Another day, another tragedy. This time at a UPS service center in Birmingham. A 23-year employee who was recently fired came back into the workplace Tuesday, September 23, and killed two supervisors and himself; and now three families’ lives are changed forever.
It is difficult to say at this point if something could have been done to prevent this horror from occurring. Time and time again we witness someone who has made the decision that life is not worth living when they lose their livelihood, and they don’t seem to be able to see beyond that event. They fixate on the supervisor as being the cause of their problems and decide that ending that person or those persons’ lives is justified. And in the vast majority of these cases, they take their own life as well.
In recent years, we have taken a more active role in preparing workplaces for active shooter events. Through policies, training, and greater awareness, most workplaces are better prepared than in the past. What is lacking, however, is focus on prevention. We have to do more to recognize employees in crisis. In years of studying these cases, several commonalties stand out. An individual seems to withdraw from those around him right before he acts. In one case, a coworker described the perpetrator as “divorcing himself from the workplace.” He has reached a decision and now appears to remove himself from humanity before taking lives. This person may have a more resolute attitude right before the violent event. He or she has turned a corner. In many cases, their appearance may reflect this. Someone who has always taken pride in their appearance suddenly appears disheveled, dirty, and unkempt. Often, there is leakage about their intentions through outright or veiled threats. And in many cases, there is a triggering event right before the violence, such as divorce, a restraining order, a disciplinary action, or dismissal.
Another factor that must be reviewed is how dismissals are handled. If possible, employers should streamline the process leading up to the termination. Drawing it out, giving the person time to stew seems to be an aggravating element. Handling the unpleasant event quickly, with as much dignity and respect as possible is more favorable. Once the employee is terminated, he or she must be escorted off property and not allowed to return – period, every time. In the 2010 Omar Thornton case in Connecticut, he was allowed to gather belongings from his locker before exiting the company property. It was there that he retrieved his gun and went on a killing spree that would leave 9 dead, including the killer.
Active shooter policies, procedures, and training are an absolute necessity in the modern workplace. But until we do a better job of identifying and addressing pre-incident indicators, we can only react when violence erupts. Assessing and evaluating workplaces, disciplinary actions and dismissals is critical. We must anticipate rather than just react.