by Debra Mares
Tragedies try to harden us. But the worst tragedy of all is when they succeed. Like the rest of the world, I am deeply saddened by yesterday's massacre at the San Bernardino County Health Department's holiday party taking place at the Inland Regional Center. My sadness runs deep because of the magnitude of this shooting and the innocence and vulnerability of the victims, who dedicate their careers to social good and public health. It is the worst since Sandy Hook and worst in our Inland Empire region, where I work.
Massacres in the Past
Massacres like this are reminiscent of other mass shootings like the Batman Movie Massacre and Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre. They are reminiscent of workplace shootings like the 2010 shooting where John Gillane, a 45 year-old, began shooting at his Walmart Co-Workers; or the 2010 shooting by Clay Duke, a 56 year-old who began shooting at a school board meeting where his wife had previously been employed; or the 2010 shooting at Ohio State University in Columbus by 50 year-old Nathaniel Brown who had just been fired for allegedly lying on his job application. I can go on, but the point being they spark debates over gun control, workplace safety, mass shootings and domestic terrorism. They move us to push for answers, seek justice, demand social change and debate the "new normal." But at the end of the day, blame properly lies with one person - the Massacreist him or herself.
The San Bernardino Massacre
Yesterday, one of the active shooters, allegedly 28 year-old Syed Farook, a health inspector, left his work holiday party "acting nervous" after getting into an argument according to news sources, and is reported to have returned with 1-2 armed companions, dressed in assault-style clothing with assault rifles 20 minutes later, murdering 14 people and wounding 17. Farook and his wife, 27 year-old Tashfeen Malik, who had dropped their 6-month old daughter off with relatives earlier the same morning, were shot and killed during a shootout with police hours later. The motives are still being investigated.
Understanding Workplace Violence
Many are spending time wondering how we could have seen this coming or prevented it. The truth is it's often difficult to see, because workplace shooters may not really seem the violent type. They may however, have a long history of externalizing anger throughout their life. It is the way the murderer perceived the triggering event that produces their violent reaction. The active workplace shooter often sees setbacks as everyone else’s fault, not their own. They blame coworkers, bosses and the company for their aggression. They may believe others are out to get them, even when this is untrue. They externalize their anger for so long that no one even notices, until the day they explode. Sometimes a look into the murderer’s past will reveal a time they were quick to anger when something went wrong and ended up screaming and yelling.
Every violent workplace act cannot be prevented; afterall, there are so many employees. However, it's important to understand that workplace violence is not as rare as one would hope. There are an average of 68 work-related homicides in the United States per year. There were 281 active shooter incidents between 1966-2010 (237 in the U.S.). Most involve single shooters and 96% were male. Active shooters can be driven by vengeance, world order change, materialism and/or religious salvation. Mass shooters disvalue human life and can become desensitized to violence through media, video games, movies, personal experiences, or beliefs and ideology.
Reducing Risk of Workplace Violence
There are ways organizations can reduce the risk, like identifying internal and external factors. Some experts encourage companies to assume they have a ticking time bomb within the company and consider ways to keep the workplace cooler. It’s still okay to discipline employees and impose consequences, but employers are encouraged to be aware of environments causing a lot of unnecessary stress. You may recall where the phrase “going Postal” came from in the ‘90s, where the post office had a bureaucracy that it made the workplace stressful for many employees. This reminds employers to refrain from setting unusual policies or procedures that lead to stress.
Organizations can take a good look at the company’s practices and culture, look for egregious mistreatment of employees and eliminate or reduce unnecessary stressors. Companies are encouraged to implement a plan or an escape route for their employees for the rare chance that workplace shootings do occur. As the San Bernardino Massacre reminds us, all organizations are at-risk, including state and local government workplaces. Public agencies work directly with the public, have a mobile workplace, work with unstable and violent persons, work in high crime areas, guard valuable goods or property, and work in community based settings.
Avoiding the Blame Game
Becoming educated can help us reduce the risk of these shootings, such as by reading reports like the FBI’s report, reports on knowing how to report suspicious activity, or the U.S. Homeland Security's Report. Remember there are many organizations that offer advice on workplace productivity, motivation, leadership, engagement and safety, such as U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Report anything suspicious to your employer and local law enforcement agency; if it's an emergency, call 911. Law enforcement will determine the importance or danger of any information you provide.
Lastly, let’s remember why these massacreists are called “active shooters.” It implies that unarmed citizens and law enforcement make selfless and deeply personal choices to face their danger and disrupt them. Let’s never forget our victims and the citizens and police who saved the lives of others present.