary.
“If someone doesn’t want to respond, that may be a red flag,” Locke said.
If an employee comes to you with a complaint or concerns or their own troubles, never take it lightly. A sense of social isolation is at the core of many violence-prone workers, a feeling that can get worse if a worker feels neglected or dismissed, said Ed Foulke, an employment lawyer in Atlanta who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
A widely publicized, zero-tolerance policy on violence, threats and harassment is crucial, he added.
“If you give an inch on violence, you’ve given it all,” he said. “I wouldn’t go on a plane and say, ‘I’ve got a bomb.’ Same token if someone says, ‘I could kill everyone here,’ take it seriously.”
If a specific incident occurs — say, a slap or a fierce argument — management should act quickly to diffuse the situation but consider waiting a few hours to reprimand the employee. That conversation should be in private and calm, to avoid inflaming passions.
It’s also a good idea to re-run background checks if you have cause for concern, said Margaret Spence, CEO of Douglas Claims & Risk Consultants Inc. in West Palm Beach, Fla. Many workers develop issues after they’ve been hired. “Once you’re in the door, you’re good as gold. What happens if you have 20 things happen in the next year? Companies don’t tend to do the second follow-up.”
It’s one thing when management or employees witness a change in behavior. But what about medical information or gossip about personal problems that reach the boss? Imagine a boss learns, just through casual conversation, that a worker has stopped taking medication.
In that circumstance, check with a lawyer and test the waters with an open-ended question, our experts said. But be careful.
Several experts recommended adopting an official plan for reacting to active shooters and holding drills like you would for a fire. That empowers workers to think more carefully about threats and notice when something’s not right, Foulke said.
The solutions aren’t always found in formal policies. One of the best deterrents could be shifting the office away from the enduring “need to know” ethos that imposes powerful social norms against involving yourself in co-workers’ problems or volunteering anything to management.
A culture that allows bosses to speak frankly with workers and that encourages workers to take ownership for their peers’ health can go a long way.
“A lot of things get missed by employers because they don’t keep communicating with their employees,” Foulke said. “It seems automatic, because we’re adults. But it’s not automatic, because sometimes it’s private information. I don’t want to seem like I’m tattling or telling tales, but there’s usually scuttlebutt that’s going on that doesn’t bubble up to the top.”
The laws protecting workers’ privacy that complicate security are real, but in many cases, individual managers think they’re more restrictive than they actually are, Albarado said.
For instance, Maryland and Virginia both give legal immunity to companies that provide employment references as long as they’re made in good faith and don’t violate confidentiality laws. Yet most companies will only confirm dates of employment, fearing a lawsuit.
“We’ve been so conditioned to be worried about litigation that we don’t do what’s right,” she said, bemoaning the focus on compliance over strategic leadership that infects human resources and general counsels’ offices.
Ultimately, if your company’s fear of employee lawsuits prevents you from investigating possible threats, then Foulke reminds you: That goes both ways. A company will also face severe legal exposure if an employee does turn violent and a victim can prove it wasn’t addressed properly.
“There would be a question about hiring, negligent hiring, negligent retention, a duty to provide adequate security, and if he said anything beforehand, a duty to warn…” Foulke said. “There’s a whole series of things a lot of people don’t even think about.”
Nonemployees: Same rules apply to contract workers
Most advice about workplace violence tends to presume a full-fledged employee-employer relationship. But contractors, vendors, staffing agencies and temp firms are in businesses every day. Where do they stand?
For temporary and contract workers, think of them as your own.
“It’s a prudent business practice, and prudent risk management practice: Whatever standard you’ve set for your own employees extends to your contracted employees,” said Margaret Spence, CEO of Douglas Claims & Risk Consultants Inc.
While external threats are more difficult to anticipate, they can be easier to address without a direct relationship. Tell property managers or landlords if a visitor is acting oddly and have them prohibited from the property, suggested Kathy Albarado, CEO of Helios HR in Reston.
For more casual work visitors, Spence suggests special training for receptionists or other front-office employees who might notice an unbalanced person quickly and react.
“We don’t train them to spot the little things, that weird feeling you get — don’t slough it off and say, ‘Oh, it’s me. They’re probably having a bad day,’ ” Spence said.
And, as Discovery Communications Inc. did prior to its hostage situation in 2010, take detailed records of any threats or unusual behavior. That allows you to understand their motivations and document any escalation.
– Ben Fischer
Workplace violence is notoriously hard to predict. The factors that could signal an emerging threat could also just be a bad day or the result of outside pressures unknown to the office. But experts say the following warning signs could be a red flag. Many of these are hard to discern in a vacuum, which is why experts recommend stringent record keeping, which can help determine a pattern.
A lack of social connections
Anger management issues
Tendency to overreact
Unexcused absences from work
Abrupt changes in behavior
Refusal to acknowledge intervention attempts
Any physical altercation or threat of harm
Managing mental health
Workplace violence expert Steve Albrecht, co-author of “Ticking Bombs,” wrote a paper for the Society for Human Resource Management in May on managing high-risk employees. Here’s an excerpt on assessing employees’ mental health:
Assess suicidal vs. homicidal behavioral cues
Does what the at-risk employee is saying or writing suggest depression, anxiety, rage, misdirected anger and frustration? Do you see signs in conversations, phone calls and messages, e-mails and texts, or social media site postings of suicidal ideations such as finality, loss of hope, or saying goodbye? Or have you witnessed homicidal threats like targeting statements and behaviors, proof of weapons acquisition or practicing, surveillance, stalking, boundary probing or attack preparation?
Referrals for employee aid
As part of humane coaching, discipline and even terminations, it can help to fully explain [employee assistance programs] to the disturbed employee and try to remove the stigma of getting qualified clinical help.
Fitness for Duty (FFD) evaluations
An FFD evaluation determines if a problematic individual can return to full work and if any work restrictions or accommodations must be made.
Although this is a HIPAA and a medical privacy issue, many times subjects who are taking psychotropic medications for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will freely admit to their friends or co-workers that, due to the side effects or because they suddenly feel better, they have stopped taking their medications. This information can be helpful in assessing the employee’s behavior in context.
If the organization decides to allow an employee who made threats or acted out to return to work, it must have a transition plan. This includes boundary setting, family or spousal support, closer supervision, and buy-in from the employee’s supervisor and co-workers.
Is he the next one? What to do if you think the person sitting in a cubicle near you could be the next Aaron Alexis – Read Full Article at Washington Business Journal
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