Worker alertness vital to stemming shop-floor violence

This week's factory shootings come as firms use screening and training to avert outbursts.

The fact that assembly-line worker Doug Williams slipped out of an ethics and sensitivity seminar at his manufacturing plant in Meridian, Miss., this week and apparently killed five co-workers in a shooting spree is a tragic irony, but one that also symbolizes growing efforts by the nation's businesses to prevent workplace violence.

On the one hand, many companies are working harder than ever to prevent Dilbert-like frustration from exploding into outright rampages. They're piling on everything from at-work seminars to pre-employment screening to psychological tests.

On the other hand, the fact that Mr. Williams reportedly exhibited clear warning signs - including threatening numerous times to kill co-workers - highlights the fact that one of the best preventive steps is for alert employees to carefully confront the situation and perhaps voice concerns to higher-ups.

"Employers are more cognizant about what is acceptable and unacceptable" - and about the need to implement new programs to address conflict and tension, says Steve Kaufer, co-founder of the Workplace Violence Research Institute in Palm Springs, Calif.

Compassion, confrontation

But experts also warn that programs can't take the place of basic human compassion - or of willingness to deal with tense situations. Companies have become more sensitive, in part, because of a growing recognition of related costs. Some estimates peg the cost of workplace violence - everything from shooting sprees to convenience-store hold-ups - at $28 billion per year in lost time and productivity, litigation, and added security.

Firms have added things like preemployment screening. This can include criminal-background probes, questions about gun ownership, drug-and-alcohol screening, even psychological tests.

These steps can be helpful. But they can be also be overdone, notes Richard Denenberg, codirector of Workplace Solutions, a consulting firm in Red Hook, N.Y. "In most cases, the person becomes violent because of something that happens at work. They weren't born that way."

Sensitivity training is also expanding. It aims to make employees respectful of differences between them - whether based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, or other factors. A Christian boss might not know, for instance, that the Ramadan season is a legitimate reason for a Muslim employee to request time off. These sessions have the potential to be very helpful, says Mr. Denenberg. But they can also put a damper of political correctness on the work atmosphere.

In the case of Mr. Williams, he was attending a required annual seminar at his Lockheed Martin aircraft-parts plant. After abruptly leaving the session Tuesday, he reportedly reappeared with a shotgun and a semiautomatic rifle. He then started firing at specific co-workers, including the plant manager. He later turned the gun on himself.

It's not clear what set him off, but several co-workers said they weren't surprised Williams would do such a thing. "When I first heard about it, he was the first thing that came to my mind," said Jim Payton, who is retired from the plant but worked with Williams for a year.

Williams reportedly made a number of threats over the years - including against African-Americans he worked with. Four of the five people killed were black. Williams was white. But authorities were downplaying race in their early investigations.

He also had tense relationships with his supervisors.

Acting on these signs of tension and conflict is key to preventing rampages, experts say.

Ordinary workers' role

Uninvolved co-workers often figure it's not their problem. But "bystander empowerment" can be crucial, says Denenberg. When someone makes a threat, co-workers should figure out ways to ask, "What do you mean by that?"

Supervisors can also be key to defusing conflict. They must watch for warning signs - including abrupt changes in behavior.

Giving an employee a few days off - but not in a punitive sense - can be helpful. "Most of the time, [workplace violence] is related to communications," says Mr. Kaufer. Taking time to address the breakdown can prevent it from deteriorating into something worse.

Associated Press reporting was used in this story.

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