Something Terrible Happened In Wakefield

On December 26th, seven employees working in a Wakefield office park showed up to work, just like the rest of us do everyday. They had plans for the day and plans for after work, just like the rest of us. They had issues in the office with co-workers and people outside the office, just like the rest of us. They had friends, family, loved ones, just like the rest of us. They had people who depended on them for physical, moral, financial and spiritual support, just like the rest of us. Only, they did not go home that night, or any night after December 26, unlike the rest of us. They were killed in the office, a co-worker stands accused and awaits his day in court. It is one of the more popular theories that the accused was enraged that his wages were about to be garnished because of a request from the IRS – a circumstance that none of the victims either initiated or could ignore. The news media labeled this another instance in the increasing occurrences of office rage, as opposed to road rage, home rage, spouse rage, or air travel rage, or any of the other “rages” we now associate with everyday life in this country. (Remember when rude and inappropriate behavior merely required the label “jerk”?) But having correctly labeled the occurrence, having uttered the correct words of shock and dismay, having reviewed our interview records to see if we ever interviewed the accused, having slowed down to view the “car wreck” on the highway, we have all sped up to continue our daily commute absorbed in our own lives. The grief counselors are all off at the most recent “rage” incident, the media is reporting on the latest “Storm Alert 2001” and experts agree that “closure” is assured, whatever “closure” is, until the next atrocity occurs. There has to be a better way, one would assume. Take action, implement solutions, buy hardware and upgrade software, call in the consultants and redouble our efforts. Leave no stone unturned in our collective efforts to eradicate this mindless violence from our lives. For the first few weeks after this tragedy every security expert, security service and product representative was on the phone and mailing brochures. “I am not trying to capitalize on this tragedy, but…” (Ever notice how the use of the word “but” indicates that everything said or written to the left of it was false?) This product will do a better job of screening candidates. That product will sound an alarm in the building. Another product will alert the local police. Still another product contains lifesaving trauma equipment, plasma optional. (For the busy executive on the go, see our Super Mini-911 Kit. As critical as copy toner, laser printer cartridges, and paper clips in today’s new world of business.) Does anybody have a product that will help to make all this make sense? I served in the United States Marine Corps as an Infantry Officer. The application and use of violence was our stock and trade. I lived on a base with 35,000 young men and women between the ages of 18-35, high school dropouts and college graduates, the wholesome and those previously in trouble with the law, the decent and those whose value system I found suspect. It was the collection point for the good and not so good of our society. We were armed to the teeth, and yet I sat in my company office in total peace and security, surrounded by young men who all were trained and skilled in the use of rifles, hand grenades, and any other portable weapon of destruction – many of whom did not particularly like me, many of whom I had punished within the legal parameters of my responsibility as company commander. The thought that I would come to a violent end at the hands of any of my fellow Marines (co-workers) was as alien to me as it should have been. As alien as it should be today. Yet, today, as I sit in my civilian office, pursuing peaceful business goals surrounded by college-educated young men and women, do I feel as secure? So we find ourselves asking the same set of questions we always have after an event like this:

  • How did this all come about and why do we seem to accept it?
  • How did we let ourselves get to a point in our culture when there no longer appears to be limitations on the expression of negative and violent behavior?
  • Who is at fault? (Solving a problem seems to shrink in comparison to our efforts to find someone to blame.)
  • Why hasn’t anybody done anything to fix this problem?
  • Why didn’t somebody know about this possibility?

However, we always seem to leave off the single most important question:

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  • Do we care enough about this problem to actually do something about it other than having “cocktail party” and “water cooler” topics of conversation?

In the times before the present, we saw money as the most valuable tool we had to fix and improve life, and we threw a lot of money at issues. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In this new age, time is the commodity we all seem to value above all else, and the thing we are least likely to donate to an issue that may or may not occur. After all, “It’s not like we are Wakefield.” Then again, neither were they, until December 26th. In our lives and in business, we have become conditioned to expend time and resources most lavishly on those issues we can see or predict. A good analogy is predicting an approaching hurricane. They are powerful and frightening in their destructive power. They are huge storm systems that need weeks to gather and form, and even more time to travel to a location where they can cause havoc and destruction. But in this day and age of planes, trains and cars, they can be easily outrun, and with proper weather warning the chances of getting surprised are few. Given sufficient warning, time, common sense, and preplanning, all but the most extreme of instances can be survived with little or no damage. But this analogy holds little in common with the issues of workplace violence. Workplace violence seems to more resemble the hurricane’s feared cousin, the tornado. Extremely violent, fast-moving, and giving little warning of it’s approach, the tornado seems to frighten us more than any other weather phenomenon. It’s apparent randomness and unpredictability creates a more fatalistic mind set in preparing to deal with the threat. The fact that the ability of the weather service to predict these violent events is stymied by the lack of knowledge needed to created tools that can accurately forecast and predict when the next cyclonic disaster will strike further reinforces a sense of helplessness and frustration. So we apply ourselves to those issues we can see and deal with, until the next tornado strikes. So in my mind, the first issue with which we must come to terms is the suddenness and unexpected qualities of violence in the workplace. In the Midwest, you always keep an eye open for “the clouds” and an ear primed for “the sound” of an approaching tornado, knowing that at the moment of realization, you only have a few scant minutes to put a planned response into effect, with little or no time to get people’s attention. But this is a trait, an awareness, and an ongoing concern because people have recognized the potential danger that exists, and have assigned the resources, money and time, to prepare for it in the fervent hopes that it never need to be utilized. The only way to be truly prepared is through training, routine practice, recognition – and upgrading performance and preparedness as experience makes you wiser. But most companies have more people assigned to planning the next holiday party than they do staff trained in the prevention, prediction, and appropriate emergency reactions to a sudden and violent outbreak in the workplace. Can your hiring managers approach a distressed or unbalanced employee in the course of a normal work day and identify a potential issue without offending that employee? If they do, do they know who to go to and what to tell them. Does the person they are going to have the training and access to the needed resources to help the employee. More to the point, does that person have the training, knowledge and support of the company to send the disturbed employee home quickly with little or no delay, or if deemed necessary, evacuate the building? (We either take this seriously, or why bother.) Every building has rules and signs governing and advising the procedures to insure the timely exit from that building in the event of a fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster. But what about unnatural ones?

  • What is your company’s current policy and procedure in the event an employee comes to work with a suspicious package?
  • Who has the responsibility to report such an event?
  • Who is responsible for reacting?
  • Before confronting the employee, what would be the prudent action?
  • Is anyone trained to know the answer?
  • Is the “payroll” department required to inform “Human Resources” of any requests for legal garnishment of employee wages before advising the employee or taking the requested action?
  • Are managers required to report sudden or extreme behavioral changes or work attitude changes on the part of an employee?
  • Are managers advised of their responsibility to support the companies efforts to create a safe and zero tolerance for violence, verbal and physical? (I am often amazed by our willingness to let people aspire to greater levels of violence before reacting, rather than intervene at the first sign of potential hazard.)

The warning signs are not always clear, but if we are not even looking, or trained to look, we have no hope of predicting and weathering the next storm. When I suspect a storm, I warn my neighbor. I risk embarrassment rather than risk failing to support a friend in possible need by pretending that I do not see them. Managers need training in behavioral observation techniques and be further counseled in those resources available to them and their employees to assist in resolving non-traditional work related stresses and issues. Does your company offer, as part of an Employee Assistance Program, credit counseling, marriage counseling, or other support for employees experiencing need in other areas of distress in this complex world? Are your front line managers aware enough to know what is available, how to observe who may need it, and trained in the sensitivity needed to direct the person to a trained professional without embarrassing, alienating, or angering a suspected potential “tornado?” Every now and then, the weather service makes an error in judgment and the “Storm of the Century” turns out to be only a “Flurry with an Attitude.” We of course take this opportunity to point fingers and blame the weather forecasters for scaring us and ruining our weekends. But I would prefer to have the weather forecaster err on the side of panic as opposed to predicting sunshine one hour before the blizzard strikes. Companies also need to send a message of being willing to sustain errors on the side of safety, rather than risk acts of violence resulting from the failure of people to report and react to suspicious behavior. We need to empower employees to report suspicious actions without fear of company or punitive recourse. We need to write the policies and pay the increased premiums for the added liability insurance needed to protect us from defamation and character assassination lawsuits. (After all, we all want to be protected, but not inconvenienced by that protection.) But it must be seen as the new cost of doing business and it is also the new cost of saving lives. Your employees must “get the message,” that in matters of reporting suspected situations that may represent potential or immediate violence, you would rather apologize than eulogize. In am certain that the industry experts will have answers and solutions to all the situations and problems I have discussed. However, we always seem more willing to acquire information than we are to implement it in a timely and meaningful fashion. That requires commitment. The eagerness and concern over an issues diminishes in direct proportion to the commitment we have to make to it beyond merely voting “Yea” or “Nay” at the budget meeting and the most recent occurrence. We have to commit to the concept that insuring the safety of our employees – not to mention ourselves – is a goal as worthy of consideration as what color the new Marketing Brochures should be. After all, the brochure goes no where without a healthy employee to hand them out. We have to accept that this is a threat not just to, “…certain types of companies with certain types of employees!” Do you hire human beings? Then you are at risk! We have to be willing not to lose interest if in a few weeks, or months, we see no “thunderstorms” on the horizon immediately. We must accept that although the time and place of the next act of mindless violence cannot be predicted, it is inevitable and like the tornado, it will be blind and uncaring about who it strikes and how unfair it was to strike. However, who is responsible for making the unpopular demands, recommendations, and dire predictions of the future due to corporate or executive failure to react appropriately to this new work crisis? Well, if Human Resources is not willing to take up the challenge and champion the cause of protecting those in our care, nobody will. Nobody – and we are then doomed to witnessing another “Special Report” consisting of SWAT teams and ambulances. Alternatively, maybe next time you will not be in the audience, but the one of the actors in this sad drama. I have been trying to write this particular article for months. I feel conflicted because I certainly do not mean or intend to sound like a “know-it-all” or a “Monday morning quarterback.” It is not my intention to hint or suggest that past instances are the “fault” of a person or persons who did not prepare properly. On the contrary, I find what happened in Wakefield on December 26 is the event that awoke me from the deep sleep of lethargy and apathy. It is what finally shook me up enough to become an advocate and not just a conversationalist. I mean, if we are concerned with staffing and turnover, isn’t this our issue? What finally got me going was recalling an incident from my “young manhood” that triggered a flood of long forgotten fears of a bad afternoon in Pensacola. Earlier on this particular day I was riding my motorcycle in the Panhandle area of Florida. It was one of those warm, sunny, glorious late mornings in spring. Just a glorious day to be alive, on your own free time, riding a new KZ1000. Life is good. I returned to the base resigned to having a late afternoon flight that interrupted a pleasant afternoon of biking. About 4:00 PM, the klaxons and alarms sounded all over the base and the word went out to launch all aircraft. All non-essential personnel were ordered to head for shelter. Emergency personnel were ordered to stand by for possible medical emergencies, loss of power, falling trees/towers/masts and other storm damage and fuel fires. A tornado had “landed” four miles north of the base and was headed south, fast, destroying everything in it’s path for 500 yards either side of the funnel. I played out my role in the organized bedlam around me and was part of a mass exodus of aircraft to the nearest base out of the path of the tornado. As I gained altitude, I looked north and for the first time saw the black ominous clouds and near midnight darkness under them. The funnel cloud was like a horror movie version of evil, partially obscured in the darkness, but you could see the destruction and devastation all around it. I remember thinking, “Who would have though something like this could happen on a day that started out so beautiful.” Then I thought, “Thank God somebody was paying attention.” Is somebody paying attention where you work? <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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1 Comment on “Something Terrible Happened In Wakefield

  1. Something Terrible…is one excellent article about workplace violence. Yet I fear it will not rally us to action.

    IMHO Corporate America (and implicitly we its shareholders) ultimately view human capital as expendable resource with life preservation subordinate to profit.

    Somehow our numbness comes from a misperception of ‘the greater good’ – plus plain old denial.

    Even the local safe school program fails to get sufficient involvement of parents who have far more at stake with their children than they do as shareholders.

    Action at the corporate level seems beyond our attention span.

    I’m very sad the American violence curse will remain a ‘water cooler’ issue except among SWAT trainers.

    Thus far our most appropriate societal action plan is to drill the SWAT team at rapid execution of an ‘active shooter’ before he kills more co-workers or classmates.

    The extreme sadness of our situation is somehow obscured under American pioneering tenents of individualism, free expression and our increasingly suicidal right to bear arms.

    Alan Philpot
    Scarsdale, NY

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