That must have been an effective seminar

Workplace violence is a depressingly common occurrence. Most of it is small stuff, but occasionally something so large happens that it makes national news. Such a thing happened this week. An employee at an aircraft plant stormed out of an ethics and sensitivity seminar, shouted “Y’all can handle this!” and returned minutes later with both a rifle and a shotgun. He killed 5 people and injured 9 others before taking his own life. Nobody yet knows why.

This was apparently not the first time Mr. Williams had such counseling. He was said to be a hothead who had problems with black people. The union steward for the plant says there have been many “concerns” expressed by his coworkers over the years. Afterwards, none of his coworkers were surprised who the shooter had been. One victim’s husband had heard her concerns that he would hurt someone several times over the years. He described Williams as “obviously sick.”

Security expert Gavin de Becker, in his landmark book The Gift of Fear, tells us that normal, sane people do not lash out in violence unless pushed to the point that violence seems the only logical choice. Williams was by all accounts not a normal, sane person. De Becker furthermore posits that the vast majority of workplace violence can be prevented by adequate employee screening. In short, if you pay attention during the hiring process — check references, note reactions to questions — you can weed out the people most likely to become violent in your workplace. If this is not a laudable goal, then I don’t know what is.

Williams’s bosses put up with behavior that caused his coworkers to worry for a decade and a half. This surely impacted the workplace, possibly drove away really good people who went on to jobs where they did not have to deal with this nut. And this was before he killed, wounded, and gave post-traumatic stress syndrome to his coworkers. I am willing to bet he wasn’t very productive either.

If you are in charge of hiring, you cannot afford not to pay attention.