Business/Economy

Signs of potential disaster were present before the Walmart shootings. Are they present in your workplace?

There were signs of potential disaster that later erupted in Virginia last month when Walmart supervisor Andre Bing allegedly shot and killed six coworkers. 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.

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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 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 needing 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 the U.S. Predictably, violence enters the workplace. Approximately 2 million U.S. employees find themselves the victims of workplace violence annually, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; nearly a thousand employees die each year. Employers can and must do something.

OSHA’s “General Duty Clause” states that employers need to keep 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.

Managers 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 of 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 warrant being assessed and addressed. Are they — at your workplace?

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully,” and workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is president of Communication Works Inc. Send questions to her at workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach or follow her on Twitter @lynnecurry10.

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