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Workplace Disputes: Early Intervention Key to Heading Off Violence

It’s impossible to predict and prevent the deadly violence that on rare occasions erupts from workplace disputes, but managers and coworkers can defuse many difficult situations before they turn tragic, experts say.

“It’s literally impossible to predict in advance who’s going to commit an act of extreme violence,” said Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a board certified forensic psychologist and senior member of the Threat Assessment Group, which offers training and other workplace violence prevention services. “(But) if you prevent less severe forms of workplace violence, you will prevent more severe forms when those situations escalate.”

Dvoskin and other experts stress that preventative measures -- including training of employees and managers, providing counseling services and conducting regular performance evaluations based on objective criteria – must be in place and utilized early, before a relatively minor issue can spiral out of control.

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“If the organization does not react until the behavior has escalated, then it is unlikely that the business is going to be able to correct the employee’s behavior,” said Randy Ferris, cofounder of Violence Prevention Strategies.

Workplace violence, as classified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) covers a range of behavior, including threats or verbal abuse. By that standard, nearly 2 million Americans report feeling victimized in work situations annually, it says.

Rarely, statistics show, do workplace disputes lead to deadly violence of the sort that claimed the lives of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they filmed an interview with a local Chamber of Commerce official on Tuesday in Moneta, Virginia. Authorities say they were gunned down by Vester Flanagan, a former reporter at the station who had been fired more than two years earlier after a series of run-ins with coworkers and managers.

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There were 404 workplace homicides in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Colleagues and former coworkers were responsible for only 74 of the 2013 killings, trailing behind robbers, relatives or domestic partners and other assailants.

The bureau has tracked workplace homicides since 1992 but said several classification changes in recent years make comparisons to older data suspect. Still, BLS officials said workplace homicide rates have steadily declined since 1992.

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Most of the experts on workplace violence who spoke with NBC News declined to comment specifically on the Virginia case, but Michael G. Trachtman, a business and employment lawyer at Powell Trachtman who focuses on the resolution and prevention of business problems, said what happened there was “not a workplace issue.”

“In my view there is no practical way, other than through massive security measures, to prevent what amounts to an act of terrorism by someone who is far beyond disgruntled or angry,” he said.

But Trachtman, like the other experts, said early intervention and thoroughly preparing a workforce to deal with difficult co-workers is key to preventing more run-of-the-mill workplace disputes from escalating.

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Ferris said companies must provide training on behavioral warning signs to their employees and provide them with a secure and anonymous vehicle by which they can report their concerns to management.

“This training should stress that the company cannot provide a safe environment if they are not made aware of concerns about the disturbing and disruptive behavior of others,” he said. “At that point the company has the duty to investigate the concerns and develop an appropriate plan.”

Trachtman said having a performance-review system that relies on “objective performance criteria” also can help defuse situations, as they make it harder for troubled workers to make a case that everyone is out to get them.

He said that if counseling and performance improvement plans fail and it becomes necessary to terminate the employee, managers must be careful to avoid highlighting the person’s personal values or traits. Instead, he suggests approaching a disgruntled employee with a “’we turned out not to be a good match for each other’ dialogue, as opposed to ‘you refused to do what we told you and we don’t want you here’ discussion.”

"That approach minimizes the fuel the employer might otherwise throw on the fire,” he said.

“One of the most common mistakes that companies can make is to terminate the person and believe that they are done with them.”

Ferris said that companies also need to realize that firing a difficult employee may not be the end of the matter.

“One of the most common mistakes that companies can make is to terminate the person and believe that they are done with them,” he said. “In these instances an enhanced security plan and a professional threat assessment is necessary and should include continual monitoring of the person’s online presence to see what they are saying and what actions they are taking.”

As for coworkers who see a colleague difficult or causing trouble at work, the experts said their responsibility does not end with reporting the conduct.

“How you approach somebody is just as important as if you approach somebody,” Dvoskin said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘how you doing?’ and sharing some kindness with somebody who appears to be sad.”

The preventative measures and respectful interactions are not only aimed at heading off troubled workers who could become violent, he said.

“You don’t help troubled people because they’re going to kill somebody because you have no idea who the tiny percentage is,” Dvoskin said. “You help troubled people because they need help.”