Friday, February 15 was a busy day, on top of a busy week, following a busy month. Sitting in my office with the plant manager across from me, we prepared to inform an employee that “it’s not working.” This is the kind of conversation an HR professional and a plant manager are used to having.
As we began, a news flash crossed my phone screen about an active shooter in Aurora, IL (we are based in Geneva, IL). I mentioned it to the plant manager because he grew up in Aurora, but we had work to do, so we did not stop to talk about it. Instead, we agreed on how we would share the news with our employee and finalized a time to meet in the afternoon. He left and I got on with the rest of my day, wrapping up loose ends before taking off a few days. The news flashes continued but I was too busy to read them; however, there wasn’t much time to ponder that. It was time for the last task of my day, meeting with the employee to share the bad news
The plant manager and I met in his office, making small talk as we waited for an employee who had no idea what was about to happen. When the employee arrived and saw us sitting there, I noticed that sinking feeling struck. This person immediately knew the purpose of the meeting. We discussed the reasons “it’s not working” and, fortunately, this employee was relieved and thankful that we planned to work through a transition. The job had “not been working out” for them either. This involuntary separation had a positive outcome for both parties. As Friday’s events demonstrated in horrific fashion, that is not always – or even often – the case.
As an HR professional, with 30 years of experience in manufacturing, I have let go more people than I’ve hired. What happened at Henry Pratt Co. is what goes through our mind every time. It crosses our mind for days after workforce reductions. It’s what we fear but do not talk about. Being attacked by a disgruntled employee is the very first thing I thought about when I accepted an offer to become a human resources manager 20 years ago.
Upon getting home Friday evening, I immediately turned on the local news to learn what happened. It was all so eerily familiar. The SWAT and Kane County sheriff’s office teams reminded me of a time in 2003 when we averted a similar tragedy at my manufacturing company in St. Charles. We had concerns about an employee who had been acting suspiciously. Sure enough, he was on his way to work the next night, armed and ready to cause violence. He had multiple handguns and bullet magazines packed in his lunch pail and tucked in his pant legs. Police intercepted him on the way in, arrested him and it was the last we heard of him. The SWAT team snipers were able to come down from their posts on our roof without firing a shot. All clear. We were “safe.” Our disgruntled employee was caught before he could copycat a similar incident at an auto parts distributor earlier in the week. Thankfully, we never made the papers or evening news.
On Saturday morning, I read about the injured officers and deceased employees. I read about the group gathered in a meeting room; the human resources manager who died alongside the plant manager and the human resources intern who died on his first day…his first day! I read of their co-workers, the forklift operator and the union leader, who died, perhaps randomly, perhaps not. They all went to work that day to do their job, do it safely and “go home in same condition they arrived.” No doubt, they were eager for the workweek to be over and ready to start the weekend. Certainly, the parents of the intern eagerly awaited talking to their son about his first day on the job.
The parents, spouses, children, family and friends of each of the victims will never get to hear from or speak to their loved one again because their seemingly normal workday turned violent.
I wish this madness and so many tragedies like it, would just end. I do not have answers for how to stop them, but I do know that treating people with decency, respect and dignity is a good place to start. I know that love is powerful and within us all. And, that compassion is an expression of love that begins with listening to one another. Let’s start there: Let’s listen to one another a bit more. Let’s take the time to stop, look and listen.
Kent Wrenn is a director of talent management. He has over 25 years of HR experience in large and medium multi-national manufacturing companies.
The HR Leader Editorial Committee thanks Kent for sharing his reaction 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 buzz@HRMAC.org 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.