Getting Real About Workplace Violence: The Power of "Edutainment"

Getting Real About Workplace Violence: The Power of "Edutainment"

Kit Goldman & Memo Mendez

You're a manager dealing with a difficult employee with performance problems. He was great for a while, but lately....

He shows up 20 minutes late, full of the usual "dog ate my homework" excuses. You've given verbal warnings about the lateness, the missed deadlines, the errors, the attitude.

You've got to write him up. What choice do you have? He's going through a divorce, custody issues, financial problems. You don't want to pile on, but hey -- you're a manager, not a therapist. If you don't attend to the bottom line, everyone will be out of a job.

You tell him he's getting a written warning. He gets hostile, agitated. You're in each other's face. He accuses you of ignoring harassment by other employees, having it in for him.

You try to be sympathetic. You remind him everyone has personal problems, including you, but they stay outside when you come to work.

That calms him down. He leaves, says he'll " what he needs to...". You take that as assurance.

That's the first of the episodes Memo Mendez and Kit Goldman of Wolf Management Consultants perform as "Annette", a manager, and "Jeff", an employee at a fictional company in our Workplace Violence training courses for managers. Far fetched? Not at all.

This powerful, realistic scene springboards interactive discussion re: key issues and learning points, in depth risk assessment, what could and should happen.

In real life, these situations usually work out fine. Only a small percentage go terribly wrong. And when they do, it can prove tragic and lethal, and can rip at the fabric of even the strongest organizations.

When workplace violence incidents are first investigated, people often say they didn't see it coming. Upon further investigation, warning signs almost always emerge which others missed, or chose to ignore.

Supervisors and employees must:

  • Be aware and alert re: warning signs of potential violence
  • Be knowledgeable, comfortable, familiar with the necessary, appropriate action to take if they're aware of potential violence

Not only know what to do, but be committed to doing it!

Most people have pretty good internal alarm systems. But there are obstacles to action when those alarms go off, such as:

  • Aversion to conflict
  • Discomfort with emotion
  • Lack of knowledge &/or confidence re: policies & procedures
  • Perceived lack of time for "non-bottom line" issues
  • Desire to stay out of others' personal business
  • Fear of snitching
  • Fear of retaliation

We not only provide vital, concrete information needed for confident, decisive action, we identify and overcome common barriers to proactive prevention.

In ensuing episodes, despite "Annette's" good intentions, the situation is not resolved, and, unfortunately, deteriorates.

Sometimes, depending on the client's preference, "Annette" returns one final time toward the end of the program to share a tragic epilogue...

It's 2 months ago today that Jeff & I had that encounter. You know, there's a line from from a Bob Seeger song "Against the Wind". You've probably heard it: "...wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then".

That says it all for me. See, I knew Jeff was upset. Had problems. I figured he needed some time off to deal with them. I put him on a 2 weeks unpaid leave, told him to take the time to put things in order, think things over, come back ready to do things right. That's what I figured he'd do.

At a staff meeting the 2nd day of Jeff's leave, we'd been at it about 10 minutes when the door opens and Jeff comes in. I've never seen eyes so empty yet filled with hate. He stood there staring with such venom at Darlene. I asked, "Are you all right? Anything wrong?"

He ignored me. Walked straight to Darlene, his face twisted into a bizarre smile, stood over her, asked if she was having a good day. She looked terrified but still managed a typical, sarcastic response. Jeff pulled a 9 MM out of his pocket. Darlene started screaming.... (© WTN, La Mesa CA)

Recent events must serve as an urgent wake up call for employers re: Workplace Violence training and education.

Our powerful, realistic, entertainment-based on-site training drives this message home like nothing else.

If you're still on the fence about Workplace Violence training, or it's not yet a high priority, take a look at this sampling of recent headlines & news bites, then get in touch with us.


Workplace issues drove NASA killer, police say
Excerpts from News Staff updated Apr. 21 2007

A NASA contract employee was settling a work-related grudge when he killed a co-worker and held another hostage before turning his gun on himself, Houston police say.

William Phillips, a 60-year-old NASA contract engineer at the Johnson Space Centre, had received a negative performance review on March 16. 

One day later, Phillips purchased a Smith and Wesson special revolver, police said.

Phillips brought the gun to work with him on Friday, along with a copy of the email containing the review of his work.

After having lunch with David Beverly -- who had written the review -- and another man, Phillips walked into Beverly's office and threatened his life.

Police said he walked in with the revolver in his hand and said, "'You're the one that's going to get me fired'," according to the eyewitness account of Fran Crenshaw, who was also in the office at the time.

She told police the two men talked for several minutes, during which time Beverly spoke calmly about Phillips' options.

However, she said after a few minutes Phillips shot Beverly twice, then left the room.

Phillips then duct-taped Crenshaw to a chair, and taped her mouth before turning his gun on himself.

NASA to review

Michael Coats, the centre's director, said NASA was committed to ensuring a safe working environment and will be looking at what went wrong, and how to avoid it happening again.

Phillips worked for a company that provides engineering services to NASA. He had worked for NASA for 12 or 13 years and "up until recently, he has been a good employee".

With a report from CTV's Tom Walters and files from The Associated Press


Workplace violence a reminder to be careful
Excerpts from Chicago Tribune December 18, 2006; article by Barbara Rose

A Chicago attorney's mind travels a familiar path whenever there's a tragedy like the recent shootings at a Chicago law office.

Four people died Dec. 8 after an angry client opened fire on an attorney he accused of cheating him. 

All of us are vulnerable to random acts of violence. But among the many working people whose jobs make them potential targets for acts of reprisal...are judges, divorce lawyers, counselors and teachers, to name a few.

Homicide at work is a leading cause of workplace fatalities, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Retail and service industries account for more than half of violent deaths.

About 10 people on average were murdered per week at work in 2004, the latest year for which government statistics were available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 Violent workplace incidents of all types--verbal abuse and threats, as well as physical assaults--most often are directed by one employee against another, a 2003 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management suggests.

One in 10 incidents involve outside personal relationships, such as spouses and ex-spouses. Personality conflicts account for half the reported violence at work, but emotional stress and mental illness also rated high on the survey's list. 


Shootings Show Need to Deal With Issue of Workplace Violence
Excerpts from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 19, 2007; article by Elwin Green

While the Virginia Tech massacre may rouse concern about violence on school campuses, the past two decades have seen far more incidents of homicidal rage by employees in the workplace than by students on the campus. Among the most lethal examples:

  • July 20, 1986, Edmond, Okla.: Patrick Sherrill, about to be fired from his job as a mail carrier, kills 14 U.S. Postal Service employees and wounds six others before killing himself. He becomes the first in a string of postal workers to go on killing sprees that make the term "going postal" part of the vernacular.
  • April 3, 1995, Corpus Christi, Texas: James Simpson, a former employee of the Walter Rossler Co. refinery inspection firm, kills the owner, the owner's wife and three others before killing himself.
  • July 8, 2003, Meridian, Miss.: Doug Williams, an employee of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, kills six and injures eight at the company's Meridian plant.

As shocking as such incidents are when they happen, they typically are preceded by indicators of brewing emotional or psychological problems....signs that employers can watch for... frequent absenteeism, sudden withdrawal or outbursts of anger and a marked decrease in work performance.

Who is most likely to launch into a workplace rampage? According to a 2004 study, the assailant is most often a white male over 30 who has recently experienced "a negative change" in his employment, such as a suspension, demotion or firing... 

"....It's a very difficult balance for anybody to walk because you don't want to be an alarmist and make everybody a suspect.... you also don't want to let definite warning signs go...For employers, the risk of overreacting is the possibility of a lawsuit for discrimination. But when the possibility of workplace violence looms, it's not worth the risk...What's important to do is to train your employees on what to do....If something happens, it goes down fast, and you don't have time to try to figure out what to do."


Experts Offer Tips on How to Avoid an Office Shooting
Excerpts from Detroit Free Press April 10, 2007; article by Patricia Anstett, Margarita Bauza and Naomi Patton

Monday's shooting of three people at a Troy accounting firm is another harsh reminder of the volatility of dismissals in the workplace.

Although the exact circumstances of the dismissal of Anthony LaCalamita, the 38-year-old man accused of opening fire in the office, have not been made public, human resource experts say there are procedures which, when followed, can lower the risk of violence.

Others point out the need to prepare employees for what to do in the rare case of an emergency.

A Los Angeles-based emergency and crisis management consultant said employers need to have an emergency plan for workplace shootings, which should include regular exit drills, similar to fire evacuation drills.

At a time of increased buyouts and layoffs, supervisors need to be careful and measured when firing someone while being mindful of their own feelings of handling a task they find loathsome.

Companies need to do more to identify problem employees early and refer them for counseling and help.


Firms Not Prepared for Emergencies
Excerpts from PRWeb Newswire April 6, 2007; author Jay Weiss

"...Three-out-of-five decision-makers... stated their company has suffered a disaster... one-out-of-five stated their company hasn't taken any action...."

Miami, FL : Nationally, nearly 30 percent of companies surveyed stated that their company has suffered from a disaster:

Employees expect action. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 48 percent of employees have higher expectations for safety/security since 9/11/2001.

Emergency Action Planning is not rocket science. However, many companies become overwhelmed and do not know where to start. Plan development requires intense communication and cooperation among departments and other stakeholders.


According to the FBI, the benefits of establishing an Emergency Action Plan include a restoration of the sense of security every worker has a right to feel while on a job, which can in turn reduce missed work days. Some Worker's Compensation Insurance Providers will offer a discount to companies that can show they have implemented a plan.

The benefits to the community include the reduction in future potential human cost, and its impact on future available resources. 


Mass Public Shootings More Common
Excerpts from Killeen Daily Herald April 23, 2007; author Matt Crenson

Since Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed a 27-story tower on the University of Texas campus and started picking people off, at least 100 Americans have gone on shooting sprees.

Mass murder was just as common during the 1920s and early 1930s as it is today. The difference is that then, mass murderers tended to be failed farmers. Their crimes embodied the despair and hopelessness of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Despondent men still kill their families today. But public shooters like Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho are different. They are angrier and tend to blame society for their failures, sometimes singling out members of particular ethnic or socioeconomic groups.

So many post office employees gunned down their co-workers during the 1980s and early '90s that they spawned a neologism. To "go postal," according to the Webster's New World College Dictionary, is "to become deranged or go berserk."

The most recent postal shooting was in January 2006 when Jennifer San Marco, a former employee who had been fired a few years earlier because of her worsening mental state, walked into a letter sorting facility in Goleta, Calif., and killed six people with a handgun.

Criminologist Fox speculates that the increasing popularity of workplace killings, and public shootings generally, may be partly due to decreasing economic security and increasing inequality.


Excerpts from York Daily Record April 22, 2007

Experts agree that there's no accurate way to profile mass killers in advance, but there are signs.

If you step in and offer help, you might be able to stop someone from eventually turning violent.

Ignoring the person is not a viable solution. Threats have to be taken seriously.

Workers are encouraged to report concerns to supervisors, human resources workers, security or even through a safety hotline.

Some might hesitate to report a problem to a supervisor for fear of causing the affected person to lose his job.

As long as a person is acting on good faith when they make a report about a coworker or family member, they are considered immune from civil or criminal liability.

It takes a holistic effort to avoid workplace violence. Some Suggested steps:

  • Enlighten and educate senior management in planning for preventing violence
  • Set up a team employees trust that's trained in dealing with potential violence
  • Train employees on how to report situations they feel might lead to violence; 


Excerpts from Seattle Times April 5, 2007; Two UW departments failed to report stalker threats; author Sanjay Bhatt

University Police and the College of Architecture failed to follow well-established procedures by not reporting Rebecca Griego's pleas for help to a high-level safety team that could have taken steps to protect her, a top University of Washington official acknowledged Wednesday.

On Monday morning, Jonathan Rowan shot Griego to death in a university building before killing himself.

Human Resources should have been notified about death threats from an ex-boyfriend.

Had HR been notified of Rowan's threats, the workplace violence-prevention assessment team would have met, talked to Griego and developed a plan to reduce the short- and long-term risk to her safety.

Why neither the police nor the College followed procedures isn't clear.

Assistant UW Police Chief Ray Wittmier said Wednesday he didn't know why his staff didn't bring Griego's report of death threats to the attention of human resources or the violence-prevention team.

The University Police chief said one positive thing that may result from the tragedy: more people attending workplace-violence prevention training so they have a better idea of what to do when situations like this come up."

The university created the workplace violence-prevention assessment team in response to a murder-suicide in 2000.


If you are interested in Workplace Violence training for your office or oganization, get in touch with us today to schedule a workshop or training presentation. Peace of mind sometimes means knowing you did everything you could do...



Leadership insights in your inbox.

Nationally acclaimed speaker

International bestselling author Jeff Wolf is now available for your next meeting, conference or convention to provide a high-energy presentation filled with strategies and techniques attendees can immediately apply to improve their skills.