In the wake of the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, which killed six people and wounded 13 others including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I found myself reflecting on my clients’ views of workplace violence.
Typically, human resources professionals and corporate legal counsel I work with fall into two categories: Those who acknowledge the risk of violence at their own offices and work sites and those who believe they don’t have a problem with workplace violence.
Wait a minute; I apologize. I only have one type of client: the ones who deny they have a problem with workplace violence.
Like my clients, I would prefer to stay in denial and not think about guns and people getting hurt. I don’t want to think the worst when my children walk out of the house or when I board a plane.
And yet, the possibilities of harm seem to become ever more present. During the holidays, my family was stunned to learn that our quiet suburban neighborhood had become the site of a nonfatal shooting. On the afternoon of the shooting, my daughter’s 10-year-old friend looked out her window and watched as law-enforcement and emergency vehicles arrived at the scene—some to take away the victim and others to chase the shooter.
While still trying cases, I was the victim of anonymous death threats and threats of sexual assault, presumably by someone involved in one of the cases I was handling. Despite a police investigation, the person who had made those threats was never found. And even though I was not physically harmed, the feelings of vulnerability and outrage associated with those workplace threats have never gone away.
Contrary to the prevailing media debate, what happened in Tucson is not so much a political issue but a poignant reminder that violence can and does happen, often without warning, in our workplaces and across our communities. It is first and foremost a reminder to leave a legacy of integrity and kindness in the way that I live my life each day.
It is also a reminder that violence can and does happen, often without warning, and that we cannot be in service to each other when we remain in denial or vow to keep silent.
Telling the truth about violence, though, is harder than it would seem.
In my career as an ELI Civil Treatment instructor and facilitator, leaders at several companies have told me that I could skip any discussion in our harassment, discrimination and workplace behavior training about violence because that kind of stuff doesn’t happen at their offices.
I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion, given that homicide tops the list of leading causes of death for women in the workplace and the long list of workplace violence in recent years at places like Virginia Tech; the University of Alabama; and Manchester, Connecticut, as well as many others.
In one recent training class, a senior HR leader told me he had no issues of workplace violence.
Yet, as we continued to talk, it emerged that a man had come into the company’s Midwest office looking for his girlfriend. He wanted to hurt her, and when he couldn’t find her, he pulled out a gun and shot five employees.
Stunned, I turned back to the senior leader and asked if he knew about it. “That was different; it was more of a domestic violence issue that took place at our plant.”
The amazing part of this discussion was that we were in Oklahoma City, the site of one of the worst incidents of workplace violence in U.S. history.
The lesson is that violence that occurs in the workplace is workplace violence whether it takes place between spouses/domestic partners, between co-workers, by a third-party with a relationship to the organization (client, partner, etc.) or in conjunction with the commission of other crimes.
At another company, I walked into the lobby one day expecting a normal routine. Instead, I found a woman crying hysterically at the desk and she was being pulled away from the windows.
Two guards were excitedly watching cameras and making radio calls and a call to 911.
No one acknowledged me. More guards came running into the lobby and the woman was taken away. Finally, one of the guards told me that a man in a white truck was driving around the building and that the woman claimed he was going to beat her up and had already beaten up another woman who had ended up in the hospital the night before.
Taking this in, I looked out to see the truck pass by—the same one that had passed me when I originally entered the lobby. Not sure what to expect, I sought a place to hide. The police arrived and arrested the man. Slowly, we resumed the normal routine and I went to teach my class on professional workplace conduct.
That day, I covered the workplace violence training module despite this client’s repeated assurances in the past that they did not have “those kinds of issues.”
Incredibly, when I returned to the location a few months later to teach another class, I recognized the guard in the lobby and asked him if the women was all right after such an extraordinary event. Looking through his log book, he said, “Now let me see, which one was that?” His answer gave me chills with the recognition that there were even more issues than the one I had witnessed.
Beyond ensuring for safe facilities (lighting, secure entrances, alarms, surveillance cameras, etc.), the two most important preventive measures are: establishing procedures for preventing and responding to risks and routinely encouraging people to speak up when they have concerns about others’ conduct and potential threats to safety.
Encouraging people to speak up about safety concerns cannot be overemphasized. I am reminded of a tragic murder-suicide that happened at the University of Washington in 2007. The female victim, an employee there, had expressed concerns to staff and friends that her ex-boyfriend was stalking her and had threatened her life, but none of those concerns were reported to human resources.
Following the incident, the vice president of HR stated in an interview that had the concerns been reported, any number of steps could have been taken to reduce the risks: changing the victim’s phone number, relocating her office to another place on campus, increasing patrols and providing a security escort, etc.
So if people aren’t talking about violence issues at your workplace, you still could have a problem. Don’t kid yourself. It’s time to encourage people to speak up.
This is a guest post by Tucker Miller, a professional facilitator and regional director for ELI Inc. She is licensed to practice law in the state of Washington and is a member of the Washington State Bar Association.