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Are Employers at fault when acts of Workplace Violence Occur?

An act of violence occurred yesterday that should be sending shockwaves through you as an HR professional.  Fourteen people were killed and 17 wounded by two shooters at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.
An act of violence occurred yesterday that should be sending shockwaves through you as an HR professional.  Fourteen people were killed and 17 wounded by two shooters at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.  The motives of the shooters (who will remain unnamed, as I do not feel anyone committing such a heinous act deserves to be immortalized in blogs, newscasts, etc.) are still unknown.  However, we do know that the male shooter was an inspector with the county health department that was hosting the holiday party at the Inland Regional Center.
There are still so many questions that will likely be answered in the investigations, but one question is most important for HR professionals – what can we do to keep our employees safe?  HR always walks a fine line of protecting both the business and employees, but in instances of workplace violence, keeping employees safe IS protecting the business.  

Perhaps employers ignore workplace violence because it feels so rare, almost as if they have “that couldn't happen to us” syndrome.  Yet, the fact is, workplace violence acts are occurring much more frequently.  In fact, according to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, in 2013 alone there were 397 homicides within the workplace, in which shootings were the most frequent manner of death (80 percent).  What's even scarier is that of the 302 fatal work injuries that involved female workers, 22 percent of these were homicides (as compared to 8 percent for men).  Those numbers might still make it seem rare, but USA Today reports that mass shootings are actually so prevalent in the U.S. that trends reveal it can almost be guaranteed that there will be at least one mass shooting every two weeks in the U.S.

So, are employers failing to keep their employees safe?  Is it the employer's responsibility to keep their employees safe (The law would say it is by the way – refer to: OSHA and the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety Health Act of 1970)? Is there anything more Inland Regional Center could have done to protect their employees yesterday?  Is this an employer issue or is this a gun issue that needs to be solved by congress?  There are so many unanswered questions and I suspect this is why employers are doing very little to nothing at all to address growing workplace violence issues.  

Perhaps I have a special place in my heart for wanting to have all the information I can to keep employees safe.  After all, my fiancé was in building 197 when the shooter at the Navy  Yard  decided to take 12 of his fellow co-workers' lives and his own.  And, I have seen how this has affected him and I understand first-hand how terrifying this can be for someone.  So, as an HR Professional, I want nothing but the utmost confidence that my employees know what to do in these types of situations, that they are bringing these issues of potential violence to my attention so I can address them right away.  But, I often wonder, am I doing enough?  So, here's my chance to get on my soap box and talk about what I think we need to do in our workplaces and maybe stem additional conversations about what other companies are doing/have done at their workplaces.

  • Remind your employees that safety is important.  I often feel like, especially in white collar work environments, everyone balks at the idea of safety.   A simple fire drill can make employees groan and elicit an eye-roll.  So, what's most important is that HR and senior leaders in the company get on board with safety.  Then, maybe if the leaders take it seriously, employees will start to take it seriously.
  • Create an ACTUAL safety training and require all your employees to attend.  Don't just send an email telling people where the exits are and which ones to use in case of a fire.  Get people together and actually talk about the different types of issues that could arise and what to do in each of those situations.  Talk about recognizing dangerous behaviors and to whom to report these behaviors.  Talk about a potential shooter in your office and test employees on what they should do. The most important thing is ensuring that all your employees know what to do in the case of any type of emergency.
  • Think about what your company is doing from an operations perspective.  Does your receptionist have the ability to notify authorities if there is a dangerous person in the office?  Are there emergency exits that are locked?  Do you have designated safety officers?  All of these things could make a huge difference in the case of an emergency.
  • Think about what you're doing as an HR Professional.  Is it enough?  Are you investigating when an employee informs you about dangerous behaviors in the office?  Are you taking the necessary safeguards when an employee is terminated from your company?  Audit your safety procedures and determine if you need to change any of these.  Do it at least annually.

Of course, we won't always be able to prevent everything.  In the case of Inland Regional Center, one of the shooters was an employee of the Health Department, but how would Inland Regional Center have known?  Maybe the ultimate way to be aware of safety is to question everyone and everything.  At this point, I'm not sure.  But, what I do know is that it has to be a conversation that we start, even if it's uncomfortable.

So, I ask you, what are you doing to keep your employees safe?

Written By:

Christina Skinner, PHR, who serves on the Communications Committee and Board for HR Alliance. To find out more about Christina, please visit our Board of Directors webpage or email Christina directly at


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