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Workplace Violence and Termination Etiquette

We’ve all read those tragic, terrifying accounts of employees who walk into their office or factory, pull out a gun and begin shooting people.  While they’re frequently portrayed as disgruntled, mentally unstable employees who’ve been recently reprimanded or terminated, more often than not (because so many end up killing themselves), their motive remains a mystery.

Confoundingly, these crimes involve seemingly “regular” people who appear to have simply “snapped.”

As a former labor union rep, I’ve personally witnessed dozens of people suspended or fired from their jobs for a variety of reasons (mostly for chronic absenteeism, the number one cause of terminations in the U.S.), and have never seen anyone commit a violent act directed toward another person; not at the meeting itself, not at any time afterward.

The closest anyone ever came to scaring people in the room during a discharge meeting was when a maintenance man, who was being fired for insurance fraud, kicked over a chair on his way out.  I’d be lying if I said the incident wasn’t a bit unnerving.  The chair was a sturdy, good-sized one, and he kicked the living hell out of it, sent it skittering across the room.

In truth, emotional displays—much less physical violence—at termination meetings are rare.  As traumatic and shattering as economic homicide is, for whatever reason, people (both men and women) don’t even cry when they get the news.  In fact, they usually remain preternaturally calm, almost stoical.

What happens when people are told they’re fired is that they listen grimly to the words being spoken while staring at a fixed spot on the floor or on the wall a few inches above the speaker’s head.  They fixate on that spot.  Typically, there are no outbursts or histrionics.  If I had to identify the most common response, I’d say it was one of profound embarrassment and shame.

When the meeting is over and these people realize they are no longer employed, they walk out of the room in an awkward, trance-like state.  Many of them try to hold a tight smile.  They’re escorted to their locker by a security guard, scrutinized as they remove their personal stuff, and then led out to their car.  Even when it’s people who deserve to be fired, it’s a brutal, merciless, and heart-wrenching thing to witness.

There’s an odd corollary to this.  People do, in fact, cry at some of these meetings.  But they tend to do it when they enter the HR office fully expecting to be fired, then find out they aren’t.  They cry when they’re told they’re being given a reprieve.  That’s when the tears flow.  When they learn they’ve kept their job.

Morbid as this may sound, whenever there was a news story of some guy murdering fellow workers, people at the union hall would speculate as to who among the facility’s several hundred employees would be most apt to do something like that—come in blasting.  This guessing-game was done partly as an exercise in dark humor, partly as a means of trying to make sense of something senseless.

Our union executive board still remembered the UAW (United Auto Workers) shooting some years earlier, where a fired employee pulled a gun from his lunch box and killed a Human Resource manager and a production supervisor, leaving two terrified union reps unharmed.  Not to make light of what was clearly a horrific tragedy, but our take on the incident was purely practical:  at least the shooter, unstable as he was, could differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys.

Obviously, no one ever anticipates anything like this ever happening.  Indeed, the one thing you never hear in response to a workplace shooting is people asserting that they had predicted the person would do it (“Yep, we all knew it was only a matter of time before Fred came in here and shot some folks.”).  It doesn’t happen that way.

Perverse as these impromptu “profiling” sessions may have been, they regularly yielded the same two unedifying theories:  First, it was always a male who was the potential shooter, because women don’t do this sort of thing.  Second, it was always a quiet, reserved man, and never a talkative, gregarious fellow.

Ultimately, what we concluded was that it was hopeless trying to guess who was most likely to come in with a gun.  Despite all our speculation, only one category of employee was ever eliminated—that of the demonstrably sociable “people person.”  Which narrowed the list of suspects to about 90% of the male population of the facility.

Identifying “probable violence” is close to impossible.  Sure, it’s easy to connect the dots when you’re working backwards, after the bloody deed has been done, but it’s a whole other deal trying to predict one.

Unless the guy is uttering threats or ominous warnings, no one know can know what’s going on inside someone’s head.  Men with volcanic tempers will punch holes in the wall, and mild-mannered men will come in with guns.  And vice versa.

Arguably, the only “guaranteed” way of preventing a workplace shooting is to become intolerably invasive.  You intensify security by installing metal detectors, having armed guards stationed in the facility and conducting random searches.  To stop the 0.00001 percent of the population who actually does this stuff, you treat the other 99.99999 percent as potential murderers.

I recently received a letter from an outfit called the “Homeland Defense Journal,” inviting me to attend a 2-day seminar (on January 28 and 29, 2009) in Arlington, Virginia, entitled, “Managing Workplace Violence Workshop.”

According to the brochure, these were among the topics to be covered:

“How to create or improve your workplace violence prevention policy and program (you will actually create a policy as part of the course) How to recognize the early warning signs of potential violence and how to appropriately intervene to address them. How to improve employee reporting of threats and incidents. How to access your organization to detect problems that can contribute to creating a violence prone work environment How to deal with a hostile employee and clam the person down using the Stay CalmO method What to do if confronted with the threat of violence How to create an effective workplace violence crisis response plan.”

The registration fees for the 2-day affair were:

Government: $599
Small Business: $699
Industry: $799.

(Isn’t it interesting that “Government,” typically regarded as a source of plentiful, readily available money, is offered the cheapest rate?)

Nothing against the good folks at Homeland Defense Journal, but I can’t interpret their agenda as anything other than well-meaning propaganda.  Frightening and traumatic as workplace violence is, there doesn’t seem to be a reliable, non-draconian way of preventing it.

Of course, we all realize that, for our protection, businesses must continue to seek creative approaches, and for that effort they should be commended.  Still, despite all the ambitious psychological profiling and seminar-babble, one can’t help but view these attempts as wishful thinking.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Borneo Bob,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net