By Joel Lashley

During my years studying violence, I have interviewed survivors and witnesses of active shooter incidents.  As they related their terrifying memories, horrible injuries, and sometimes chilling perspectives, I was changed both professionally and personally.

In many cases, workers described a pattern of bullying behavior that they considered a contributor to the violent outcome. During one such interview, two of the coworkers of an active shooter related something to me I will never forget. They both repeated the same thing time and again, “I wasn’t surprised when he finally snapped,” and “I knew it was going to happen.”  They then described a pattern of abusive and bullying behavior by both coworkers and supervisors.

One of the witnesses had complained to senior management that the shooter/employee was being treated unfairly and even cruelly by his immediate supervisor. They even warned their bosses that he was going to kill himself or someone else. Finally, after what they described as a response of indifference, they braced for something terrible to happen.

On that fateful day when something did finally happen, the bullied employee wrote his name and the name if his victims into the pages of an infamous history of mass killers in modern America.  That said, I knew I only had the perspective of those two coworkers of the shooter.

When I first attended active shooter training in the 1990s, I asked the instructor during the post-class Q&A session, “What can be done to prevent these tragedies?”

He replied, “My own kids could be active shooters and I’d never know it.  There’s no way to prevent these things.”

The instructor was a police commander from a large city police department and experienced swat team leader with a long and distinguished career. Certainly, his opinion was a respected and educated one.  My later research would reveal that his reply was common wisdom in those early days.
Still, even at that time, I was shocked by his answer and I wasn’t convinced.  I knew the premise had to be wrong.  And by studying the very cases the instructor brought forward during the training, I discovered just how wrong he was.  There are ways to prevent some mass killings.

What we know about workplace active shooters is that most are men.  The vast majority have a personal history of traumatic events during childhood that involved physical and /or sexual abuse. Three out of four are blue collar workers. Over half have experienced a recent change in their job status: demoted, fired, or disciplined.   Nearly half were employed at the time of the shooting. Half were known to have made suicidal intentions known before the shooting, and nearly a third, made their intention known to someone beforehand. Whatever the case, in the mind of the workplace active shooter, they had been wronged or slighted by the place they worked or by the people who worked there.  Their perception may have validity, but in no case does that ever justify their actions.

Workplace bullying takes many forms: exclusion, projecting blame, stealing credit, failing to recognize, removing responsibly without cause, favoritism, ignoring, falsely accusing, and intentionally creating barriers to the employee’s success.  Identifying workplace bullying and the victims of it are vital to preventing workplace violence.   By paying attention to the emotional health of the people working for you and along side you, you can better support and protect them.

Keeping an eye on bullying behaviors in the workplace is at least as important as watching for signs of isolation and distress among employees.  Moreover, learning how to make workplaces that are incompatible with bullying behavior is essential to a company’s bottom line, its growth, and ultimately its safety. Creating these bully free environments requires training from experts and commitment from leadership.

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