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Must we add ‘active shooter’ protocol to the holiday party checklist?

December 3rd, 2015  |  Joy Waltemath

As details emerge about the San Bernardino shooting December 2, 2015, including media reports that one of the suspected shooters worked as a health inspector for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which was hosting the holiday party where the carnage occurred, employment lawyers and others react in horror.

Does “active shooter planning” now rise to the top of every holiday party top-10 employment issues list, coming alphabetically just before “alcohol consumption?”

Information about the San Bernardino shooters’ motives is thin thus far, notwithstanding the enormous efforts of law enforcement to contain the violence, track the shooters, and secure the site. Given the unusual profile of the husband-and-wife shooters and their significant cache of weapons, we are all still asking: Is it terrorism? Domestic terrorism? A disgruntled worker? All—or none—of the above?

No matter the cause, the effect was workplace violence. Whatever is ultimately uncovered—if and when it is—this horrible incident did in fact play out in the workplace, and one of the individuals identified as being an active shooter worked for the county health department that was holding the party.

So what’s an employer to do?

Policy. Years ago, employers were encouraged to draft “zero tolerance” for violence policies as part of the workplace violence avoidance strategy. As implemented in schools, there is some research suggesting zero tolerance policies are ineffective in making schools more orderly or more safe. Yet it is incumbent on employers nonetheless to have a workplace violence policy—and an emergency action plan.

Still, how effective is any “policy” in the face of such apparent anger?

Warning signs. Similarly, employers were urged to train management to recognize the warning signs of an individual likely to commit workplace violence: controlling, paranoid, unable to get along with others, angry, vindictive, obsessed with power, litigious, having a victim mentality, lacking social skills.

It appears to be unknown to the public whether the shooter here manifested any of these warning signs. Nor did he appear to be on the radar of the FBI, for that matter.

Emotional health training. Commenting today on LinkedIn, Cindy Federico of Fisher & Phillips sums up employers’ feeling of impotence when she talks about addressing the root cause of this violence. She writes “anger is always a common thread when it comes to coworker violence.  Employers are baffled at what to do next to prevent violence at workplaces.  We’ve installed security cameras and extra locks; we’ve hired guards; we’ve established emergency protocols and procedures.  None of these efforts attacks the root cause of the angry employee or customer.” She recommends, as a start, mandatory training on emotional health in the workplace.

Active shooter response. John Hyman, in his Ohio Employer’s Blog, and Michael Haberman, writing for the SHRM blog, take a different approach: Both provide practical pointers in how to deal with active shooter situations. Their tips suggest adding “active shooter” planning to the workplace Emergency Action Plan, even practicing how to respond, much like we practice fire or weather emergency drills.

None of these approaches alone, however, is enough. Each will fail in some respect. But what we can’t do, regardless of our politics or our perspectives, is to reject categorically any approach without a good-faith effort to understand its strengths and limitations. Demagoguery such as that evidenced after the San Bernardino shootings—pitting sincere calls for action against sincere calls for prayer, as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive—is simply unacceptable.

Own it. These are our workplaces. These are our people. Pay attention—real attention—to this very real threat, and pay attention—real attention—to each other. Make the workplace more secure. Make the workplace more human. You. Do it now. We’ve already run out of time.