The recent shooting in Aurora, IL where five people were killed is emotionally shocking to me because it involved the death of a Human Resources Manager and a HR college intern. This tragedy could have been prevented. This event highlights the role of Human Resources in providing a safe workplace as part of a team, including internal and external resources, to plan for and prevent workplace violence.
KNOW YOUR EMPLOYEES
Research on workplace violence tells us that the most predictable, and therefore preventable, type of workplace violence is an internal agent (someone who works for the company) acting against internal victims (employees of the company). The Human Resources Manager at this company apparently did not know that the shooter had a prior felony record. If a background check was done 15 years ago when hired, it did not report the conviction record. There were also six recent arrests for domestic violence, which were unknown to the employer that could have been a “red flag” prior to the termination, if they were reported to the employer. Know your employees, even if the legal system fails.
The reason that violence by an internal agent is more predictable, in some but not all cases, is because the actions of employees are observable and therefore have the opportunity to be managed. There may have been early warning signs based on the shooter’s behavior. Information about what preceded the “termination meeting”, is not being discussed in the news but it is possible that the termination was caused by escalating behaviors. It is also not known if management attempted to provide support, such as an Employee Assistance Program. If offering support was not successful, then management should have been on alert when terminating.
The news reported that the gunman brought the gun to work thinking he was going to be fired, which may be an indication that there were prior warnings or discipline. The meeting was scheduled at 1:30 pm on Friday. Management had time to prepare for the meeting by taking steps to assure the safety of the HR Manager and other employees, by holding the meeting in an area away from others. The shooter was able to bring a concealed gun into the meeting room, which also could have been averted with added security presence, even if only temporary. The shooting of other non-involved employees could also have been avoided and the shoot out with police might not have happened with added security presence that would have responded quickly.
MORE THAN REGULATORY COMPLIANCE
The HR Manager should have anticipated that the termination could be contentious. Why would you put a college intern into that type of meeting on the first day of employment? The news called this shooting senseless. It is certainly that and possibly negligent on the part of the company. The company may be in violation of the General Duty Clause, under OSHA. This requires employers to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm…” What had the company done to provide a safe work environment? Was there a policy about carrying guns into the workplace? Did any other employees see the shooter or the gun and not know what to do? Was there a way for employees to speak up anonymously? Procedures like these are life and death not just for regulatory compliance.
Not all of the prevention of gun violence rests with the company. Because of the felony record the shooter should never have had the gun. The application to purchase was approved despite the criminal record. An application for a concealed weapon permit, that required a fingerprint, turned up the prior record and the permit to own a gun was rescinded. A letter requesting that the gun be turned in was sent. Why was that letter never followed up? Should the employer have been alerted?
The loss of life is tragic. Because this incident involved a Human Resources Manager and HR Intern it hits close to home for us as HR professionals. This is our reality. We may become oblivious or immune to the reports and think that the possibility of an active shooter incident happening where we work is minimal but as human resource leaders we have a moral obligation as well as a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace by preparing for, preventing and responding to workplace violence. It is life or death.
Lawrence J. Cozzens, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP is currently an HRD Fellow in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. He also teaches an elective on preventing workplace violence in the graduate programs. Learn more about him here!
The research cited in this article comes from Bush, D.F and O’Shea, PG, (1996), Workplace Violence: Comparative use of prevention practices and policies. Dr. David Bush, Professor Emeritus and co-author of this article is the Founding Director of the Graduate Programs in Human Resource Development at Villanova University.