On August 3, 2010, Omar Thornton, a driver for a Connecticut beer distributor, killed eight fellow workers, with no warning, before committing suicide. “Ten seconds before [Thornton] started shooting, if you had asked me, does he look like he’s going to react in any way? I would have said ‘no, he seems calm,’” said, a company vice president wounded by the gunman.
Criminologists call this a classic example of “murder by proxy” — rampages by employees who attack the co-workers, supervisors, and bosses who they blame for their outrage. The message is: “Look who’s doing the firing now.”
According to federal statistics, co-workers or former co-workers kill an average of 63 people per year in U.S. workplaces. These eruptions of violence rarely come with a warning, making them hard to stop.
To reduce the risk of on-the-job attacks, especially in cases where employees are about to be terminated, we’d recommend that companies of all sizes implement a violence protection plan that includes these steps:
- Plan meetings to fire employees carefully, taking into account the location and the number of people present. If there’s any potential for violence (for example if the employee has a violent past), do the interview off site, have the worker escorted to and from the room, and evaluate the need for having a security guard or an off-duty police officer present.
- In extreme cases, consider using such security measures as body searches or metal detectors; however, bear in mind that these steps can backfire by inflaming the situation.
- Avoid angering the employee unnecessarily. Choose your words carefully to convey empathy, not sympathy, and acknowledge that the worker is highly stressed.
- Train your employees to recognize such signs of potential violence in co-workers as verbal threats, temper tantrums, or a display of weapons in the workplace.
However, regardless of warning signs and security measures, experts say there’s little that managers can do to stop a determined gunman. “The only way to guarantee you never become a victim of a workplace shooting is to be self employed,” notes Jim Francis of T&M Protection Resources, a New York-based security firm.