Workplace violence is awful, and to deal with that awfulness, we tend to describe it as a random act by an unstable person. Yet, that's not true, according to Chris McGoey, an expert and consultant on workplace violence who has investigated many of the worst cases in recent history. "In virtually every case there were signs beforehand which were ignored," says McGoey. Plus, the sad fact is, workplace violence is far more common than anyone would think. Even as this story was being written, media reports told of an ex-employee at a nail polish factory in New Windsor, N.Y., who returned a year after he was fired and shot a receptionist and the two owners of the business. A USA Today analysis last year indicated that an average of 25 people per week are injured and one person per week dies from workplace violence.
McGoey acknowledges that "it's impossible to write a manual that will cover every possible scenario." So, instead, McGoey says, you plan for a few probable ones and spend the rest of your time getting your response plan down pat. Here are some of McGoey's guidelines.
1. Build and train a team. Responding to workplace violence starts well before any incident. Recruit a core group and train them as a response team. Include HR, security, business unit management and, if possible, a trained mediator and a crisis counselor. McGoey says you can use any number of books on workplace violence for training and bring in consultants to help build the plan, but you should also simulate scenarios. The response plan will not be general. It will specify parameters of what is appropriate when; what is tolerable behavior on the premises; what behavior will lead to removal from the premises; and when it is appropriate to disable an employee and call the authorities. The plan will assign each team member specific responsibilities because, as McGoey says, "you can't be making hand signals or phone calls during a crisis. Everyone has to know their role beforehand."
2. Know the law. Your rights and responsibilities in a crisis vary depending on who is acting violently. Is the person an employee or a stranger? Has he threatened someone, or is he just acting erratically? Bring in local law enforcement to educate your team on the state laws that will govern your response.
3. Watch for signs. "One of the first things you hear after an incident is, 'He had been saying some weird stuff, but I didn't think he was serious,'" says McGoey. "Even veiled threats must be taken seriously." Make sure the team, and employees in general, know to always report suspicious comments or behavior to the CSO or HR or both, no matter how minimal the threat seems. Also watch for the common events that often lead to violence: being passed over for a promotion, marital strife and, especially, public embarrassment. CSOs should educate managers on recognizing such signals and how to respond. "There are a lot more bad managers than good ones," McGoey says. "When someone's behaving badly [bad managers] become insulting and demeaning and they criticize the person in front of their peers. They actually escalate the situation."
4. Strike preemptively. Act to deter a crisis. Segregate bickering employees' work spaces to minimize their interaction; give a comp day (or several) for an angry employee to cool off; or, give him a lateral transfer to eliminate a strained employee-manager relationship. Take discipline and performance reviews out of managers' hands and give them to a neutral third party. McGoey says the best proactive step—one he can't stress enough—is to treat people with respect. "You don't know what's going on in someone's personal life, it could be in shambles. So many people in this world are walking on eggshells. Don't demean them or embarrass them or threaten them." It's the easiest way to make a potentially violent situation actually violent.
Still, if a person is threatening violence, put your crisis plan to use. Here are some ways McGoey says you can de-escalate a situation.
5. Remove the source. Evacuate the subject of a violent person's anger. "They can't be part of the conversation," McGoey says. Have the source leave the room or send the person home. You can also arrange to protect that person until the crisis is diffused.
6. Mediate. A neutral person should intervene. The mediator should not be a uniformed security officer, police officer or high-ranking executive. Those people connote authority, and in a potentially violent situation, authority can make a person feel cornered and trigger violence. A good choice for this role could be a plainclothes security staffer trained in mediation and crisis counseling. "You have to have a competent person who knows how to de-escalate the situation" through dialogue, McGoey says.
7. Shift to neutral. If possible, take the person to a neutral location in the office. This further removes him from the source of his anger. This site should be chosen during planning; it should move the potential for violence away from other employees and give a pre-selected team member time to call the authorities if the team leader believes that's necessary.
8. Escort and warn, or disable. By now, the situation likely will have forked one of two ways: Either the person will have become violent, or he will have calmed down. If the person turns violent, disable him by pinning him to the ground, for example. Get police onsite as soon as possible. If the person appears to be calmed down, escort him completely off the premises. McGoey says companies often escort someone only out of the building, and then the person returns through a back door or waits for his target to exit the building. Also, you must give the person a "trespass warning." This is a declarative statement informing the person that he is no longer welcome on the property. "There's specific statutory language that varies from state to state that you want to use when giving this warning," says McGoey. With that, the crisis should be defused. But you still have some work to do.
9. Stay vigilant. If the person is an employee, revoke his workplace access privileges. Cancel access cards and network accounts. Inform other tenants in the building of the incident; include a picture if possible. Brief guards at entrance gates and also surveillance staff so that they'll be on the lookout. In most cases, time calms down the angry person, so if you've made it this far without violence, chances are there will be none. But in a few cases, a desperate person will plan a return. If that happens, the more prepared you are, the better.