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How to protect yourself from workplace shootings

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In 2012, a great deal of scrutiny was placed on the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Sandy Hook, Conn. While anomalous in nature, the sheer numbers of dead and wounded associated with both incidents shocked the national psyche.

Not as widely reported were the employees killed in the workplace during 2012 — in particular, murders involving a troubled co-worker who was disciplined, fired or in the process of being terminated:

February: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Ezekiel Garcia was being counseled for negative performance issues by deputy special agent in charge Kevin Kozak in a southern California government building. The situation between the two escalated, and Garcia pulled his weapon and shot Kozak several times. Another agent who was nearby intervened and shot Garcia. Kozak survived; Garcia did not.

August: George Hites, a manager at Trans-Coil International in Milwaukee, was shot multiple times by employee Thaiv Xiong during an office meeting. Hites died from his wounds, while Xiong died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Hites's brother stated that Hites had a few problems with Xiong and "wrote him up for a disciplinary problem."

September: Andrew Engeldinger, who had worked at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis for 12 years, killed five people and wounded three others shortly after he was fired. He later killed himself in the facility's basement. The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry called it the deadliest case of workplace violence since the department began keeping figures in 1992.

These are but a small sampling of workplace shootings that occurred last year. While there is a tendency to view a firearm as the nexus between all such incidents, it is critical for management to understand the motivations of the employees wielding them.

What is curious about these and similar cases is that initial news reports often reflect the shock and disbelief of both supervisors and employees regarding the co-worker who supposedly "snapped." However, after the passage of a few days, the personality of the offender begins to reveal itself as a loner, difficult, angry, threatening.

This kind of disconnect creates legal problems for both management and businesses. Relatives of the victims will bring wrongful death suits against not only the shooter but also the company. If management was aware of the perpetrator's predilection for violence, why didn't they protect their employees?

In the cases and police reports I have studied from across the country, there are factors that consistently presented themselves prior to an employee reacting violently to a counseling session or termination.

• The employee displayed harassing or threatening behavior during the course of employment, and co-workers were aware of such behavior.

• Some co-workers were wary and/or frightened of the employee and had notified management of their concerns.

• The employee stated he would hurt or kill people if he was fired. (Yes, the warnings are often that blunt and, more incredibly, ignored.)

• Some aspect of the employee's life was in turmoil (i.e., debt, marriage, drug abuse).

• The employee had psychological problems and feelings of persecution.

• The employee was not offered some sort of employee assistance to cope with his challenges and defuse his anger.

• When terminating such an employee, management failed to take security precautions that subsequently made co-workers vulnerable to a shooting incident.

Many of these murders were not random acts of violence. The employee was looking for specific individuals he believed were responsible for his frustration and pain.

In order to reduce an organization's vulnerability to the brutality of an unstable individual, management must have policies and procedures in place to mitigate the problem.

This is especially crucial during employee terminations. Every business should view firing an employee as a three-step process: Pre-termination actions, termination and post-termination actions.

Within that framework are specifications that require management input to ensure the termination is handled in a safe and secure manner. For instance:

1. Pre-termination actions: What will the employee's reaction be? Who should conduct the termination? What does the employee have access to? Should law enforcement be on-site?

2. Termination: How will management deliver the news? How will you handle confidentiality/nondisclosure agreements? What are the financial obligations to the employee?

3. Post-termination actions: Should the employee be escorted out of the building? Should standard security procedures be implemented? What security precautions should you take based on threats made by the employee?

With the correct application of both security policies and common sense, violent incidents could be reduced. Unfortunately, there are many misguided companies operating under a serene sense of invulnerability. I can guarantee 2013 will bring many workplace shootings that shatter such complacency.

Eric Harne is a security consultant/writer located near Harrisburg. He can be reached at harneeg@verizon.net.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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