Employees can be the first line of defense against workplace violence but only if they know what to look for and what to do about it.

On February 15 an employee at an Aurora, Illinois manufacturing plant walked into work believing he was going to be fired that day.  Those of us in the Chicagoland area know what happened after that–he shot and killed his manager and the human resources manager who tried to give him the bad news.  He then went on to kill three more co-workers before police shot and killed him.

A report released last week provided another chilling detail of that day:  the killer told a co-worker that morning what he planned to do, saying that if he was fired he planned to kill “everything motherfuc**** in here” and “blow police up.”    The co-worker, however, did nothing in response.  He told no one.  Instead, he told investigators after the fact that he thought the statement was just another one of the employee’s “off the wall” comments.

Had this employee reported the threat five people would likely still be alive.

Last Thursday, Julie Trester and I spoke to a great group of Human Resources professionals about workplace violence.  And what we learned during that interactive talk is that most employees who commit workplace violence tell someone about their plans beforehand.  Experts refer to as “leakage.”  Unfortunately, in many circumstances, the person on the receiving end of the leakage, like the co-worker in the Aurora situation, do nothing about it–either out of fear for themselves or, like the employee above, out of a belief that employee is not being serious.

As we also learned last week, the vast majority of employers do not have workplace violence policies so employees likely don’t know what to do if they suspect one of their co-workers might be dangerous.  Employers need to make it crystal clear to their employees what to do if they receive any information which could even suggest a violent incident.  They also need to assure employees that the report will be kept confidential, especially from the potentially dangerous employee.  And employees need to know that normal co-workers do not make comments like the Aurora shooter did. That is not normal workplace banter or the venting of frustrations.  If you are an employee and you hear information like this do better than the Aurora co-worker did:  go straight to your boss, your human resources department or the police.  In a case like this, erring on the side of caution is so much better than the alternative.