Nothing about the Henry Pratt Co. suggested it would be the site of a workplace mass shooting.
But the manufacturing company, tucked in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, turned into a scene of carnage when a man who was just fired pulled out a gun and started shooting everyone around him, killing five people.
So what can companies do to help prevent a similar tragedy? Experts say there are plenty of steps businesses and fellow employees can take – and some may be surprising:
Don’t have a uniformed security guard in the room
After the Aurora shooting, some wondered whether companies should have an armed guard in the room when an employee gets fired.
But that’s usually not a good idea, said Steve Albrecht, co-author of “Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace.”
It’s not clear whether the Pratt Co. had security in the room. But Albrecht said the sight of a uniformed guard “raises the emotional temperature of the employee being terminated,” provoking thoughts such as “Why do you have this guy with a gun in the room with me? Do you see me as a threat?”
Such feelings of resentment and anger could last long after the firing meeting is over.
Albrecht, a threat assessment expert, said it’s better to have an armed guard nearby but not inside – perhaps listening into the meeting via telecom or outside the door. It’s also smart to have a code word so the guard knows when to come in and intervene.
Another alternative is to have an armed guard dressed in plain clothes at the termination meeting.
“I often use plain-clothed security people who will be in the room. We introduce them as an HR consultant,” Albrecht said. “They can be hands-on if needed.”
Don’t assume you’re immune
“The point of termination is perhaps the greatest opportunity for deadly workplace violence,” said Kathleen Bonczyk, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Workplace Violence Prevention Institute.
Bonczyk said the firing of long-term employees can pose the greatest risk.
“It’s almost like a divorce from a family,” she said. “Americans today tend to spend more time at work than they do even at home. They tend to have more lunches, dinners, meals, time spent with their coworkers. You’re severing perhaps the most stable relationship that the employee may have.”
Albrecht said companies shouldn’t assume an employee would never commit violence just because he or she doesn’t have a criminal record.
“There are people who have criminal backgrounds who aren’t a threat to their employers, and those who don’t have criminal backgrounds” who might snap, he said.
That underscores the need to:
Help employees long before they get fired
It’s normal for employees to get highly emotional when fired. But the trauma can seem overwhelming if someone is struggling with other personal issues, such as a divorce.
Experts say employee assistance programs, which often provide counseling for personal issues, are critical for helping employees stay emotionally healthy.
It’s also a good idea to extend EAP coverage for a while after an employee gets fired, Albrecht said.
Don’t give advance notice, unless you’re having layoffs
The Aurora gunman had been previously written up and probably knew he was going to be fired, said the CEO of Mueller Water Products, parent company of Henry Pratt Co.
“We can surmise that he was speculative about what was going to happen as evidenced by him arming himself with a firearm,” CEO Scott Hall said. “I don’t know exactly what was communicated to him.”
While it’s not clear whether the gunman was told in advance, Albrecht said “it’s best not to give advance notice to individual employees” if they’re getting fired.
But when it comes to layoffs, Albrecht said companies should tell the office before employees are let go.
“In my experience, it causes problems to spring on them mass layoffs,” he said.
Instead, companies should offer job-seeking services or allow employees to work on their resumes during company time – “things that are humane,” Albrecht said.
“There’s just less animosity, less desire for revenge when you treat people like adults.”
Don’t leave fired employees with nothing
It’s important that an employee’s anger isn’t compounded with hopelessness.
“A lot of organizations have something called benevolent severance. That gives them a cushion, that gives them a soft landing,” Albrecht said.
That can include severance pay or a temporary extension of benefits, such as employee assistance programs.
Such offerings let employees know that the company doesn’t think they’re “a horrible person,” Albrecht said. Instead, it shows they’re “just not a good fit here. But here’s what we’re doing to help you get back on your feet.”
Stay alert after employees get fired
Not all cases of termination violence happen right as someone gets fired, such as in Aurora.
“Sometimes, it’s within two weeks, or at the two-year mark,” Albrecht said.
He said the violence could happen up to two weeks later when employees are still “super angry” and have time to create a plan.
But sometimes violence doesn’t happen for two years if the disgruntled employee hasn’t found a job by that time.
The best strategy for preventing future violence is to “listen for the leakage,” since people who plot attacks often confide in someone else, Albrecht said.
So employers should keep in touch with the person’s friends who are still at the company, and make sure they feel comfortable reporting any disturbing comments or threats.
While the Aurora shooting may have seemed unpredictable, it’s time for everyone to take precautions, Bonczyk said.
“I hope that people will take this opportunity to learn from this tragedy and look at the shortcomings within their workplaces,” she said.
“The time to think that it can’t happen here, that it couldn’t happen to me, is long gone.”
CNN’s Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.