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WORKPLACE SAFETY

Signs of potential disaster were present at Walmart—Are they at your workplace?

By Lynne Curry

There were signs of potential disaster that later erupted in six deaths when Walmart supervisor Andre Bing shot and killed six coworkers in November. There always are. Four decades of investigating violent workplace incidents have convinced me of this.

“I didn’t want to say anything,” someone always says, “but….”

“That was just ‘Jon,’ but we all sort of knew it, and didn’t poke the bear.”

“I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, so I didn’t tell anyone.”

“I was too scared to say anything.”

The Walmart investigation uncovered significant information detailing the genesis of the November disaster.

Bing had written a note on his phone filled with complaints about coworkers, saying they mocked and harassed him. He named the coworkers he felt had antagonized or betrayed him.

One coworker described Bing, who Walmart had promoted to a team manager position, as aggressive; another called him a loner. Several coworkers reported the gunman had displayed strange, threatening behavior and made paranoid comments. Both current and former employees recounted tense workplace relationships with Bing. They described him as “always negative” and someone who tried to get other managers in trouble. They said he “looked for little things” to complain about “because he had the authority.”

Walmart had reasons for promoting Bing to team lead. He’d been with the company for 12 years, and it can be a challenge to find individuals to work night shifts.

The reports that Bing “looked for little things” might have meant he was good supervisor who challenged employees that needed to improve work performance or drop bad habits. Alternatively, it could have signaled a problem that needed to be assessed and addressed. In hindsight, it did.

It’s time we used foresight. We have an epidemic of violence in U.S. Predictably, violence enters the workplace. Approximately two million U.S. employees find themselves the victims of workplace violence annually; nearly 1,000 employees die each year. Employers can and have to do something.

The Office of Safety and Health Administration’s “General Duty Clause” states that employers need to furnish employees free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

What can employers do to accomplish that?

First, they can investigate reports of workplace tension—before rather than after violence breaks out. How? Managers need to stay tuned to what’s happening among employees, and to make it easy for employees to mention situations that worry them.

Employees need skills for handling conflict and stress; these areas can be added into workplace safety training sessions.

Managers can model the codes of conduct that are often stated in employee handbooks and employer intranets, that “we treat everyone with dignity and respect,” but don’t always exist in reality.

Employers can reassess their guns in the workplace policies, as they may be guilty of negligence if an armed employee attacks a coworker and the employer knew the first employee had a temper but took no precautionsManagers and employees can be alert and report issues to senior managers, human resources or even law enforcement. Escalation to violence often occurs after weeks or months in which warning signs have waved red flags. These include:

  • Threats, intimidation tactics and vindictive behavior
  • Blowing things out of proportion; overreacting to feedback or criticism; turning comments into grudges
  • Lacks impulse control; erupts into anger or belligerence
  • Unresolved grievances that pile up
  • Applauding others who use violence to get what they want
  • Bizarre or paranoid behavior

While an employee might show one or more of the above six behaviors without erupting into violence, all deserve being assessed and addressed. Are they—at your workplace?

Sign up here for Lynne Curry’s Jan. 19 webinar on Navigating Conflict. It’s free for members of Law Office Manager. Lynne Curry, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP and author of “Navigating Conflict” (Business Experts Press, 2022); “Managing for Accountability (BEP, 2021); “Beating the Workplace Bully,” AMACOM 2016, and “Solutions” is President of Communication Works, Inc. and founder of www.workplacecoachblog.com, which offers more than 400 articles on topics such as leadership, COVID, management, HR, and personal and professional development.  Curry has qualified in Court as an expert witness in Management Best Practices, HR and Workplace issues. You can reach her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her @lynnecurry10 on twitter.

 

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