Using Progressive Discipline to Avoid Confrontation
HR Wire (Volume 2, Number 50)
  Sometimes there's nothing a company can do to prevent workplace violence—but many times there is.

In Greeley, Colo., a disgruntled state transportation employee accused of harassing co-workers opened fire during a disciplinary hearing, killing an equal employment representative and wounding a regional transportation supervisor.

After the shooting, Robert S. Helfer, a 50-year-old accounting technician, made his way through the Transportation Department, perhaps looking for more victims. At one point, he jumped from a second-floor window, where an officer from the State Patrol (housed in the same building) exchanged gunfire with Helfer and killed him. The officer was not injured.

A public information spokeswoman in the Transportation Department's Denver office tells us she believes standard disciplinary hearing procedures were followed, although it remains unclear when—and why—events began to turn ugly.

"There was evidence in his motions he was not done with whatever rage and anger he had," noted Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who traveled from Denver to assist in the traumatic aftermath of the December 8 incident.

According to the injured victim, Karla Harding, who was shot three times but is expected to fully recover, Helfer was apparently "argumentative" throughout the trial.

"Still, no one felt during the hearing that anything was going to happen," the spokeswoman tells HRWire.

Yet in hindsight, those present should have been more wary. Helfer allegedly "kept his hand inside his coat pocket throughout most of the latter part of the hearing," our source continues. "Karla thought he was hiding a tape recorder that he was going to pull out and say he had everything on tape. But eventually she concluded that it was a gun."

How can employers shield themselves from at-work violence?

Harv Sims, a senior consultant with the CareerLab, a national outplacement consulting firm in Denver, Colo., says there are right and wrong ways to deal with employees being disciplined—and choosing the wrong way can trigger ugly reactions.

He says it's important for companies to have in place a process of progressive discipline—and for employers to act quickly when a worker's performance falters or complaints are lodged.

"In each level of progressive discipline," Sims tells us, "you owe employees a full description of their job responsibilities. Then, you must tell them where they're falling short and point out the differences between the two. Next, point out what both of you—the employee and the employer—need to do to bring up the level of performance to meet the expectations."

"Make it a constructive program," he urges, "not a disciplinary program. You can't threaten employees, but you can put them onto a course of corrective action. [Be clear about] what you're willing to do as an employer, and what they have to do as well."

Naturally, employees whose performance or behavior requires improvement must have a "reasonable time period to make the corrective action," Sims says, as well as to get whatever training, counseling or other assistance might be needed. "Then start reviewing their performance on a weekly basis with them."

"Most managers manage by crisis," Sims notes. Yet being an effective supervisor or manager means "working with employees on an ongoing basis. Also, if they are doing something right, by all means, tell them."

What happened with the Greeley guy?

Sims speculates Helfer suffered a severe case of what he and his CareerLab colleagues call "gunnysacking." This phenomenon, common among many individuals to varying degrees, involves shouldering a psychological sack. "Every time something goes wrong, we put that incident or emotion into the sack. [If it's not dealt with], eventually something spills out."

Helfer likely had been "collecting incidents and ill feelings" for some time, Sims tells us. When he received criticism at the hearing, he attacked back, first by arguing and later by opening fire with a loaded handgun.

Care to lighten that load?

Sims, a former personnel director with TRW, advised his clients to provide their employees "time to come in and talk about whatever's important to them." If people keep loading up their "gunnysacks" and are never invited—or required through progressive discipline—to stop and unload, pressures can escalate.

Some of those pressures may be familiar worker woes, such as the need to slow down a hectic life, be more productive or deal with an annoying colleague. Other pressures may be less obvious to an employer, yet capable of sending a worker over the brink without warning—such as a difficult home life, financial worries or various job stressors.

Establishing a pattern of open and regular communication works wonders in the workplace. Otherwise, Sims says, it's so easy for communication to break down. "Even supervisors get to the point where they're avoiding employees and vice versa."

Defusing volatility

CareerLab regularly works with such Colorado clients as Adolph Coors and IBM, as well as other large corporations nationwide, to help prevent and defuse volatile situations.

One company Sims works with terminated a technician who came back to the workplace, exhibiting threatening behavior. "At that point we came in and provided him both surveillance and care," Sims says. The surveillance part literally meant "putting a tail on" the man to be sure he didn't return again, bringing his pent-up emotions and a vendetta to get even. The 'care' part meant the man was offered productive ways "to vent his anger and frustration. Talking generally helps people defuse," Sims says. "It has a healing effect."

Sims also helps companies prepare for what could happen during a performance review, a disciplinary hearing or a termination. "We'll tell clients what they might look for before the interview," such as signs of emotional instability or rage at being passed over for a promotion, and ways to protect themselves. For example, CareerLab might recommend having a security officer posted nearby. Waiting to prepare for a confrontation until the hearing itself "is usually too late," as was clear in the Transportation Department incident.

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