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Recently, we endured another tragedy – this time in Aurora, when an adverse termination on February 17 turned fatal. As many of you know, an employee brought an illegal gun to a Human Resources (HR) meeting at the Henry Pratt Co. facility and, after learning he was fired, killed five employees and wounded five responding police officers.

This tragedy – like so many others – hit close to home for virtually all HRMAC members. Not only did it occur in the Chicago area, but also one of the victims was an HR manager and one was an HR intern on his first day at work. I just read Kent Wrenn’s HRMAC post on his reaction to this awful incident and I stand with him in solidarity.

I believe in learning all we can from crises like this and I see, from Aurora, five valuable lessons that may help our community of HR leaders save lives and prevent another incident like it in your organizations and workplace communities.

1. In the Line of Fire: Recognize That HR Personnel are Often at Higher Risk Than Others

It’s hard to get reliable data on this issue, but our experience as workplace violence prevention and behavioral threat assessment experts – especially over the last decade as the frequency of active shooter or assailant incidents have risen – and as HR personnel involved in adverse terminations and other employee-related actions, along with the individuals’ direct supervisors, confront a higher risk of becoming a victim of violence than leaders of other organizational functions.

That is why we train HR professionals, supervisors and managers on how to conduct difficult meetings and safe terminations. It is also a reason – for your own security and safety – that you need to be informed about how to prevent acts like the one that occurred in Aurora.

2. A Strategic Role: Understand That HR Is Naturally Positioned to Lead Workplace Violence Prevention

HR leaders have a special duty to advance proper workplace violence prevention capabilities within their organizations. Even when ownership of this priority is held by other decision-making departments – such as Security, Legal, Compliance or Facility Operations – HR’s responsibilities, perspectives, skillsets and even mindset place you, as experts, in a role vital to prevention.

Why? Because most employee-related policies are developed, interpreted and enforced by HR – such as those prescribing the organization’s approach to terminations, suspensions, hiring and promotion, and zero-tolerance protocols. You and your HR colleagues are the standard bearers for ensuring that management and supervisors focus acutely on addressing what we call “behaviors of concern” while avoiding any violations related to compliancy regulations, such as those from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), public safety exceptions to sharing information under HIPAA, as well as areas like discrimination, privacy violations, equal employment opportunities, mental health issues, prior criminal records and personally identifiable information.

3. Responsibility: You Must Help Guide Your Organization in Addressing Three Imperatives

As an HR professional, you are the organization’s principal steward of three related, and sometimes conflicting, principles:

  • Ensuring that the rights of employees are addressed appropriately with respect to federal, state and local labor laws
  • Knowing exactly where, when, how and why clearly defined public-safety exemptions to employee-related regulations and professional standards either allow or mandate disclosure of otherwise private and protected information when risks to others manifest.
  • Understanding warning signs of concerning behavior that, if left unchecked, could potentially lead to an incident of workplace violence. Some of these warning signs include depression or disgruntlement. These are not necessarily violations of traditional, zero-tolerance policies, such as sexual harassment and physical confrontations, but they can be vital clues.

4. Collaboration: You Cannot Do This Alone

HR must recognize its “blind spots” and compensate for them. Keep in mind, however, that while you may be adept at conducting different types of HR-related investigations, this experience may not necessarily extend to behavioral threat assessment investigations or liaison with law enforcement. Nuances include knowing when to bring law enforcement into what would otherwise be an internal matter where no crime has been committed, and understanding what types of information should or can be shared when an individual exhibiting concerning behaviors has been terminated and may represent a danger to others in the community. It’s important to recognize when you have been pushed beyond the threshold of your capabilities and level of expertise.

A best practice is to establish a relationship with outside experts who can be available immediately to respond to an incident, even when only partial information is available.

This does not mean that HR does not retain an integral role in leading an investigation. HR professionals are particularly skilled at connecting the dots internally across interdisciplinary functions and experts, and ensuring that information is appropriately gathered and shared – ideally with an internal Threat Assessment Team (TAT), whose members have at least baseline training in helping determine whether an individual has the motive and means to develop or act on an opportunity to attack another employee.

5. Scope: View Security Risk Management Holistically

We are currently advising two companies who recently suffered active shooter events that resulted in the deaths of employees. Together, their internal teams and our experts are tackling a spectrum of issues ranging from post-incident internal investigations and messaging to employee populations deeply concerned about their own safety, to formal workplace violence prevention program development and – very importantly – the broader framework and integrity of each company’s respective physical and technical security protocols and practices.

It is complicated and expensive to address these priorities when an organization is under stress. As security risk management experts, our request of you is not just that you help organizations put these prevention-oriented capabilities in place before a tragedy occurs, but also that you view workplace violence prevention through the broader lens of holistic, integrated security risk management. In concrete terms, for example, you will never be able to establish a best-in-class workplace violence prevention program if you have not also updated the company’s security policies, established minimum security requirements for all facilities, shared floor plans with first responders, and implemented fundamental physical and technical countermeasures such as access control, closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance of entrances, and ballistic film for key sites such as the headquarters lobby.

Final Thoughts

Preventing workplace violence is a collaborative effort, but it is my experience working with various organizations that HR is arguably our single most critical and influential partner in any organization. We can’t do our job as threat assessment specialists and workplace violence prevention program builders without you. Nor can you do yours without us. Together, we can prevent the next Aurora and, hopefully, save lives.

Additional Resources

Matthew Doherty is the senior vice president and practice leader of Threat + Violence Risk Management at Hillard Heintze, and a retired U.S. Secret Service Special Agent, formerly in charge of the National Threat Assessment Center. He is a widely recognized expert across the U.S. in assessing and preventing targeted violence, and, for over 30 years, has developed plans to monitor an individual and to intervene, as appropriate, to prevent an attack by coordinating intervention strategies with social systems such as family, work, community, criminal justice, mental health and social services.

The HR Leader Editorial Committee thanks Matthew for sharing his expertise in response to this tragic event and welcomes further submissions on crisis management, workplace violence or any commentary HRMAC member experts and beyond may wish to share. Please do not hesitate to email us at at any time.

In the wake of this tragedy, the HRMAC community extends its deepest sympathy to the families and co-workers of Henry Pratt Co. and wants to recognize our human resources colleagues who lost their lives performing an essential role on behalf of their organization. The profession requires so much of its members – committed individuals – who have joined the field of human resources in order to improve the lives of workers and the performance of organizations. It is in honor of their commitment to the human resources profession that HRMAC has made a donation to the Clay Parks Memory Fund and #AuroraStrongCommunityFund.