Workplace Violence Avoidable
by Kerri Smith, Staff Writer, The Denver Post

  In the wake of a recent bloody shootout at a Colorado Department of Transportation office, police psychologist John Nicoletti has an urgent message: Don't ignore aggressive workplace behavior.

And nobody "just snaps."

In almost every case on record, Nicoletti said, people who attack others at work begin telegraphing their psychological distress months, sometimes years before the final, tragic explosion.

Tuesday's disciplinary hearing between transportation department administrators and employee Robert Helfer was a "threat gateway" during which the accountant-turned-gunman likely confirmed inner fears that his world was crumbling, Nicoletti explained.

"There are ways to predict this. There are no surprises in this type of thing," he said, pointing to Helfer's personnel records, released earlier this week.

Helfer reportedly filed complaint after complaint about department rules, raged at co-workers and personalized mundane office disagreements.

"Let's get rid of this idea of 'suddenly snapping.' It doesn't happen that way," added Nicoletti, who helped found Safe@Work, a Denver-based consortium of experts specializing in workplace violence prevention.

Long before bringing that gun to the office, Helfer bullied co-workers and played the office victim, a behavioral pairing that indicates a volatile situation is brewing, he added.

"If both happen together -- if the person has a perceived history of injustice, demonstrated by constantly filing complaints and lawsuits -- and then that person makes a threat, they go right to the top of my list," Nicoletti said.

"He actually believes the workplace problems are not his fault, that he has been trying to go by the rules, but it has not worked, so eventually he has to take matters into his own hands."

To Bill Frank, Helfer's work record is a classic SOS from someone in trouble. Frank, who heads CareerLab®, a Denver human resources consulting firm, helps corporations terminate several "difficult" employees a week.

It was Frank, along with former Secret Service agent Dale Wunderlich, who joined with Nicoletti to form Safe@Work in 1996. Since then the three have seen business climb sharply, mostly because employers are increasingly aware they can be sued for keeping a potentially dangerous person on board.

The biggest misstep employers make when dealing with bad apples is putting off disciplinary action or termination, Frank said.

While he and Nicoletti emphasized that they don't know details of Helfer's background, both said transportation department administrators likely should have handled Helfer's inappropriate behavior differently, and taken decisive action sooner.

"They waited too long," Frank said. "I've seen this happen in numerous cases. Companies tolerate yelling, screaming, storming out, door-slamming and abusive language far longer than they should. It creates a toxic corporate culture when employees are living in fear of another employee."

Why do employers put up with the screamers? They're not sure how dangerous the disruptive employee is, and they're afraid of getting sued, said Dennis Quirk, operations manager for A. Dale Wunderlich & Associates of Denver, the third partner in the Safe@Work consortium.

"Unfortunately employers, especially government agencies, are bound by certain laws regarding wrongful termination, so they have to be very careful how they approach people," he explained.

If they act too soon, or go too far, the employer can be sued for wrongful termination. But if they wait too long, or don't go far enough, others can sue the company for negligent hiring or retention.

An example is U S West, now called CenturyLink. In recent years the Arapahoe County telecommunications company has paid millions to settle lawsuits stemming from its employment of convicted sex killer Robert Harlan.

At one time the company faced dozens of lawsuits from former Harlan co-workers, who claimed U S West endangered them by continuing to employ Harlan after he was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.

Regarding Helfer, Quirk said, supervisors "probably feel they did the best they could, given the situation. And it's always difficult to accurately second-guess. But this guy's file needed attention."

What can employers do? Quirk suggested the following: Hire a private investigator to check things out. Activate the employer assistance program. Order a workplace violence assessment by professionals.

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