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Mankind" Is Your Business!

The tragic news, last week, of a workplace shooting served as a grim reminder of the frequency of such violent occurrences. The fact that it occurred just as the holiday season is getting underway makes the whole scenario all the more heartrending.
 
Benjamin Banky, CEO of Vancouver natural health products wholesaler TallGrass Distribution, was shot by a gunman who invaded the office Christmas party. A man thought to be a recently-released employee was arrested and charged with first degree murder.
 
Police said that such occurrences are rare but the reality is they are far too common. A simple internet search will turn up a litany of recent instances in which employees have attacked and killed their office mates. Although the great majority of them seem to occur in the United States, the rest of the world is by no means immune.
 
In Canada, one need only think back as far as the killings at OC Transpo in Ottawa, at the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection in Kamloops, and at the Giant Mine in Yellowknife as examples. If the statistics I located on the internet are at all reliable, there are many more such tragedies each year.
 
I’m no expert, but to me the avoidance of such situations starts with attentiveness to the signs an employee is facing emotional challenges. It means caring enough to take some action when a danger sign reveals itself. And it means being involved enough to take a leadership role in eliminating the causes of violence.
 
Episodes of extreme workplace violence do seem to exhibit some common elements. It often appears there have been unheeded warnings of trouble – the employee displayed uncharacteristic emotional changes, was involved in confrontations, or hinted at committing violent acts. 
 
Also, the employee frequently has received some unexpected bad news – such as the loss of a job or the imposition of disciplinary measures. This leaves the employee with no prior warning of dismissal and with no opportunity to prepare for life without a job.
 
It is important to note, however, that there is no reason to assume any of these elements were necessarily at play in the TallGrass situation or that any of the employer’s actions in any way precipitated the shooting. 
 
Can the common threads be recognized and addressed before a tragedy occurs? I believe so, with the sort of attentiveness, caring, and leadership I mentioned earlier.
 
When an employee exhibits signs of distress at work, other employees are sure to notice and to talk about it amongst themselves. Too often, however, it seems the flow of information stops before reaching a person who can (or will) take some action.
 
One way to resolve this situation is to implement a reporting and resolution procedure for workplace concerns. Such a process creates a confidential avenue for employees to raise issues of concern with responsible members of management. It also establishes a required pattern of steps which must be followed by management upon being contacted. 
 
A properly administered process of this type fosters the belief amongst employees that they can come forward with an issue of concern. And it diminishes the possibility that such a concern will be ignored. 
 
What about the fact that, often, the employee has been shocked by some unforeseen, bad news? This can occur because managers often tend to avoid being critical of an employee until the situation has reached the boiling point. It’s likely just human nature to avoid conflict of this type, but it’s surely a poor business practice.
 
There is no good reason to leave employees uninformed about the possible ramifications of their performance and conduct. If employees are not living up to standards, or if their conduct is unacceptable, this must be communicated. It’s good management practice and nobody benefits when it is not followed.
 
There are occasions, however, when bad news is given abruptly because of the rapidly changing circumstances of a business. How should the managers (who are unfortunate enough to have been selected to deliver the news) handle the situation?
 
They would be wise to start by understanding the impact that, for instance, the loss of a job will have on an individual. Being sensitive and caring at that difficult time can have a significant impact on the departing employee’s outlook.
 
Again, we shouldn’t assume that anyone at TallGrass did anything, or failed to do anything, that in any way contributed to last week’s tragedy.
 
It’s a matter of caring enough about employees to soften the blow as much as is possible in the circumstances. It means knowing enough about your employees that you’re aware if the timing is particularly bad. It means caring enough to ensure that some form of transition assistance is made available. And it means delivering the news in a sympathetic, compassionate manner.
 
For guidance, one need look no farther than the ghost of Jacob Marley in the holiday classic, “Scrooge”. Complimented by Scrooge on having been a good man of business, Marley’s ghost shrieks, incredulously, “BusinessMankind was my business!”. 
 
 
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to http://www.pushormitchell.com/.