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Dealing with Unexpected Tragedies in the Workplace


I recently attended a seminar on this topic, and learned many things to share with you. To protect the confidential nature of the discussions, I'll withhold names and identifiers. Let me just say that the participants included a well-recognized consultant and therapist in this field, an attorney, and serving officers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.


The list of unexpected workplace tragedies is long:

  • Unexpected death of a co-worker
  • Death of a child or co-workers child
  • Accident causing significant loss
  • Sexual Assault/Physical Abuse
  • Robbery
  • Suicide
  • Any life threatening experience


Hospice counselors will tell you that with an expected death, two years are required for the healing process.  How much greater is the impact for an unexpected death?  After 10 years, people are still grieving over the loss of Dale Earnhardt.


We all have baggage, and a major unresolved past issue multiplies the trauma of an unexpected tragedy.


Think of one of these horrible events suddenly happening in your workplace?  There seems to be no magic answer that covers all businesses and all situations.  Here are some responses that were discussed in the seminar, well-disguised, of course.


Banks were prominently featured as businesses that have done a good job of preparing employees as well as a variety of managerial responses.  A branch bank will always shut down and provide counseling and support programs for the affected employees.


The police strategy in this situation is to get everyone in a separate room, each with an officer.  The goal of the officer is to calm the employee, reassure them of their safety, let them blow off steam, etc.  Its really a form of debriefing.


Among other objectives, the goal is to not create vigilantes who seek justice.  Suddenly becoming a vigilante may work in Hollywood, but not in real life.


The group stressed that debriefing is not counseling.  Debriefing is a process that individuals go through in an attempt to retain or restore some semblance of control that had been taken from them.


An Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, is a potential resource.  However, the attorney suggested that an employer should never mandate EAP counseling for an employee.  Employee rights under the Family and Maternal Leave Act (FMLA) could be violated by claiming the employee had a disability.


She went on to say that counseling is a very personal issue.  An employer really should not mandate counseling.


Here's one thing we all can do about Violence in the Workplace:  be proactive.


If you can see a situation coming, don't wait for it to happen.  Pre-plan what you and your co-workers or employees will do.


For instance, if you receive a hostile call, maybe from a terminated employee or an angry customer, call 911.


Both CMPD officers stressed that they would much rather check out a precautionary call that led nowhere than to respond to a violent situation after the fact.


Thus, a proactive response would be to explain the situation, the business location, and to identify the individual.  Explain that everything is calm now, but that you're not certain what might happen next.


And the moment that person comes in the door, push the 911 button.  Describe what the individual is wearing.  The CMPD officers say that many times they can pick up the individual from a description before s/he gets to the workplace.


Another thing to remember:  Never, ever ignore threats in the workplace.  Youre going to regret this!  Counselors, Police, Attorney - they all agreed on this point.


One person said, Don't wait for it to hit the fan.  Call 911 before the fan is turned on.  The Officers said the same thing more elegantly.  The biggest thing about workplace violence is avoiding it at all costs.


Here's a true story about another form of workplace violence.  A small private plane crashed into a small business in a small town.  All occupants of the plane died.


The receptionist of the business was burned over 90% of her body, and remained conscious.  Her co-worker and friend panicked and didnt know where the fire extinguisher was.  Sadly, it was within arms reach!


Maybe the extinguisher would have helped, and maybe it wouldn't, but both women will live with the outcome the rest of their lives.


We can't avoid planes crashing into our building, but we can certainly make sure we know where the fire extinguishers are.


Workplace violence.  Avoid it at all costs.


Bill Belchee

Beacon Small Business Solutions


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