A termination, with gunshots

Workplace violence a nightmare scenario for HR

"I love you. I’ve been shot at work.”

Those were the last words of Josh Pinkard, the plant manager at Henry Pratt in Aurora, Ill., who was gunned down by an employee who had just been fired from his job. They came via a text message to his wife, Terra.

Pinkard was one of five people killed during a rampage by Gary Martin at the factory during and after a termination meeting with HR on Feb. 15.

Workplace shootings in the United States have lost their ability to shock. They’re depressingly commonplace. There are too many to list in any sort of workable format. I Googled the topic and instantly found a headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from Sept. 20, 2018, with the headline “There have been 3 workplace shootings in 24 hours.”

Canada is not immune. In 2014, an employee at Western Forest Products killed two co-workers and wounded two others. In 1999, a former OC Transpo worker shot six people, killing four, at a garage at the Ottawa transit authority.

For HR, that is the nightmare scenario. HR professionals know all too well the gamut of emotions that run through a termination meeting. Work, after all, is a defining characteristic in our lives.

Losing it can be shocking — the feelings of rejection, the questioning of your self-worth and the financial uncertainty all wash over you at the same time.

Some people are genuinely relieved. Some are even happy. Many are shocked. Most are upset. Some cry, some rationalize. And yes, some lash out — usually with words, rarely with fists or weapons.

There are best practices in conducting termination meetings, and it’s hard to poke holes in what the team at Henry Pratt did from what has been revealed so far.

Back in 2014, the unthinkable happened during a termination meeting at Ceridian’s offices in Toronto. Chuang Li grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed and injured four of his co-workers.

At that time, we asked the experts — what can HR do to prevent these incidents? A quick rundown:

Watch for warning signs: Any abnormal behaviour in an employee, such as changes in work performance or personality. Moodiness, defensiveness, punctuality issues, inconsistency, an uptick in customer complaints were among the list.

Conduct a violence risk screening: If the above behaviours are present, then gather HR and the person’s direct supervisor to discuss the situation.

“What is the level of this abnormal or aberrant behaviour?” David Hyde, a security consultant and threat and risk assessor, told Canadian HR Reporter.

“How concerning is it? How out of character is it? Are there other catalysts in this person’s life that we’re aware of?”

If the answer is yes, then a referral to an employee assistance program (EAP) should be considered. And if the threat of violence seems real, then perhaps law enforcement should be consulted.

Pay attention to the room: The location where the termination takes place matters. David Griffin, a former cop, said you should examine location, and the layout of the room and seating.

“Are there any objects in the room that could be used to hurt someone?” he said.

There should be a phone in the room, perhaps even a panic button, and the door should not have a lock on it.

But can any planning account for a disgruntled employee with a gun? In addition to killing five employees, Martin also didn’t hesitate to shoot and injure five police officers.

In that scenario, with a man hell-bent on devastation and undeterred by police presence, would having a cop in the room have made a difference?

You simply can’t have armed guards at every termination meeting.

I’m connecting some dots that aren’t clear yet from the facts — but the list of victims sounds like everyone you would want and expect in the termination room. An HR professional. The union rep. The plant manager. An HR intern — on the first day of his placement.

Martin, from published reports, was in the final stage of progressive discipline. So he likely knew what was coming.

While we don’t know the facts of his case, the point is that — on the surface — it looks like the company was trying to handle a difficult situation in the appropriate manner.

Let’s remember the victims here: Josh Pinkard, 37, the plant manager; Clayton Parks, 32, the HR manager; Trevor Wehner, 21, an HR intern and Northern Illinois University senior; Vicente Juarez, 54, a forklift operator; and Russell Beyer, 47, the plant’s union chair.

How do you stop a man with a gun who is determined to shoot and kill? I don’t have the answers, short of stricter gun control.

Here’s what I can say: Nobody should ever have to type the words that Pinkard struggled to send to the love of his life while he lay dying.

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