Risk Management

Nearby Massacre Sparked Prevention Programs

Wakefield, Mass. killings triggered CFO, HR manager to act to prevent incidents at their own companies.
David KatzJune 7, 2001

When it comes to motivating an employer to prevent the risk of workplace violence, location and a personal connection are everything.

That’s been the experience of finance and human resources executives in the vicinity of Wakefield, Mass., where seven employees of Edgewater Technology were shot dead last Dec. 26. The alleged killer was Michael McDermott, a software engineer who worked for the company.

Wakefield is “a stone’s throw from here,” Michael Umana, CFO of Saucony, the Peabody, Mass.-based maker of running shoes, tells CFO.com. “That triggered our thinking that this could happen here.”

Those very thoughts are what led Saucony, in an effort headed by Umana, a particularly risk management-minded CFOand John Fisher, the CEO, to create a workplace-violence policy and tighten access to its premises.

Similarly, the fact that the shootings were in “our backyard” moved executives of the Lahey Clinic to sharpen their violence-prevention policies, says Joan M. Robbio, senior vice president of human resources of the Burlington, Mass.-based medical center.

The organization began training its receptionists, secretaries, and managers to identify the warning signs of workplace violence, she says.

But the training goes further than that, including instruction in “actively listening to what [angered people] are saying and [in helping] them right then and there,” says Robbio. Receptionists are taught not to cut off irate people prematurely on the phone or in person, and to express an understanding of the legitimacy of their concerns.

Preventing violence is a particularly complex matter in hospitals, where patients, staff, and visitors are all participants, she says. Nevertheless, Robbio adds, the methods used there can be used universally.

“Think about good customer service,” she advises, noting that workers in financial-services call centers often deal with angry customers, as do airline employees when a flight is cancelled, for instance.

`A Lot of Shock’

Besides the proximity of the Edgewater murders, Robbio and other HR professionals in the region were stunned by the fact that one of the victims was 50-year-old Cheryl Troy, the firm’s head of HR.

“There was a lot of shock going on in the HR community, because this was the first time something like this happened to one of our own,” says Robbio.

The response, in part, moved the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA), the Boston chapter of the Society of Human Resource Management, to hold a seminar on violence prevention about a week after the massacre, says Robbio, the president of NEHRA. About 800 people attended.

For his part, Saucony’s Umana says that the fact that another of the victims, Rose Manfredi, a 48-year-old payroll accountant, worked in finance didn’t especially motivate him to tighten the company’s defenses against violence.

Saucony’s main office is set up in “open plan” fashion, with very few individual offices and the cubicles of accountants, logistical people, and other employees intermingled, he notes.

That means that finance-department employees couldn’t be readily located as a group by a would-be attacker, says Umana.

Saucony’s external layout, however, was vulnerable. One access to the headquarters building is through glass bay doors connecting it to an attached distribution center where trucks pick up and deliver goods, he notes.

Saucony executives learned this was a potential problem by engaging local, off-duty, plainclothes police officers to try to enter the building as unwanted intruders might. The officers were able to enter the offices from the distribution area and “show up at my secretary’s desk,” Umana says.

Although the company, with its 150 or so employees, is one where “everybody knows everybody,” nobody pulled aside the strangers and asked them why they were in the building, he notes.

As a result, Saucony placed a password-coded keypad on the door to the distribution center. The company also put numbers on its office doors (enabling police to locate people in an emergency) and set up its office phones so that operators can recognize Saucony as the source of a 911 call without the dialer having to speak.

The company is also casting “a more cautious eye” on personal storage areas, Umana says. According to a Feb. 23 story in The Boston Globe,prosecutors say that, after the Edgewater shooting, 28 boxes of ammunition, a bayonet, and an elephant gun were found in McDermott’s workplace cubicle.

Umana says Saucony has purchased no insurance for workplace violence beyond its existing property and casualty coverage and “nothing substantial–$10,000 or less” on its risk-management effort. In any event, the effort is “not an optional program,” he says.

In developing its workplace violence policy and procedures, Saucony worked closely with the Peabody Police Department, Hale & Dorr, the law firm that represents the company, and J.H. Albert, a risk-management consulting firm based in Needham, Mass.

The police provided the company with a showing of an educational videotape in which actors portray volatile situations and present an overview of the warning signs of violence in the workplace.

Saucony’s recently issued workplace-violence policy statement also includes a list of warning signs of a person who is prone to potential violence, among them a fascination with weapons, “[a]nguish over employment decisions,” “decreased or inconsistent job functioning,” being “a loner with a romantic obsession,” and voicing “extreme desperation over personal problems.”

The policy also lists general security measures, like not sharing pass codes and yelling for help when you are attacked. It also instructs employees about what to do when they come face-to-face with an armed aggressor: “Do what you are told” and “Speak carefully and sparingly.”

Despite all the precautions, however, Umana says that “getting through a reception area is not that difficult.” He admits, as many others have, that it’s nearly impossible to prevent an incident like the one that happened in Wakefield.

Still, the fear that wells up within companies when a nearby business has been attacked from within spurs a productive vigilance and sound risk management practices. And the more refined those procedures become, the more likely it might become that the massacres will be prevented.