Office Violence: After the Shooting Stops

When employees are murdered on the job, the trauma can last for years. How companies cope

A few minutes before 3 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, 1993, an enraged client walked into the lobby of the San Francisco law firm Pettit & Martin. Reaching into his briefcase, the well-dressed man pulled out a TEC-9 paramilitary assault pistol. He then proceeded to shoot everybody in sight, methodically hunting down employees in offices, conference rooms, hallways, and staircases. By the time the rampage was over, the gunman had murdered eight people and wounded six others.

No organization can ever be prepared for such a nightmare. But despite being in a state of near-medical shock, Pettit's managers responded to the tragedy remarkably quickly. After a fleeing lawyer alerted personnel manager Karen Wilson to the shooter, she and several other employees barricaded the doors of their office suite with file cabinets, and lacking any other source of information about the massacre, tuned in to preliminary radio reports of the shooting. Realizing the firm was going to need immediate help in dealing with the disaster, Wilson placed a call to workplace psychologist Bobbi Lambert while the killer was still on the loose. Together, they started laying the groundwork for an officewide mourning session that was held at a nearby hotel the next day.

After a weekend of funerals, employees returned to the scene of the outburst on Tuesday, July 5. Working around the clock, crews had removed all evidence of the slaughter. Bloody carpets had been pulled up, broken windows replaced, and bullet-punctured walls repaired. On the advice of Lambert, who said the firm should avoid the temptation to pretend nothing had happened, flowers were placed in every spot where somebody had died, as well as a journal where people could record memories of the victim.

FLASHBACKS. Five grief counselors were also on hand to console workers, many of whom, upon returning to work, were experiencing vivid flashbacks of the incident and could not stop crying. The firm kept the professionals on the site for two weeks, paid for unlimited visits afterward, and gave every employee who requested leave some time off.

It was, all in all, a textbook response to workplace violence. Yet Pettit never recovered. Already reeling from a then-slowing California economy, the firm continued to lose lawyers and weaken financially. In 1995, it disbanded. "After that event, I don't think it would have been possible to keep the firm going on much longer," says former partner Sheldon M. Siegel. "There was just sort of this sadness, this pall in the air."

Unlike Pettit, most organizations that go through the trauma of a workplace shooting manage to survive the ordeal. But life is never the same. Some employees refuse to set foot in the office again. Others move, change careers, get divorced. While a few workers plunge into their jobs with more singlemindedness than ever, the vast majority take anywhere from a few days to a few years to regain ordinary productivity. In the meantime, mistakes increase, recruiting is hard, and clients, who are always understanding during the first few days after an incident, grow impatient.

That's why workplace violence, besides being an unbearable personal calamity, also frequently turns into a serious management challenge. And it's one that a surprisingly large number of executives are forced to face. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping records in 1992, murder has been second only to highway accidents as the leading cause of death on the job. In 1999, 645 people were killed in the workplace.

Many of the victims were taxicab drivers, police officers, security guards, and convenience-store clerks. But big companies have not been spared. In addition to the recent shootings at Navistar International Corp. (NAV ) in suburban Chicago and at Edgewater Technology Inc. in Wakefield, Mass., there have also been incidents at facilities run by Xerox (XRX ), Ford (F ), Chrysler (DCX ), Merrill Lynch (k ), and dozens of other corporations (table, page 100). And if history is any guide, the number of cases will rise as the economy sours and layoffs mount.

The managers who have to deal with these incidents are thrust into an impossible situation. Within minutes of one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives, they're suddenly confronted with a series of conflicting demands that they had never imagined, much less prepared for. The police, who want to preserve as much evidence as possible for future prosecution, take over the work site, evacuate everybody, and tell executives to say as little as possible about the incident. At the same time, employees and relatives--not to mention the media--are hungry for every shred of information available.

Company leaders and publicity chieftains, meanwhile, usually want to make an immediate goodwill gesture to relatives of slain employees--say, by offering to pay the funeral charges or their children's tuition. But the victims' families frequently wind up suing the company--especially if the killer was a former employee--making the legal department wary of unnecessary communication and any gifts that could be interpreted as admissions of guilt. "What is clear is that there's no book on how to handle this," says Glenn Sexton, general manager of Xerox Hawaii, who initially led the company's response to the 1999 murder of seven at a parts plant in Honolulu. "It was probably the hardest thing I'll ever do in my life."

"STILL STUNNED." As in any life-threatening situation, those who witness a workplace shooting immediately go into survival mode. Norepinephrine, glutamate, dopamine, and seratonin rush into the brain, while adrenaline fills the body. Overwhelmed with these chemicals, people frequently don't feel grief for hours. "The body goes into shock," says Honolulu Police Dept. Lieutenant Frank Fujii, who counseled Xerox employees in 1999. "A lot of people don't feel anything until they go home. Then they break out in tears and realize what they could have lost."

As soon as the shock wears off, almost everybody experiences some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. But it manifests itself in a wide variety of ways. After the shooting at Navistar in Melrose Park, Ill., on Feb. 5, about 20% of the plant's workforce of 850 took the next day off. Among the people who went to counseling sessions the next day, "some were just still stunned," says William B. Bunn, Navistar's vice-president for health, safety, and productivity. "Some were outright grieving for their friends. Some were feeling guilty; they were saying, `I know that when he stopped to reload, I could have grabbed him."'

In this state, employees are almost incapable of returning to their normal routines. After a gunman killed five people at the Atlanta office of day-trading firm All-Tech Investment Group on Thursday, July 29, 1999, the office reopened on the next Monday. "The [employees] came. But they weren't doing anything. They were just milling around," recalls Bruce T. Blythe, CEO of Atlanta's Crisis Management International, which counseled All-Tech. "The [firm] called us and said, `Something needs to happen.... Nobody is working."'

Faced with this situation, All-Tech responded the way Pettit and most other professionally counseled corporations do: by gathering everybody together and painstakingly reviewing the details of the event. This leads to a discussion of people's feelings about the incident and the recognition that others are having the same reaction--the first step toward moving beyond the tragedy. These sessions are usually followed up with private counseling, in which employees plagued by recollections of the carnage often go through a specialized therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The process requires victims to remember the most shocking moments while doing a series of eye exercises--a treatment that appears to help many people cope with their memories.

Such steps help most employees get up and running, however shakily, within about two weeks. But not everybody heals so fast. Lambert recalls walking the halls of Pettit three weeks after the shooting to check up on people. "They would seem normal, but then you'd look inside somebody's office and see tears going down their cheeks," she says.

Indeed, appearances can be deceiving in the weeks after a shooting. Customers and suppliers are almost always extraordinarily sympathetic, showering the organization with flowers and forgetting about deadlines. The work team also grows closer. United by a powerful common experience, the ordinary hierarchy dissolves. CEOs hug receptionists, and workplace rivals abandon their usual diet of petty warfare.

But much of this good feeling eventually wears off. When the bosses start cracking the whip again, underlings feel betrayed. And the customers, no matter how empathetic they may be, have businesses to run. Their patience tends to wear thin long before the effects of the shooting wear off. "Clients usually can't do enough for you during the first week or two," says Lambert, whose Kentfield (Calif.) consultancy, Confidante Inc., has advised several organizations that have been victimized by workplace violence. "Then it's like `We need to get back to work, and we don't really want to hear anything more about this."'

Over the long term, even thornier problems emerge. One is litigation. Victims of shootings and the family members of injured workers have the right to sue companies--if there were any signs that an attack was forthcoming. And there often are: Few assailants explode without making threats first.

In the wake of the Xerox incident, for example, two traumatized witnesses filed suits alleging that the company should have foreseen the danger posed by Byran K. Uyesugi, the employee who perpetrated the attack. According to one filing, Uyesugi got upset at a 1995 gathering of his work team and said: "I'll take care of them....I'll shoot all of them." The company then allegedly sought counseling for Uyesugi but declined to fire him. (Xerox denies liability but declined to discuss details of the suits.) Similar litigation followed the 1999 Atlanta day-trading shooting. As these cases go to trial, employee witnesses are often forced to choose between their company and their colleagues, and the finger-pointing can get ugly.

HAUNTING MEMORIES. Another problem is recruiting. Whether it's superstition or a desire to avoid what seems like a depressing workplace, candidates aren't eager to move into an office whose previous occupant was murdered. They also have a hard time mixing in with the company veterans. "For newer people, it is an awkward situation," says Ian Yee, marketing manager at Xerox Hawaii. "They understand the gravity of what happened, but they can never really feel it."

Survivors, in contrast, frequently feel the after-effects of workplace violence all too vividly. Michele Marinaro, former summer-associate coordinator at Pettit, says the incident made her appreciate her co-workers more than ever. "I remember walking into the grief counseling session the day afterwards and hugging people and saying to them, `Thank God you weren't hurt,"' she recalls. "You spend so many hours at work that while the relationship may be superficial on one level, you don't really realize how close the bond is."

Nearly eight years after the shooting, Marinaro thinks about it frequently. "I still need to flesh it out," she says. "I still want to hear about it. I want to know all of the details. I want to know where everybody was and what happened from their perspective." But no matter how much new information she uncovers, how hard she ponders it, or how many conversations she has, Marinaro can't make sense of what happened that day. It still afflicts her. And, she expects, it probably always will.

By Mike France in New York, with Michael Arndt in Chicago and bureau reports

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