It’s a safe bet that Monday-morning watercooler talk included shock and disbelief over the tragedy that took place in the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Unfortunately the topic isn’t new, as shootings have become more common. And while employees will talk, when should workplace leadership enter the conversation?
"Leaders need to let their teams and managers know it’s okay if people want to talk about it," says Midge Seltzer, president of the HR consulting firm Engage PEO. "They will anyway; it’s part of the grieving process. Joining the conversation will help you control it, and make it more productive."
Formal conversations can depend on your location, says Richard Chaifetz, neuropsychologist and CEO of the employee assistance program provider ComPsych. "If you’re in close proximity to the tragedy, there’s a chance it impacted your employees, their relatives, friends, and neighbors," he says. "The closer you are to the core of what happened, the more obvious it would be that you need to address it."
Informal discussions, however, should be happening everywhere, says Seltzer. "Part of the problem is that we’re getting desensitized," she says. "Take advantage of a Monday-morning huddle to bring up the topic and gauge employee concerns. Someone may be new to the workplace or a working environment."
Starting a conversation helps leaders tap into the feelings of employees. "Don’t assume that if they’re not saying anything, they might not be having fears," says Steven Cates, human resources and labor law professor at Kaplan University.
The type of information you share will depend on the relevancy to the people in your organization. Small organizations, for example, can hold brown bag luncheons to discuss what happened and what the company is doing to keep employees safe, while large companies or those with multiple sites might record a video message from a senior member of leadership, he says.
"You want to reconfirm the company’s concern as it relates to protecting employees in what is now a dangerous global environment so employees can focus," says Cates. "You can also hold voluntary sessions that give employees an opportunity to express concerns. This will allow you to understand the magnitude of their fears so you can offer a solid, strategic action plan."
Tragedies also give leaders a chance to educate (or re-educate) employees about recognizing and reporting suspicious activity, says Chaifetz. "When you look back at all attacks, there was always something in hindsight that caused someone to scratch their head," he says. "Very rarely do they look back and say, ‘I can’t believe this person did this.’ There has to be process in place for people to report that kind of behavior. Employees are the first line; they see what management doesn’t see."
The U.S. Department of Labor offers some warning signs, as well as steps management should take in putting reporting processes in place. While you don’t want to increase the possibility of discrimination or make employees diagnosticians, you do want to make the workplace comfortable, says Chaifetz. "It’s important that employees feel safe to come forward if they’re concerned or fearful over a coworker’s suspicious, inappropriate, or uncomfortable behavior," he says.
In addition to healthy lines of communication, companies have a legal responsibility to keep employees safe, says Cates: "If you have more than 25 employees, you’re going to be held accountable for having a safe work environment, not only providing protection from things like machinery, but also keeping out others who might want to harm employees," he says. "That’s the legal side, but companies will want to do this much more from an ethical and moral side."
While enhanced security has already happened in offices in bigger cities, tragedies in smaller locales like Orlando that are not as heavily populated are proving that it could happen anywhere, says Chaifetz. "Employees have a heightened awareness of lapses in security," he says. "They will bring it to the attention of the organization, and leadership has to do what it can to remedy the weaknesses."
The events of 9/11 made every CEO and HR professional a crisis manager, but most employers lack the expertise to conduct safety training and should look to outside resources, such as local law enforcement agencies or the Department of Homeland Security, says Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, legal editor for the human-resources consultants XpertHR. Safety experts can identify potential weaknesses in security, train employees, and create a personalized plan for your workplace.
"The best way to prepare employees on how to react quickly and effectively in an active shooter situation, as well as give them more peace of mind, is to offer active shooter training," she writes in her blog. "Although an employer is under no legal obligation to conduct active shooter training, it should nonetheless establish awareness among its staff and provide them with the appropriate responses to the threat of an active shooter."
The biggest issue when an event like the Orlando shooting happens is the loss of a sense of safety and security, says Andrew Shatte, chief science officer for the digital resilience training platform meQuilibrium. "We get our sense of safety and security from the predictability of events," he says. "We know this awful event was simply not predictable. In the case of 9/11, they were simply going to work, as we all do. With Orlando, they were simply going out to have fun, as we all do."
Companies should bring in professional counselors or psychologists if they’re in close proximity to the event or have employees who share fears, says Chaifetz. "Most companies aren’t equipped to handle anything other than basic communication," he says. "They’re clearly not equipped to provide mental health resources. Whenever there is any degree of concern about mental health, experts need to be brought in. There are lasting effects if not dealt with appropriately."
Once employees are allowed to talk about their concerns, become reassured about safety and are provided with any additional support they need, there is a great healing value in returning to a routine, says Seltzer. "Getting employees back to work is important for the company and for the employee, as well," she says. "The faster schedules are resumed and structures are re-established, the easier the employees can manage a tragic event."
Chaifetz says it would be vigilant to advise senior executives or human resource professionals to always be looking for a change in their workforce: "My sense is that we’ll see more of this type of activity," he says. "Look at how the workplace has become more vigilant and secure, as well as public transportation and places like movie theaters. I think it will get worse before it gets better, and the workplace has an obligation to keep employees safe."