NEW YORK — Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Virginia Walmart was just the latest example of a workplace shooting committed by an employee.
But while many companies offer active shooting training, experts say there’s much less focus on preventing workplace violence, particularly identifying and addressing behaviors of concern among employees.
Far too often, employees don’t know how to recognize warning signs, and more importantly, they don’t know how to report suspicious behavior or feel empowered to do so, according to workplace safety and human resources experts.
“We’ve built an industry around shutting out the bad guys. We’ve invested heavily in physical security measures like metal detectors, cameras and armed guards,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in DePaul, Minnesota and co-founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan research group The Violence Project. All too often at workplace shootings, he would say, “This is someone who already has access to the building.”
The Walmart shooting in particular raised the question of whether employees feel empowered to speak out because it was a team leader who carried out the shooting.
Identified by Walmart as 31-year-old Andre Bing, he opened fire on colleagues in the break room of the Chesapeake store, killing six people and injuring six others. He then committed suicide, according to police.
Employee Briana Tyler, who survived the shooting, said Bing didn’t seem to be targeting anyone in particular. Tyler, who started at Walmart two months ago, said she never had a negative encounter with Bing, but others told her he was “the manager to watch out for.” She said Bing had a history of writing people up for no reason.
Walmart launched a computer-based active shooter training in 2015, which focused on three pillars: avoiding the danger, keeping your distance and finally defending. Then, in 2019, after a mass shooting at a store in El Paso, Texas in which an outside gunman killed 22 people, Walmart addressed the threat to the public by halting sales of certain types of ammunition and asked customers no longer openly carry firearms in its stores. It now only sells shotguns and related ammunition.
Walmart did not specifically respond to requests for more details on Wednesday about its training and protocols to protect its own employees. The company said only that it routinely reviews its training policies and will continue to do so.
Densley said employers should create open channels for employees to raise concerns about employee behavior, including confidential hotlines. He noted that too often attention is focused on the “red flags” and that employees should look for the “yellow flags” — subtle behavioral changes, such as increased anger or not showing up for work. Densley said managers should work with those individuals to give them advice and check in regularly.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s active-shooting manual states that personnel officers have a responsibility to “create a system for reporting signs of potentially violent behavior.” It also encourages employees to report behaviors such as increased absenteeism and repeated violations of company policies.
But many employers may not have such a prevention policy, says Liz Peterson, quality manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization of more than 300,000 HR professionals.
She noted that in a 2019 SHRM survey of its members, 55% of HR professionals said they did not know if their organization had policies to prevent workplace violence, and another 9% said they had no such programs . That’s in contrast to the 57% of HR managers who said they had received training on how to respond to violence.
A recent federal government report examining workplace violence over three decades found that workplace homicides have risen in recent years, though they are still down sharply from a peak in the mid-2000s. the nineties.
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of workplace homicides nationwide rose 11% from 409 to 454. That was still 58% down from a peak of 1,080 in 1994, according to the report released by the ministries in July of Labour, Justice and Public Health and Human Services. The report found that workplace homicide trends were broadly consistent with national homicide trends.
But the spike in mass public shootings in the country is raising employers’ awareness of the need to address workplace mental health and prevent violence — and of the liabilities employers could incur if they ignore warning signs, Peterson said .
In one high-profile example, the family of a victim filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Northern California Transportation Agency earlier this year alleging it failed to address the history of threatening behavior of an employee who shot and killed nine colleagues at a a light rail yard in San Jose in 2021.
The transportation agency released more than 200 pages of emails and other documents showing that the shooter, Samuel James Cassidy, had been the subject of four workplace conduct investigations, and an employee had expressed concerns that Cassidy was “going to the mail would go’. That phrase stems from one of the deadliest workplace shootings in U.S. history, when a postal worker shot and killed 14 workers in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1986.
“Violence at work is a situation you never think will happen to your organization until it happens, and unfortunately it is important to prepare for it as they are becoming more and more common,” said Peterson.