Lessons Learned: What We Can Take Away From Aurora

It’s happened again, and it’s no less devastating each and every time. On February 15, 2019, a mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois (roughly an hour from Chicago) left six people dead, including the shooter. Among those killed were a human resources manager, an HR intern in his first day on the job, a plant manager, a union chairman, and a stockroom attendant.

As of this writing, there is still debate over the circumstances that led to the shooting. The shooter was a former employee of the company. Some reports have suggested that he was terminated from his employment two weeks prior to the shootings; others have indicated that he began shooting at his termination meeting and carried his rampage through to the warehouse. Police have revealed that while he was not legally entitled to own the firearm, they did not find evidence in his home that would have suggested he was preparing to embark on a mass shooting.

The news is, above all, sad. Six lives are now lost, all because at one time they shared a common employer. Yet while the debate in the United States has quickly shifted to one of gun control as it so often does in these situations, there are other lessons to be learned as well. While we do not know much definitively, there are some lessons that employers and employees would be wise to pay attention to even at this early stage.

Mental Health

Workplace mental health has only become an acceptable topic of open discussion in the last few years, but it is still burdened by stigma in many workplaces. Yet its importance cannot be understated. According to a 2016 report from the Government of Canada, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a psychological health problem or illness in any given year. 47% of Canadians consider work to be the most stressful part of their daily lives, and yet only 23% of Canadians would feel comfortable discussing a mental health issue with their employer.

Those last numbers illustrate that the stigma surrounding mental wellness is slow to dissolve. Employers can work diligently to break down this stigma by breaking the conversation on mental health wide open. There are tremendous resources available for employers looking to provide more mental health support to employers, either through an established Employee Assistance Program (“EAP”), or additional resources such as available counselling or other supports.

Along with illness-based approaches, there are often significant small measures that employers can take simply to lighten the mood of the workplace. Small performance incentives, team social events and bonding activities, or even a true open door policy to address employees’ concerns can go a long way in improving overall stress and mental health. Employers may be new to these conversations, but they would be foolhardy to scoff at them outright.

Occupational Health and Safety

By early accounts, the shooting in Aurora may have been a completely unexpected shock. In similar instances, police will search a shooter’s home to find a well-executed plan of attack sometimes weeks or months in the making, but police findings so far suggest that that was not the case here. In any event, it is difficult to predict when an employee may explode into a violent outburst, whether through fists or a deadly weapon.

Yet it is the employer’s overarching responsibility under the Occupational Health and Safety Act to keep their employees safe at work, and to maintain a safe work environment. This responsibility does not dissipate because one individual may exhibit erratic behaviour. Along with policies addressing workplace violence and harassment, which include strict penalties for violating such policies, employers need to consider potential hazards in their workplace and how to mitigate, or minimize, them.

As rare as mass workplace violence may be in Canada, it is not unprecedented. Employers may be wise to consider mass violence as a potential (if thankfully unlikely) hazard, and create a plan for keeping other employees safe if one individual does exhibit violence, whether with their words, fists, or even a weapon. Police departments across the country have begun preparing training videos, many set in a workplace environments, to educate the public on how to handle an active shooter situation. The training instructs individuals to run from the danger, hide where possible, or fight to defend yourself against the attacker.

Termination Strategy

It is truly sad to think that this entire incident, or at least its magnitude, may have been avoidable with a better termination strategy. While terminations are always unpleasant for the individuals present in the meeting, they can also elicit strong emotions from the former employee. While tears are not uncommon, rage can also occur, and can, on rare occasion, turn violent.

The important lesson is that an employee’s reaction to their termination can be wildly unpredictable, and so a strategic approach to preparation is key. Two representatives of the employer should always be present, both so that one can serve as a witness to the events but also that the employee does not feel it the decision of a lone individual. These meetings should occur at a time when the workplace is not busy, where the employee will have a clear path to exit without being the subject of an additional public humiliation.

Lastly, while not often necessary for a lone individual, the need for additional security should be assessed. If an individual’s behaviour has been particularly erratic or previously violent, assessing the potential need, while often unlikely, for additional security measures both in escorting the employee from the premises and in preventing their unauthorized re-entry, may help keep everyone a little bit safer at work. This should be done with its own caution, however, as imposing unnecessary security measures could needlessly upset the employee and be seen as an example of bad faith. We have, in the past, had clients who were more upset by the fact that they were escorted out by security than by the fact that they had lost their job.  

For employers, the situation may be tragic but the lessons to be learned are crucial. Contact us today if you are looking for recommendations to improve your overall workplace mental health, or for advice prior to your next termination. For employees, we understand that losing one’s job is one of the most emotionally trying events of most people’s lives. Contact us today to help review the circumstances surrounding your termination, and make sure that you were treated fairly by your former employer.

Shaun Bernstein

My experience has taught me the beauty of being able to work fluidly on both sides of employment law. For example, it can be deeply rewarding helping a recently terminated employee achieve a fair settlement that recognizes their contributions to the company, and the situation they have found themselves in. But it is equally as rewarding to be able to help that employer straighten out issues as or even before they arise, and hopefully preventing the need for that employee to have called us in the first place.

I previously ran a blog explaining employment law issues to a wide audience, and am incredibly proud to have twice won Clawbies (Canadian Law Blog Awards) for Best New Law Blog and Best Practitioner Blog.