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Recent shooting sprees raise awareness among employers

If any good news can be gleaned from a recent spate of mass shootings in the United States, it’s that these horrific incidents tend to raise awareness and spur employers to find new and better ways to improve the safety and security of their workplaces.

“It’s terrible that these things keep occurring, but the good news is that people are responding by actively seeking information and methods to make their places of business safer and less vulnerable to someone who intends to inflict damage to people and property,” said Brent O’Bryan, SPHR, VP learning and development for AlliedBarton Security Services.

A video produced by the city of Houston and released just days after the July 20, 2012, movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., appears to emphasize O’Bryan’s point. The six-minute video, titled “Run, Hide, Fight,” went viral and has been viewed more than a half-million times on YouTube. The video was produced by the Houston Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security and provides a graphic depiction of how to react if someone begins shooting in an office or public place.

O’Bryan and others experts interviewed for this article agreed that the video does a good job outlining what to do when “an active shooter” enters a place of business. Some people who have seen the video questioned the recommendation to fight back against an assailant. O’Bryan said that fighting back should always be an option but as a last resort.

“This really is nothing new in this type of video. I think how it’s presented in the video is a bit more graphic and realistic than other similar videos,” he said. “But the message is fairly well done and clearly shows that you should fight back only after all your other options have been exhausted.”

The real danger and possible misinformation of videos like the one produced by the Houston mayor’s office isn’t the message of trying to fight back, but instead when such videos are used to convey an alarmist tone.

“The Houston video doesn’t do this, but there are others like it that do,” said Larry Barton, a consultant who specializes in crisis management and prevention of workplace violence. “Alarmist attitudes can present some major challenges to employers and HR professionals.”

Alarmist tones often promote paranoia, which can lead to business owners and HR professionals being overwhelmed by workers who overreact and see threats around every corner.

“I’ve seen it happen, and employees will report every minor incident and blow everything out of proportion,” he said. “Then it becomes HR’s duty to respond to these reports, and that often becomes overwhelming.”

Barton recommended that employers have a risk analysis plan in place and have staff members trained to analyze and determine if an imminent security or safety risk exists. Most large employers have the resources and personnel to have a risk analysis team. However Barton acknowledged that small to medium-sized companies usually don’t have the resources or staff to dedicate to risk analysis.

“But any employer can have people trained on how to analyze and determine the seriousness of security risks,” said Barton, who provides security training for the FBI. “There are security experts all over the country who offer this kind of training and seminars on the topic. It’s typically a half or full day of training, so the time investment is well worth it.”

In addition, Barton recommended educating employees about how to report safety and security concerns and how to recognize warning signs that a co-worker might present a threat to others.

“Education and awareness of these issues can help defuse threatening situations and make your workplace a much safer and secure environment,” he said.

While the information presented in the Houston video is good and well done, watching the video shouldn’t suffice as a complete training course in preventing workplace violence, according to W. Barry Nixon, SPHR, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence. Nixon said that the city of Houston video is a good rehashing of what has been a traditional approach of run, hide and fight when reacting to an active shooter.

“Our perspective is that active shooter programs are necessary but certainly not sufficient for addressing the overall issue of workplace violence,” he said. “Still many companies are focusing solely on active shooter programs, but when you do that you’re just focusing on a small portion of the problem. Companies that do this are leaving their organizations hanging out there, and only creating an illusion that they have an actual workplace violence prevention program in place.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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