The Walmart shooting heightens the need to prevent workplace violence

NEW YORK – The mass shooting Wednesday at a Walmart in Virginia was just the latest example of a workplace shooting by an employee.

But while many companies provide active shooter training, experts say far less attention is paid to how to prevent workplace violence, specifically how to identify and address troubling behaviors among employees.

Workers too often fail to recognize the warning signs, and more importantly, don’t know how to report suspicious behavior or feel empowered to do so, according to workplace safety and HR experts.

“We’ve built an industry around how to block the bad guys. We’ve invested heavily in physical security measures like metal detectors, cameras and armed guards,” said James Dansley, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan research group The Violence Project. But too often in a workplace shooting, he said, “it’s someone who already has access to the building.”

In particular, the Walmart shooting has raised questions about whether employees feel entitled to speak out because the shooting was perpetrated by a gang leader.

Walmart identified him as 31-year-old Andre Bing. He opened fire on co-workers in the break room of a Chesapeake store, killing six people and wounding six others. Police said he then apparently killed himself.

Employee Brianna Tyler, who survived the shooting, said Bing did not appear to be targeting anyone in particular. Tyler, who started at Walmart two months ago, said she’s never had a negative run-in with Bing, but others have told her he’s “a manager to watch out for.” She said Bing had previously recorded people for no reason.

In 2015, Walmart launched computer-based active shooter training that focuses on three main principles: avoiding danger, keeping your distance, and finally, defense. Then, in 2019, after a mass shooting At the El Paso, Texas store where a gunman killed 22 people, Walmart addressed the threat to the public, cessation of sales certain types of ammunition and asked customers to no longer openly carry firearms in their stores. Now only hunting rifles and ammunition for them are sold here.

Walmart did not specifically respond Wednesday to questions seeking more details about training and protocols to protect its own employees. The company only said that it regularly reviews its training policy and will continue to do so.

Dansley said employers should create open channels for workers to raise concerns about employee behavior, including confidential hotlines. He noted that too often the focus is on “red flags,” and workers should look for “yellow flags” — subtle changes in behavior, such as increased anger or absenteeism. Densley said managers should work with these individuals to obtain counseling for them and conduct regular check-ins.

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s active shooter manual states that human resources officers are responsible for “establishing a system for reporting signs of potential violence.” It also encourages employees to report behaviors such as increased absenteeism and repeated violations of company policies.

But many employers may not have such prevention policies in place, said Liz Peterson, quality manager for the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization that represents more than 300,000 human resources professionals.

She noted that in a 2019 survey of SHRM members, 55% of HR professionals said they did not know if their organization had policies to prevent workplace violence, while another 9% said they lacked such programs. This was in contrast to 57% of HR managers who said they had received training on how to respond to violence.

The recent federal government the report A three-decade study of workplace violence found that workplace homicides have risen in recent years, although they are down sharply from their peak in the mid-1990s.

Between 2014 and 2019, the number of workplace homicides nationwide increased by 11%, from 409 to 454. That’s still down 58% from a peak of 1,080 in 1994, according to a report released in July by the Departments of Labor, Justice and Health and Human Services. The report shows that trends in workplace homicides largely mirror homicide trends across the country.

But the spike in mass public shootings across the country is raising awareness among employers about the need for workplace mental health treatment and violence prevention — and the liability employers can face if they ignore warning signs, Peterson said.

In one high-profile example, a victim’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against a Northern California transit agency earlier this year, alleging it failed to address a history of threatening behavior by an employee who shot nine social workers at the San Jose light rail station in 2021.

The transportation agency has released more than 200 pages of emails and other documents that show the shooter, Samuel James Cassidy, was the subject of four workplace conduct investigations, with one worker concerned that Cassidy might “go postal.” This expression comes from one of the deadliest workplace shootings in US history when a postal worker was shot 14 workers in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986.

“Workplace violence is something you never think will happen in your organization until it happens, and unfortunately it’s important to prepare for it because it’s becoming more and more common.” Peterson said.

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