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In the Aftermath of Wakefield
8 January, 2001

In the aftermath of the pain and horror of the Edgewater Technology Company slayings in Wakefield, Mass., inevitable questions will be asked about why this tragedy happened and how it could have been prevented. Wakefield is another example of a shooting spree to hit the workplace, a supposedly safe environment, where bad things such murders are not supposed to happen.

Unfortunately history repeats, and it is highly unlikely that Wakefield will be the last shooting spree we hear about this year.

Some of the facts: On March 20, 2000, a fired employee shot five people at a Dallas-area car wash. On Dec. 30, 1999 a man fatally shot five co-workers at the Radisson Bay Harbor hotel in Tampa. On April 6, 1999 a former employee gunned down four bus employees in Ottawa. On Nov. 2, 1999, a repairman fatally shot seven people at Xerox in Honolulu. On August 5, 1999, a truck driver shoot two co-workers and a former co-worker at an office in Pelham, Ala. On July 29,1999 a former day trader killed nine people at two Atlanta brokerage offices, before he committed suicide.

These are workplace shooting sprees that made the national headlines in the last two years. Add to this the shooting sprees that hit our schools - Jonesboro, Ark.; Edinboro, Penns.; Springfield, Ore.; Littleton, Colo. and Taber, Alberta — and one can not just shrug them off as isolated incidents.

Highly predictable and preventable

Why do these shooting sprees happen? Are they premeditated incidents, committed by demented, unpredictable people, bent on exacting revenge for an actual or perceived misjustice? Are there warning signs prior to these incidents? Can a workplace be proactive, rather than rely on a chance happening?

After years of analyzing reports of shooting sprees that attract national attention, I have discovered that they follow an eerily similar pattern during the lead up to the violence.

First, a series of problems precipitate the extreme behavior. Second, the perpetrator sees no way out and believes violence is the only way to resolve chronic problems or conflicts. Finally the last straw, a perceived threat or slight, triggers the hostile reaction.

When we understand the cues that warn of trouble long before the actual incident, we can then see violence coming — and often, by defusing the triggers, prevent a tragedy.

Vicious cycle

Violence, in all its forms, is highly predictable and usually preventible. Typically, it begins with seemingly innocuous abuses. Though these behaviors rarely make headlines, they are part of the day-to-day reality of most workplaces.

Threats and intimidation, bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, disruptive behavior, and abuse of power are easy to stop, but are often tolerated or ignored. When the so-called innocuous abusive behaviors are not stopped, they increase in intensity and frequency.Sometimes they precipate an extreme form of violence.

Prevention works

Having helped many workplaces cool down situations that had all the signs of a shooting spree in the making — as well as one organization that unfortunately did not follow the recommended action and suffered four deaths as a result — I can say with conviction that by paying attention to the danger signs and taking swift, decisive action to resolve problems, most serous incidents can be avoided.

A basic strategy includes: identifying potential threatening behavior at work, assessing the risks to employees and to the workplace, defusing the situation and preventing a recurrence.

The problem is not usually a lack of willingness on the part of managers, colleagues, teachers, students, parents and families to take an action. Rather, it stems from misreading the cues and uncertainty over what action to take.

For if you don't look at individual incidents, you can never anticipate the cumulative effect. And if you don't do anything about the individual incidents, they will never be resolved and you risk it snowballing into more extreme expressions of violence, such as fisticuffs, stabbings and shooting sprees.

It's hard to take appropriate action if you don't know what signs to look for. The cues that indicate risk of violence are not readily apparent, and the average person — even someone highly skilled in his or her area of expertise — often has a hard time recognizing them.

That's why it's essential for people in positions of authority to be trained to identify cues of potentially violent behavior and know what action to take. Some signs for CEOs and managers to be alert to:

Chronic unresolved problems among employees

An employee who is socially isolated, disruptive or exhibites strange behavior

Fear of the person

Changes in behavior

Complaints about an injustice or slight, either perceived or real

High levels of stress, especially created by family or financial problems

Preoccupation with violence and accessability of guns

Subtle or overt expressions of suicidal or homicidal thoughts

Lower the risks

There are no simple answers to the question of why these tragedies occur. While there is no full-proof method against workplace or school violence, one can lower the risks.

How? By recognizing the signs that warn of trouble, developing a well-planned intervention that will cool down a volatile person or a highly charged situation, and making sure the environment is truly free of violence and abuse.

Every management team should be trained in conflict management and violence prevention. Every workplace should have a policy against violence — and one that works! Every CEO should be aware that no workplace is immune, but prevention and intervention can help to diminish the risk of a shooting spree in their organization.

Premium Member
25,481 Posts
Pretty good pointers to recognising potential problems but as so often these incidents can occur in gun-free zones and so no CCW nearby to minimize or control the problem.
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