The Growing Epidemic of Deadly Workplace Violence and Three Ways to Prevent It

Many years ago when I was employed as a human resources director, my responsibilities included serving on my employer's safety committee. Back then, when workplace violence came up on the agenda, our greatest concerns focused on heated arguments between colleagues and the occasional shoving match.

How did we as a nation go from that to the following?

  • 2 dead/1 injured: On Aug. 24, 2015, in Virginia, a disgruntled ex-employee shot and killed two former colleagues: 24-year-old WDBJ7-TV news reporter Alison Parker and 27-year-old videographer Adam Ward. The killer, who previously had been involuntarily terminated from his position at WDBJ7, filmed the attack and later boasted about it on social media. At the time of the brutal murders, Ward was filming Parker on a live television feed as she interviewed a chamber of commerce executive, Vicki Gardener. Gardener probably survived simply because the killer's gun ran out of bullets.
  • 14 dead/22 injured: On Dec. 2, 2015, in California, a county health inspector and his wife burst into a rented banquet room where approximately 80 of his colleagues were attending a holiday party and a training session. The killers, who were dressed in military-style attire and brandished rifles, executed a mass shooting in that banquet room as well as an attempted bombing.
  • 3 dead/14 injured: On Feb. 26, 2016, in Kansas, a painter employed at a lawn care company shot and killed three people and injured 14 more at the factory where he worked. Later, a co-worker reported that approximately two hours after he and the killer had clocked in for work, he saw him strapped up with his weapon and shooting at people in the factory's parking lot.
  • 2 dead: On March 20, 2016, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who had worked for a division that oversaw turnpike operations killed two tollbooth workers in an attempted an armed robbery.

Preventing Workplace Violence
The elimination of violence in the workplace by current or former employees constitutes incredibly complex subject matter. Unfortunately, there exists no guarantee or any single quick fix that will stop workplace violence in its entirety. Nevertheless, the following three steps can minimize the potential for violence in the American workplace:

1. Safety committee's commitment. An effective and efficient safety committee that meets regularly and is proactive about ensuring safe working conditions for all employees is fundamentally important.

The topic of workplace violence and its prevention must be placed on the agenda of the employer's safety committee meeting. Moreover, it should be given as much attention as other topics, such as reporting and addressing occupational injuries and accidents. Representatives from various departments should serve on the committee, including but not limited to those at the top of the organization, as well as line staff.

Additionally, it is imperative that a formalized reporting system be put in place so as to ensure that incidents of violence or potential violence reach the ears of the safety committee. For instance, if an employee files a grievance with human resources or his/her union about bullying, this information must be shared with the safety committee, as well. Should the safety committee notice any trends in undesirable conduct within the workplace, it will be in a position to make appropriate recommendations. It is not enough to discuss safety concerns: Corrective measures should be taken to address these concerns in a forward-thinking manner. By way of example, if the safety committee notes an increase in complaints of bullying, it might make a recommendation that management redistribute the organization's anti-bullying policy.

Additionally, law enforcement is always called in when workplace violence becomes deadly. Why not seek out law enforcement's help in recommending ways to ensure worker safety and strategies to prevent violence from occurring? In this regard, invite members of law enforcement to speak with the committee and conduct presentations on safety and violence prevention at future all-employee meetings.

2. Implement employee reporting procedures. If you want to know what's going on in the workplace, simply ask your employees. Employees are a source of invaluable information regarding safety as well as other issues. They will be able to tell you if a co-worker has exhibited a sudden and negative change in on-the-job conduct, has been behaving oddly, or is threatening to engage in violence. Too often, however, employees will keep this information to themselves. Why?

Sometimes employees are reluctant to speak up because they do not want to get involved. They may be hopeful the troublesome behavior will cease or are afraid of retaliation by the co-worker in question. Conversely, they might not be aware of the importance of reporting troubling behaviors and the relationship to preventing situations from escalating.

In certain scenarios, while the employee might know whom to direct sexual harassment complaints to, he or she might not know whom to talk to about any current or potential safety concerns. Employees should be encouraged to immediately speak up if they witness or are the victim of verbal/nonverbal behavior that gives them pause for concern regarding safety. This information should be shared in a timely manner. To achieve this end, the organization must develop a formalized mechanism for employees to bring any and all safety concerns to. The grievance procedure should be accompanied by the organization's zero tolerance for any retaliation policy. Publish the reporting procedure in the employee handbook and post it where other personnel-related notices are placed – such as in employee break or lunch rooms or by washrooms.

Additionally, supervisors and managers should regularly review the policy at stand-up or more formalized all-employee meetings.

3. Avoid hiring problem employees. While of course it may not be possible to predict whether anyone will resort to deadly violence, the Virginia killer had a background of problems with a prior employer that were chillingly similar to those he later exhibited at WDBJ. These undesirable behaviors, which included an inability to get along with others and contentious behavior in the workplace, led WDBJ in part to move to involuntarily terminate his employment after less than a year's length of service.

One of the best ways to prevent workplace violence is to exercise caution in the recruiting and hiring process and avoid mis-hires. How may this be done in an era when employers can only obtain relatively scant information while conducting background screens? The answer lies in gathering as much information as possible during interviews and using that information before converting candidates into employees. The use of focused interviewing techniques that include active listening and the use of behavioral-based interview questions are key in this regard.

Where active listening is concerned, the interviewer should not "wait to speak" as the job candidate is responding to a question. Rather, listen intently and actively to the candidate. Take note of the job candidate's non-verbal as well as verbal conduct. Do not ignore any red flags. The interviewer should endeavor to clear his or her mind of any internal noise, such as thinking about a budget that needs to be worked on.

Finally, behavioral-based interview questions are focused on gaining information relative to desired behaviors, skills, and experience for the position should be used. Behavioral-based interview questions are based on learning how the candidate acted in specific employment-related situations to predict future conduct.

This system of interviewing is based on the notion that a leopard cannot change its spots very easily. By asking applicants to explain how they behaved in the past, the interviewer will be given insight into how they will likely behave in the future.

The following grid illustrates the differences between traditional vs. behavioral-based questions.

 The Traditional Interview.
 The Behavioral Interview.
 Emphasis is on the resume.
 Emphasis is on gaining insight into who the candidate really is by the use of high-impact questions.
 Predictable questions are asked.
 Intended to induce applicants to describe past real-world situations.
 Predictable answers, designed to place the candidate in the best light, are given.
 Probes for details that will provide insight into who the candidate really is.


* Why do you want to work for us?

* Tell me about your last job.

* What is your proudest accomplishment?

* Can you handle stress well?

* Are you a team player?

* Can you multi-task?

* Are you willing to work hard?

* Why should I hire you?


* Discuss a scenario when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.

* Tell me about a time when you had too many things competing for your time and had to prioritize your tasks.

* Provide an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.

* Tell me about a situation when you delegated a project or task effectively.

* Describe a time when you were required to make an unpopular decision.

 * Give me a real-world example of when and how you had to deal with conflict.

* Discuss a situation that you would have handled differently if you could.

* Describe a situation when you had to deal with an irate (internal or external) customer or client.

Kathleen Bonczyk is an an attorney/HR consultant, writer, and activist in Winter Garden, Fla. One of her principal causes is employee safety and the growing epidemic of workplace violence. Visit for information.

Posted by Kathleen M. Bonczyk on Mar 29, 2016

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