- James Willis, Jr., / Jim Willis
Another Aurora, Another Tragedy: Part One - The dangers of employee terminations
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
February the 15th, began the same as most Friday’s at the Henry Pratt Company, a water valve manufacturer in Aurora, Illinois. One of the few unusual occurrences was that Gary Martin, 45, 15-year employee, was being called into Human Resources around lunchtime. By 3 p.m., Gary Martin had killed 5 fellow employees, including a 21-year-old college student on his first day of an internship program, and Martin had been killed in a shootout with SWAT officers.
It seems that Martin, who sources say had been laid off a couple of weeks earlier, was expecting to be let go when he was asked to meet with HR. It’s believed that Martin had the gun with him when he entered the meeting and that he opened fire once he was formally terminated; this means this was a premeditated attack, not an impulse response (i.e. he didn’t go to his car after the fact and retrieve a gun).
Even before the dust settled, political stakeholders were dissecting and politicizing the event, and social behavioralists were promoting their individual theories that, if adhered to, would rid society of such horrible occurrences once and for all. And perhaps one of them will eventually come up with the answer that’ll transform the world into the hoped-for utopia. But for the foreseeable future, we need to take more pragmatic security approaches that deals with real people, in real time.
Unfortunately, both politicians and behavioralists tend to focus on mechanisms not malefactors. In reality, it’s the person with the innate propensity for violence, not the device. And while it’s only a fraction of people that commit extreme acts of aggression, the fact remains that people can, and do, subject others to lethal violence. It’s also a reality that those willing to visit unwarranted violence upon others ignore laws with impunity, disregard norming social standards, and use restricting policies to their advantage.
Let’s be clear, I make it a practice to not advocate for-or-against weapons in the workplace. That is a policy issue that must be dealt with at the
C-Suite and boardroom levels of an organization. But I am advocating a proactive, realistic, and pragmatic approach to mitigating the dangers of workplace violence, especially active shooter events; you owe that to your employees.
What is important is to realize that lethal violence can happen at any time and at any business. And that employee-related violence, especially workplace shootings, often accompany adverse employment interactions, (i.e. firings, demotions, reprimands, being passed over for a promotion, etc.). With that in mind, what lessons can be learned from this recent incident that may help prevent a similar tragedy at your organization?
Terminations are “Serious Business”
First, realize that there is no one, right way to handle terminations. There are just too many variables in the process. However, it should never be approached without careful thought and consideration.
Firing an individual is one of the most intense and unpleasant business activities that take place, and it can be fraught with danger. It should never be undertaken with callousness, insolence, or spitefulness, but rather with tact, diplomacy, and understanding. Having a well-defined policy with clear guidance on handling terminations, especially hostile ones, is a must. And even more critical is a well thought-out and implemented Termination Procedure that emphasizes the safety and security of everyone involved.
According to his family, Gary Martin took the possibility of losing his job badly, and he had been extremely “stressed out” ever since he was laid off. The fact is, no one wants to be laid off or let go for any reason - be it economics, lack of workload, or reorganization, but things become particularly dicey when someone is terminated for disciplinary or criminal reasons.
Never assume some will “take it well”, no matter how calm they’ve acted in the past; make no mistake, for the individual being terminated - “this is personal”. The person being fired will be under duress, they’ll be embarrassed, and their self-esteem will be at rock bottom these factors typically translate into anger. This person will feel betrayed, their economic future in jeopardy, and their self-confidence will have taken a severe hit. And, you can be sure there will be pressures at home, from spouses, or other influences in their life. A person in this state may believe that they “have nothing to live for”. The act of being fired could be the thing that pushes a person over the edge emotionally or mentally, so handle in a businesslike manner with the respect, care, and compassion, - and a boatload of caution.
You should have the termination procedure down to a science as to:
when a person is to be informed of their termination
the who/when/and where’s of the exit interview
how and when keys, equipment, and material are to be recovered
when access and clearances will be revoked
how the person will exit the premises
if/when they will be allowed back
and a myriad of other minute details
What are some of the issues to consider during the termination process?
Get on with it: When the decision to fire someone has been reached, drop the hammer on the termination procedure as soon as possible and resolve the process in a timely manner. Dragging out the matter only increases stress and animosity and invites trouble. And prolonging the inevitable can create a false sense that a reprieve is possible which, when it fails to materialize, will increase anger and resentment. Gary Martin’s first victims were the three people in the meeting room. Two of the victims, the HR representative and Martin’s union representative, had been involved in the process for some time. In fact, the union representative had intervened to keep Martin from being fired about two months earlier.
Essential personnel only: The presence of nonessential attendees at a termination meeting will appear callous and disrespectful and increase hostility and embarrassment. Remember, for the person being let go, this is personal. It can also place nonessential personnel at risk if the situation deteriorates into a violent encounter. This appears to be the case with the third victim attending Martin’s termination meeting, a college intern on his first day on the job.
Restrict continued access: It’s important that security personnel be alerted that a termination is in progress. Once the person being let go has been notified, their whereabouts should be monitored while they are on the premises. This is to ensure the security of everyone concerned and prevent retaliatory theft and vandalism. Until the terminated person is officially off the property, they should not be allowed unaccompanied within the facility and once escorted out, not be allowed to return without prior notice and approval.
Revisit the backstory: Prior to initiating the termination, it may be wise to conduct a background check and review relevant social media. This can help evaluate potential risks, anticipate response behavior, and identify the need for additional security protocols. This step also applies to severe reprimands, punitive layoffs, and demotions. A quick review may reveal overt hostility that could be exacerbated by disciplinary action. Just as with random drug testing, an organization has the right to periodically conduct employee background checks. Gary Martin had an extensive record of assault and abusive behavior, including restraining orders that had been taken out in the past, six arrests in the Aurora, and a felony conviction for stabbing a woman in Mississippi. If an updated background check been done prior to the termination meeting, it would have revealed his aggressive temperament and allowed the staff to be better prepared for a violent response.
Study the baseline: Look closely at why this person is being terminated. The specific reason for the termination can indicate the need for increased vigilance and the need for additional security steps. In the Gary Martin case, executives at the Henry Pratt Company stated that he was being terminated due to “a culmination various workplace rules violations” , this should have been a red flag. You should expect someone being terminated for repeated “rules infractions” to have little regard for other rules, such as “no weapons in the workplace.”
So, what do we do?
First, take active ownership of the termination process and develop effective practices an protocols that address violence. Also provide training on how to recognize and respond to workplace violence.
Develop a practical approach to dealing with violence that mitigates active shooter dangers, including developing well-crafted and enforced termination policies and procedures. You need to put real thought into the process and focus on the details. It may be prudent to get outside assistance when crafting your procedures. Don’t just seek legal counsel but access the advice and input of security experts that can offer real insight into developing a pragmatic approach. In the end, the lives of your employees can hang in the balance.
 Chicago Sun Times, 2/17/2019,