How to Avoid a Workplace Tragedy

After an incident like the one last week in Illinois, where a former co-worker shot and killed four employees at a suburban Chicago engine plant, Cheryl Laudenbacher’s phone rings a bit more. On the other end of the line are representatives of local businesses asking Laudenbacher, a clinical educator at Moses Cone Hospital, if she can help them avoid a similar tragedy at their workplaces.

The answer, Laudenbacher says, is to create open lines of communication with all employees, to notice when an employee starts acting strangely and to address that behavior early.

Employees like William Baker, who killed four employees at an engine plant before shooting himself Feb. 5, and Michael McDermott, who shot seven co-workers in an attack at his Massachusetts computer company the day after Christmas, often show signs of distress, but managers and supervisors dismiss strange behaviors.

“Communication is a big problem for people,” said Laudenbacher, who trains hospital employees and employees of local businesses to deal with violent situations in the workplace. “We’re afraid that people are going to get angry, and that keeps people from intervening.”

With the national and state economies on the brink of recession and job layoffs forcing thousands of people into unemployment in North Carolina alone, employers must consider that their businesses will eventually begin to reflect society’s stress, Laudenbacher said.

“What we need to ask ourselves is, ‘Do we band together and help each other, or are we going to cut each other’s throats?’ “ she said. “How do companies really deal with people? The workplaces that do well are the places that look at the employee as a real person.”

North Carolina has not been spared the violence that recently shook Illinois and Massachusetts. On Oct. 7, 1999, Billy Jerome Elliot walked into Hancor Manufacturing Co. on U.S. 70 in Orange County and shot 36-year-old Darren Jerome Brantley twice with a sawed- off shotgun. In August, Elliot, 34, was sentenced to at least 23 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.

In 1999, 31 North Carolinians were murdered on the job, according to the N.C.

Department of Labor. In 1998, the last year for which national statistics are available, 709 people were murdered at work across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Violence in the workplace is often the result of anger in a worker’s personal life being acted on at work.

“When your employee drives to work every morning and turns off the car engine, they do not turn off their personal issues as well,” said Anthony Newkirk, program coordinator for the Workplace Solutions Employee Assistance Program at High Point Regional Health Systems. “These anger feelings show up in the workplace if they’re not dealt with.”

It isn’t a manager’s or supervisor’s job to diagnose and treat an employee whose behavior or work habits have changed, which may be the first sign of distress, Newkirk said. But employers should suggest to employees that they seek help before anger and resentment builds.

“When you notice a change in someone’s work performance, you need to address

that supportively,” Newkirk said. “When an employee acts out in a violent

way, from the outset, you need to document that and ask that employee, ‘What

can I do to assist you to help manage your anger better?’ “

Bill Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Charlotte, said a few widely publicized incidents at post offices across the country forced the Postal Service to take a lead in considering violence prevention in the workplace.

Brown said the Postal Service held its first symposium on workplace violence in 1993.

“Since then, the Postal Service has really developed as a leader in workplace violence intervention,” he said.

The bottom line, Brown said, is people skills.

“Communication really is the key to everything,” he said. “You’ve got to talk to your employees. We encourage our managers to spend as much time as they can one-on-one with employees.”

Contact Aulica Rutland at 373-7059 or