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Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Walmart in Virginia is the latest example of a workplace shooting by an employee.
But while many companies offer active shooter training, experts say there is far less focus on how to prevent workplace violence, particularly how to identify and address troubling behavior among employees.
According to workplace safety and human resources experts, workers often don’t know how to recognize the warning signs, and more importantly don’t know how to report suspicious behavior or feel empowered to do so.
“We’ve developed an industry on how to lock up the bad guys. We’ve invested heavily in physical security measures like metal detectors, cameras and armed security guards,” said James Densley, a criminal justice professor at Metropolitan State University in DePaul, Minnesota, and co-founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan research group The Violence Project.
But often in workplace shootings, he said, “it’s someone who already has access to the building.”
The Walmart shooting in particular raised questions about whether workers felt empowered to speak out because it was a manager who carried out the shooting.
That manager, identified by Walmart as 31-year-old Andre Bing, opened fire on fellow workers in the Chesapeake store’s break room, killing six and wounding six. Police said he is believed to have committed suicide later.
Brianna Tyler, an employee who survived the shooting, said Bing didn’t seem to be targeting anyone in particular. Tyler, who started at Walmart two months ago, said he’s never had a negative encounter with Bing, but others have told him he’s a “search manager.” He said Bing had a history of writing people up for no reason.
Walmart launched a computer-based active shooter training in 2015, which focuses on three pillars: avoid danger, keep your distance and ultimately defend. Then, after a 2019 mass shooting at a store in El Paso, Texas in which an outside gunman killed 22 people, Walmart stopped selling certain types of ammunition, citing threats to the public and urging customers to no longer openly carry firearms. Its store now only sells hunting rifles and related ammunition.
Walmart did not respond Wednesday to questions seeking more details about its training and protocols to protect its own employees. The company said only that it regularly reviews its training policies and will continue to do so
Densley said employers should create open channels for employees to raise concerns about employee behavior, including a confidential hotline.
He noted that attention is often focused on “red flags” and that employees should look for “yellow flags” — subtle changes in behavior, such as increased anger or not showing up for work. Densley said managers should work with those people to get counseling and regular check-ins.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s active shooting manual states that human resources officers have a responsibility to “develop a system for reporting signs of potential violent behavior.” It encourages employees to report behaviors such as increased absenteeism and repeated violations of company policies.
But many employers may not have such prevention policies, says Liz Peterson, quality manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization of more than 300,000 human resources professionals.
He noted that in a 2019 SHRM survey of its members, 55% of HR professionals said they did not know if their organization had a workplace violence prevention policy, and another 9% said they lacked such a program. This is in contrast to 57% of HR managers who said they have training on how to respond to violence.
A recent federal government report examining workplace violence over three decades found that workplace homicides have risen in recent years, although they have fallen sharply from peaks in the mid-1990s.
Between 2014 and 2019, workplace homicides nationwide increased 11% from 409 to 454. That was down 58% from a peak of 1,080 in 1994, according to the report, which was released in July by the Department of Labor, Justice and Health. and human services. The report found that workplace homicide trends largely mirrored nationwide homicide trends.
But mass mass shootings in the country are raising awareness among employers about the need to address mental health and prevent violence in the workplace — and the liability employers can face if they ignore the warning signs, Peterson said.
In one high-profile example, the family of a victim filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against a Northern California transportation company earlier this year, alleging that it failed to address a history of threatening behavior by an employee who shot and killed nine co-workers. San Jose light railyard in 2021.
The transportation agency released more than 200 pages of emails and other documents showing that the shooter, Samuel James Cassidy, was the subject of four workplace conduct investigations and that an employee was concerned that Cassidy “might get called out.” The expression originated from the deadliest workplace shooting in US history, when a postal worker shot and killed 14 workers in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986.
“Workplace violence is a situation that you never think will happen to your organization until it happens, and unfortunately, it’s important to prepare for them because they’re becoming more common,” Peterson said.