Grisly beheading at U.S. workplace shows risk of disgruntled employees

Risk assessment key to prevention of violent incidents: CCOHS

The man accused of beheading a co-worker in Oklahoma after being suspended is now facing murder charges — shedding light on the volatility and unpredictability of disgruntled employees.

Alton Nolen, an employee at Vaughn Foods in Moore, Okla., could be up against the death penalty after he attacked and beheaded a 54-year-old female co-worker and attempted to kill another 43-year-old woman, whom he believed to be responsible for his suspension.

Nolen, who is black, reportedly made remarks to the affect that he did not like white people. The issue was brought to the HR department, who suspended Nolan. He returned shortly afterward with a knife and attacked the two women he believed to be responsible. Nolan was then shot by police and transported to a hospital.

There is no denying the horrific incident has had a sobering effect on the implications of workplace violence.

The case echoes that of one closer to home, particularly at the Toronto-based human resources and payroll firm Ceridian, where four employees were stabbed by one of their former co-workers earlier this year.

Though these occurrences are few and far between, the results are so jarring that it would serve a company well to have preventative and recovery measures in place, as the unpredictability of human nature is just that — unpredictable. That said, there are certain steps and precautions human resources and management can take to help mitigate the possibility for risk.

"These events are stark reminders of what can happen in a termination gone bad, they are extremely rare, particularly in Canada," said Stuart Rudner, partner at Rudner MacDonald LLP, an employment law firm headquartered in Toronto.

In his experience, Rudner said timing can be everything.

"Carrying out the dismissal in a manner that is likely to embarrass or humiliate the employee is not only inappropriate, it can result in additional liability. For that reason, we usually recommend that any dismissal take place at a time and place where it is unlikely that the individual’s colleagues will be around. The last thing you want to do is force the employee to go through the walk of shame," Rudner explained.

According to Emma Nicolson, an occupational health and safety specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) in Hamilton, a good policy starts with the definition of trigger behaviours to watch out for.

"One of the biggest benefits of having a workplace violence prevention program is that it provides the framework for a very organized approach to prevention and response should an incident occur," she said, adding that, "It can also serve as the foundation to shift the corporate culture to one of mutual respect and civility."

Other recommendations for proper handling of dismissals from CCOHS include pre-planning the termination meeting itself, including role-playing or bringing in an experienced outplacement consultant. It is important to ask and answer: Who will conduct the interview? How to call security, if needed? How will the departing employee retrieve their personal items?

As well, arranging the meeting room so that the employer is closest to the door will ensure a speedy and accessible escape route, should the need arise, Nicolson added. The less said, the better, as staying on point, as briefly as possible, will stem rising tensions. Finally, listening for fall-out and taking threats seriously is tantamount to a safe situation.

"You must remember that it can be very difficult to know when a person is going to be violent," she said. "While not all people will show the following signs, these types of behaviours and physical signs can serve as warning signs that a situation could turn violent. Always take these behaviours in context. Each situation is unique and professional judgment or outside assistance may be necessary to determine if intervention is necessary."

Nicolson pointed to a sudden change in behaviour that is typical for that employee and the frequency and intensity of behaviour that is disruptive to the work environment.

Going too far, however, can also backfire during the discipline or termination of an employee, and perhaps in light of the violent incidents that have come into the limelight of late, an employer might be in danger of over-preparing.

"Obviously, in the course of dismissal, it is important that the message be delivered in a respectful manner. Employers must balance the need to provide a respectful, supportive environment for the dismissed employee with the need to avoid humiliating them," Rudner explained. "Calling in several police officers and a grief counsellor for the dismissal of an employee that has never given you any reason to think they might react poorly to the news is entirely unnecessary and could be seen as demeaning to the employee."

And what about the aftermath? For staffers at Ceridian and Vaughn Foods, sooner or later, it will be business as usual — getting there, however, is not always easy.

"If there is an incident, the employer should provide appropriate counselling in order to help them deal with what has taken place," Rudner said. "This is not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense, since distraught employees will not perform well."

Body language says it all

According to Lauren Chesney, an HR professional based in Boston who used to work for Canadian HR Reporter, there are certain warning signs that serve as red flags indicating whether a termination or disciplinary meeting may pose a risk. Herewith, some signs to look out for. Warning signs are signals that may be an indication of the employee’s increasing arousal and possibility of violent behaviour include:

  • direct, prolonged eye contact (staring)
  • facial colour darkens
  • head is back
  • standing tall to maximize height
  • kicking the ground
  • large or expansive movements close to the person
  • abruptly starting or stopping some form of behaviour
  • resorting to personal identification where he perceives a particular individual is the problem and direct his aggression towards her.

Danger signs are those that indicate violent behaviour is imminent and include:

  • fists clenching and unclenching
  • complexion pales
  • lips tightening over teeth
  • head dropping forward to protect the throat
  • eyebrows dropping forward to protect eyes
  • hands rising above waist
  • shoulders tense
  • adopting a sideways stance
  • breaking a stare and looking at an intended body target
  • if out of reach, lowering of entire body before attack.

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