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How companies should deal with the threat of gun violence — and what employees can do

Dealing with this issue is a two-pronged effort: implementing safety procedures and being vigilant about reporting concerns.
Image: YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki,right, walks near Youtube headquarters following an active shooter situation in San Bruno, California on April 3. Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

Gun violence can happen virtually anywhere and at any time. You could be at a concert, at school, or, as Tuesday's horrific shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California reminded, at work. The latter incident, which left at least three people injured and the alleged shooter dead from a self-inflicted gun wound, is sadly, not an entirely unique occurrence. A 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that there were 500 workplace homicides in 2016, with shootings accounting for 394 (79 percent) of them — up by 83 cases since 2015.

There were 500 workplace homicides in 2016, with shootings accounting for 79 percent of them.

Workplaces of all kinds need to be ready to handle this worst-case scenario. But what exactly does such preparation look like? Upon consulting experts, we learned that dealing with this issue is a two-pronged effort: CEOs need to do their share insofar as implementing policies and procedures that encourage safety, communication and accountability; while employees need to be vigilant, report any concerns and know the resources they have available to them.

What Leadership Can Do

  • Train Employees For Active Shooter Situations

“The first thing to do is implement workplace training for active shooters,” says Deborah Muller, founder and CEO of HR Acuity. “Certainly this would be coordinated with HR and security, and it’s similar to what is going on in many schools.”

ALICE training (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) is a program used in schools that businesses may also employ.

Muller adds that her local school system uses the ALICE training, a program that businesses may also employ. “ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) can also work with businesses and government, houses of worship and so on.”

While such training may be scary for staff at first, it “does provide some amount of empowerment and it also [shows] that the company cares.” Moreover, as Julie Croushore, VP of risk management at Engage PEO notes, it’s important that we are prepared if only so that should a shooting occur, we know exactly what to do in an almost automatic way, just as “we know exactly where fire escapes are because of all those fire safety drills.”

  • State Your No Guns Policy Clearly

Making it explicitly clear to all employees that guns are not allowed on the workplace premise may seem like a no-brainer, but there are states that allow people to carry firearms into the office. If you operate in one of these states (or really, even if you don’t), communicate that you have no tolerance for weapons.

“Companies should post notices stating that guns and other weapons are not permitted in their workplace,” says Mirande Valbrune, employment lawyer and author of “#MeToo: A Practical Guide to Navigating Today's Cultural Workplace Revolution.”

  • Send A Personal Handwritten Letter To Employees — And Their Families

Even if you’re workplace has not been affected by violence, it’s important to show employees that their safety is your first priority — and to extend this message to their families.

“This all starts with leadership,” emphasizes Croushore. “I have seen success when management delivers a handwritten letter that goes not just to every employee, but to their families as well. You want to say, ‘We will do everything we can to keep your husband, your wife, your daughter safe in the workplace.”

  • Set Up A Town Hall Meeting

“Commitment starts with the letter, but must be re-engaged in a town hall meeting or a community breakfast, whatever style your company prefers,”

Croushore says. “Make sure that commitment is spoken verbally and opens an opportunity for conversation. Communication is key.”

  • Pass Out An Anonymous Survey

Communication is, of course, a two-way street. Not only do CEOs need to express their seriousness in this matter, they need to engage employees in providing feedback and new ideas. One great way to do this, Croushore finds, is to distribute an anonymous survey to all.

“Employee surveys allow you to get a good feel for what is going on,” says Croushore. “Ask questions like, ‘Do you feel safe? Are there other actions to be taken?’ Your employees may give you grand ideas they may not feel comfortable telling upfront but share on on that survey. As a management team, you have to listen to them, and let them know they’re being heard.”

  • Do Not Overlook A Single Employee Complaint

Though many mass shootings are committed by suspects who don’t have any personal involvement with the company, that isn’t always the case — which is why HR (and management in general) must take every single employee concern seriously.

It’s the employees who have their ear to the ground and know what’s going on daily in the workplace with their colleagues.

“It’s the employees who have their ear to the ground and know what’s going on daily in the workplace with their colleagues,” says Croushure. “We can't take a threat for granted or blow it over as a joke. There are often grumblings, even on social media, about concerns over another employee. But often people don’t want to feel like they’re a snitch, or risk blame, so they need something like an anonymous dashboard or other share point where they can raise awareness without fear of repercussion, but know that some action will be taken. But that follow-up is essential; someone has to take those concerns seriously, act on them and investigate.”

  • Hire A Workplace Violence Expert

Dealing with a possibly threatening employee is a tough task, and you may need to reach beyond your internal resources to handle the matter.

“I’ve done investigations where I did not feel comfortable interviewing the subject [who was worrying other employees] and the witnesses were scared out of their wits,” says Muller. “So I required that the company allow me to bring along a workplace violence expert to assess the subject's demeanor during our interviews.”

What Employees Can Do

  • Know The Warning Signs: Aggression, Isolation, Emotional Distress

For employers to act on reports of concerning behavior in their peers, employees need to be open in reporting it — but they need to know what to look for in the first place.

“An employee who seems isolated, has trouble getting along with others and exhibits signs of aggression that are not consistent with the culture of the company are concerning,” says Valbrune. “Any signs that the employee might be experiencing emotional distress or behavioral mental health issues should be reported to the manager or HR.”

  • Report Any Domestic Violence, Restraining Orders, Etc.

It’s hard enough to talk about violent situations at home with even trusted loved ones, let alone our bosses, but it’s critical to let your management know if you’re dealing with (or have dealt with) someone abusive or threatening outside of the workplace.

“Let's say an employee has a protective order against an abusive spouse: they need to tell the company,” says Muller. “But even if they don’t have a protective order, if the employee is concerned about a threat, they should feel comfortable sharing the information with their employer and the employer should take proactive steps to ensure that employees’ protection. Make sure security knows to not let them on the campus, and that employees knows who to contact if there is an issue.”

  • Use Your Employee Assistance Program

“Companies have a lot of resources at their disposal to assist employees with these issues, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP),” adds Valbrune. “Typically a counselor is available 24/7. Some companies offer as many as 10 free counseling sessions either by the phone or in person.”

Note to self: if you’re feeling stressed out by all the gun violence in the media, or even if you’re just having a stressful work week or going through something personally challenging — check out your company’s EAP program, (Valburne notes this is typically explained in your benefits package). Chances are you have at least a few free sessions, why not use them?

NEXT: What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings

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