Our thoughts this week are with a human resource manager whose nights will be troubled for some time to come. Jodi Longmeyer spent a half hour crouching on the floor, cell phone in hand, relaying what she saw of the Van Mauer shootings to police dispatchers as six of her work colleagues were being gunned down. Longmeyer and other workers at the department store and the mall will now face the long, difficult road of dealing with grief, loss, and the terrible aftermath of a brush with horrific violence. There was no apparent reason why Van Mauer was targeted for this violence, but the retailer is now forced to deal with the aftermath. Providing access to experienced crisis counselors and EAPs will be critical to healthy recovery. Many of those involved – about 80% – will suffer acute stress disorder, exhibiting anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. For most, this will largely pass within a few weeks or months – especially if they have access to appropriate counseling. But for others, the effects may be more pervasive, debilitating, and life-changing. Some who have a brush with near-death, violence or other traumatic events will suffer post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can often have a delayed onset of up to a year or longer, and is generally thought to affect up to 20% of those who experience traumatic events.
HR managers: a weighty responsibility
We also think of another HR manager who is in the shadows of this story, the unknown person who had just terminated shooter Robert Hawkin from his job. No doubt, this person is shaken by their inadvertent involvement in the terrible events. Disciplinary actions and job terminations are every day actions in the workplace. No one expects them to have such a horrific aftermath. Yet work-related disciplinary actions are a crisis point for many. We think of another holiday-season shooting a few years ago after HR managers broke the news to an employee that his pay would be garnished for back taxes.
Terrible events can and do occur, and no amount of pre-planning or second-guessing will change that. All employers and managers can do is be ever-alert and sensitive for signs of potential problems and events that could be flash points, and to steer troubled employees to appropriate channels for help. Serious disciplinary actions are one such potential flash point, and an appropriate time for a referral to an EAP. In our experience, many terminations can be avoided if employees with a work problem are referred to an EAP at an early sign of problems. Holidays are another time when problems can surface for troubled employees. Holidays can trigger depression and stress for many.
The Workplace Violence Research Institute lists a number of pre-incident indicators gleaned from more than 200 actual incidents of workplace violence:

  • Increased use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs
  • Unexplained increase in absenteeism
  • Noticeable decrease in attention to appearance and hygiene
  • Depression and withdrawal
  • Explosive outbursts of anger or rage without provocation
  • Threatens or verbally abuses co-workers and supervisors
  • Repeated comments that indicate suicidal tendencies
  • Frequent, vague physical complaints
  • Noticeably unstable emotional responses
  • Behavior which is suspect of paranoia
  • Preoccupation with previous incidents of violence
  • Increased mood swings
  • Has a plan to “solve all problems”
  • Resistance and over-reaction to changes in procedures Increase of unsolicited comments about firearms and other dangerous weapons
  • Empathy with individuals committing violence
  • Repeated violations of company policies
  • Fascination with violent and/or sexually explicit movies or publications
  • Escalation of domestic problems
  • Large withdrawals from or closing his/her account in the company’s credit union.

In addition to these indicators, we would recommend:

  • Have a crisis management plan, including resources in place to provide post-trauma stress counseling
  • Be alert for disciplinary flash points
  • Be alert for signs of depression at the holidays
  • Encourage and make it easy for staff to report threats, violence, and incidents of unusual displays of anger
  • See this posting for more tips for violence prevention in the workplace

Additional resources
OSHA Preventing workplace violence
SAMHSA – Preventing Workplace Violence
Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention and Response from the USDA

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