A termination meeting, gunshots and carnage – workplace nightmare

 “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 it 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.

I’m a news junkie, but I was a little unplugged from the 24-hour news cycle as we celebrated the long Family Day weekend in Montreal. But messages came through my phone from colleagues and LinkedIn connections asking if I saw the news that the shooting at Henry Pratt unfolded during a termination meeting.

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 some 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 while being let go and stabbed and injured four of his co-workers. It was shocking, and the team at Canadian HR Reporter provided in-depth coverage.

We asked the experts – what can HR do to prevent these incidents? A quick run down:

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, told Canadian HR Reporter you should look at where it is located, the layout of the room and the seating arrangements.

“Are there any objects in the room that could be used to hurt someone?” he said. “We wouldn’t necessarily think about it, but we have things on our desks that could be, in the wrong person’s hands, used as a weapon against us.”

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

Lauren Chesney, a human resources professional and former Canadian HR Reporterstaffer, wrote an excellent guest commentary titled “Consider your safety in terminations.” It’s worth a refresher.

“The most dangerous thing you can do, in planning a termination, is to underestimate the possibility of a violent incident occurring,” she wrote. “Is it statistically unlikely? Sure. But it only has to happen once.”

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. Three people were killed in the meeting room, and two more in the office right outside, according to Reuters.

Martin, from published reports, was in the final stage of progressive discipline. So he likely knew what was coming. And it’s what we expect of employers — to work through the different stages with employees who are struggling and offer corrective coaching along the way. 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 – killed during his first day of his placement

• Vicente Juarez, 54, a forklift operator

• Russell Beyer, 47, the plant’s union chair.

We wish we had better advice for HR departments searching for answers. We wish we could publish a checklist to help prevent this type of tragedy.

But 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 — and if we’ve learned anything from mass shootings, that is the elephant in the room few people have an appetite to address in a meaningful manner.

Here’s what I can say. Nobody, sitting in the office and simply trying to do his job, should ever have to type the words that Pinkard struggled to send to the love of his life while he lay dying.

 “I love you, I’ve been shot at work.”

This article was originally published by Thomson Reuters in February 2019. Reprinted with permission.