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Battlefield HR: Uniform Experience-In Harm’s Way

Battlefield HR: Uniform Experience-In Harm’s Way

One of my most favorite World War Two movies of all time is “In Harm’s Way." It is a 1965 film directed by Otto Preminger, starring John Wayne as Navy Captain  (later Rear Admiral) Rockwell Torrey and Kirk Douglas as Navy Commander (later (Captain) Paul Eddington, Torrey’s best friend.  I won’t go into the entire synopsis of the plot with all of its twists and turns, but the precursor to the epic naval battle. The battle itself tells the tale of bravery, sacrifice and determination that gives the American armed forces the reputation as the best in the world. During the course of the events leading to the battle with a large Japanese battleship and its escorts, Captain Paul Eddington is killed conducting an unauthorized aerial reconnaissance mission that identifies the Japanese Naval Task Force that contains the Battleship Yamato, the largest warship in the world.

Armed with this information, Admiral Torrey puts to sea with his Task Force of cruisers, destroyers and PT boats. Admiral Torrey’s son Jeremiah, a young Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade is serving as a PT boat second in command in the same Task Force. Torrey’s mission is to find, engage and stop the Japanese Task Force that is threatening the important mission of the ongoing invasion of Gavabutu. Gavabutu is an island that will give the Allied Forces a strategic airfield to bomb the Japanese homeland.  During the course of the battle against the Yamato Task Force, Torrey’s son Jeremiah is killed after successfully attacking and sinking a Japanese Cruiser and damaging several vessels of the Japanese Task Force.

Lieutenant Torrey, had assumed command of his PT Boat after his Commanding Officer was killed. Knowing that he is buying time for the rest of the American Task Force, and realizing that his next actions would in all likelihood result in the death of himself and his crew, Lieutenant Torrey did not break off but continued on in the attack damaging several other Japanese warships until his PT was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Admiral Torrey, though emotionally weighed down by the deaths of his best friend and his son, carried on in the battle knowing that his Task Force was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by the Japanese Task Force, but thousands of American lives were at stake fighting on Gavavutu.

The terrible battle that rages next soon revealed that the American Task Force was facing certain annihilation, but much was at stake. Several Task Force ships are hit and sunk included Admiral Torrey’s flagship. The flagship had sustained a direct hit on the bridge, killing most of the ship’s senior leadership and flag staff with the exception of Admiral Torrey who was critically wounded.

Evacuated from the sinking flagship with the other ship’s survivors the wounded admiral is moved to a hospital ship. After he awakens from a coma three weeks later, he learns that due to the ferocity of his attack, the Japanese Commander had broken off his offensive, fearing the American Task Force was bait for a trap and not realizing that they were the only thing between the Japanese and the American forces on the beach of Gavavutu.

Now I am not suggesting that as HR professionals we prepare ourselves to go into the attack facing insurmountable odds and possible annihilation (though some collective bargaining agreement negotiations may sometimes feel that way for some of us!). I would even imagine that if faced with an actual combat situation, some of us may even shout, “We won’t fight and you can’t make us!”

But a battlefield mentality is required when we are faced with having our employees who may be working in what I would term, “urban combat zones.” Those urban areas where violent crime, armed gang violence is prevalent and your facilities are at Ground Zero.

Some of you may never have heard a shot fired in anger.  But I can tell you that when incoming rounds are headed in your direction, I can guarantee you it is not a pleasant experience. But with workplace violence on the rise, such as the recent deadly shootings at a Reno Nevada International House of Pancakes (IHOP) this month where 3 were killed by a lone gunman, the pharmacy on Long Island, New York in June of this year where 4 were killed, by an armed robber and University of Alabama in February of 2010 where 3 faculty members were shot to death by a colleague, it is very clear that these incidents are not just isolated to the local postal facility and our employees are truly “In Harm’s Way”.

Dr. Diane L. Katz, in her “Preventing Workplace Violence” article in the “Disaster Recovery Journal” citing the Occupational Health and Safety Administration stated:

“Violence in the workplace is a serious safety and health issue. Its most extreme form, homicide, is the fourth-leading cause of fatal occupational injury in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 564 workplace homicides in 2005 in the United States, out of a total of 5,702 fatal work injuries.”

Now I want to set the stage for the next part of this article. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Flint Michigan was listed as, "The Most Dangerous City in America." An hour south of Flint is “The Second Most Dangerous City in America”, Detroit. Both cites have high murder rates, high levels of other types of violent crime, high unemployment, high levels of gang violence and drug trafficking, unemployment several points above the current national average and median incomes several points below the national average.

Benton Harbor, Michigan, a small city in southwest Michigan, has similar demographics as Flint and Detroit, and like both cities is plagued by violent crime, drug trafficking and gangs. According to City-Rating .com, Benton Harbor had the dubious honor of having violent crime a whopping 192.3 percent above the national average. According to the report, the projected trend for the city will take it below the averages reached in 2009, but little has changed in the city and the demographics have shown little improvement in terms of economic conditions or danger from violent crime.

On the outskirts of Benton Harbor is Benton Charter Township a community of many stark contrasts from its neighbor and across the Saint Joseph River from Benton Harbor is Saint Joseph, Michigan another community that is as different as night from day and literally 180 degrees in terms of demographics of crime, median income, education, unemployment and racial makeup from its neighbor across the drawbridge.

On 10 September 2011, at 0430 hours, two masked armed intruders entered into the 24-hour Walgreens retail store located in Benton Charter Township. Taking the store manager hostage, one of the other robbers leaped over the counter where Pharmacist Jeremy Hoven was working. According reports, before Hoven could complete dialing 911, the armed intruder attempted to fire his weapon, but it misfired. Hoven reached for his own weapon, which he was lawfully authorized to carry and opened fire at the intruder. The intruders then fled the store. According to a Benton Charter Township police official, Hoven’s actions were defensive, legally justified and in all probability he saved the lives of his co-workers.

A week later, Hoven was fired by Wal-Greens citing his violation of their policy of non-escalation. According a statement from a Walgreens’ spokeswoman, ABC News reported that:

“Though Hoven was licensed by the state of Michigan to carry a gun, Walgreen discourages its pharmacists from packing pistols. A spokeswoman for the drug chain told ABC News in an email that while Walgreens would not be able to disclose its policies, they were written to protect the safety of customers and employees. "Store employees receive comprehensive training on our robbery procedures and how to react and respond," she wrote. Walgreens' approach is "endorsed by law enforcement, which strongly advises against confrontation of crime suspects. Compromise is safer."

It was clear from the video that there was no barrier that prevented the robber from entering Pharmacist Hoven’s workspace nor a silent alarm system to alert a security company or law enforcement. It appears that from the Walgreens statement their employees are put in the situation of being negotiators with armed criminals who have little regard for life based on past incidents. While it is not clear that Pharmacist Hoven may have been successful in compromising with the intruders, it is clear with the attempt to fire his weapon; the one intruder was in no mood to compromise. It must also be noted that this was the second time that facility had been robbed.

The questions that arise from this analysis are do the procedures cover what protocols should be used in the event an employee is killed or wounded in the course of a robbery and do the procedures prohibit an employee from engaging in an act of pure self-defense if death or serious injury is imminent?  What additional actions did Walgreen’s take to mitigate the dangers from a second robbery?

Now, it is time for Battlefield HR. In the first three examples of workplace violence, the assailants were external to the workplace and had no connection to the organization. In the third example the assailant was an employee. Due to multiple and tragic incidents of employee or former employee on employee violence or carryovers of domestic violence situations into the workplace, organization with good reason have extensive procedures and protocols in place for employees to follow in the event the threat is from an internal source or related external source. However, it does not appear that sufficient actions have been taken to evaluate and react to external threats, especially if the organizations have operations and/or retail outlets in urban combat zones.

I shared the information about Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor for a reason. It was to provide you a perspective and situational awareness of the operating environment some of your employees may be working in.

The Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) Act mandates that “employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Employers MUST provide their employees with a workplace that does not have serious hazards and follow all relevant OSHA safety and health standards. Employers must find and correct safety and health problems. “

This means that training, polices and procedures developed in the relative safety of the corporate base camp are not enough to provide safe and healthful workplaces for employees located in an urban combat zone. The statistics I shared demonstrate that doing business in these areas is a dangerous proposition for employees, especially in retail facilities.

Let me demonstrate with an illustration. When I was a commander in a hostile fire zone, I dealt with a major contractor who had the mentality that "bad things happen to other organizations and not us, and the employees knew what they were getting into when they took the job.” This employer refused to make the necessary changes in their procedures and spend the necessary funds to harden their worksite, despite actionable intelligence that indicated that Al Qaeda and ethnic armed extremists were going to strike their operations. Which just happened to be the two base camps and forward operating base I commanded, I MADE them implement the changes my force protection folks recommended. They tried to get me relieved of my command, but a Three Star General I worked for supported my actions. We stopped a number of planned attacks because of those actions and no one died or was wounded on my watch as a result of those preventative actions.

Companies can follow the same process. The HR professional needs to be the champion by painting a clear picture of the urban battle-space their employees work in. Working with the corporate leadership to show why policy changes and investments are critically necessary to provide a safe and healthful workplace according to federal law is a good strategy.

While an employer can't control variables such as armed robbers, an employer has the obligation to provide a safe working environment for their employees as the OSH Act mandates. This doesn't mean that employers have to provide a platoon of armed guards in their facilities. If that where the case, they may need to examine the cost benefit of having a facility in that area to begin with!

Employers can have risk assessments performed to determine what cost effective passive or active security measures can be taken for their particular facilities. Passive measures such as a silent alarm through a security company, closed circuit TV with recorder, and an enclosed bullet proof area, for cash register, pharmacy areas and active measures such as an armed security patrol arriving at closing time or at irregular intervals after midnight, would be an effective deterrent to any armed robber.

This approach is no different that what is taken in a combat situation. You conduct a security/risk assessment based on an analysis of the threat, determine the vulnerabilities of your positions/facilities, determine whether active or passive defensive measures are appropriate, determine what resources (forces, weapons, equipment), are available, develop your defensive plan, then implement it. When lives are at risk, hiding behind policies or training programs will not provide solace to grieving spouses and orphans, or help the deceased or injured employee. Organizational policies should match the threat and actions should reflect the legal tools available to an employer to protect their employees.

Like terrorists, criminals for the most part will avoid hardened targets and will opt to attack soft targets, the actions and policies should reflect a hardened target mentality based on threat and assessed risk, not profit and loss and solely legal liability. An ounce of prevention when dealing with those who would take your life or that of your employees is certainly worth a pound of cure. Our employees should not be put in a position where the fear for their personal safety outweigh the fear of any administrative consequences such as in the Walgreens incident A policy on a piece of paper or ineffective training will not stop a bullet traveling at 1200 to 1500 feet per second. Sound and effective actions to protect your employees will.

One final thought: We don’t need to face insurmountable odds like Admiral Torrey. We just need to make sure our employees don’t.

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Colonel (Ret) Terry Fobbs, PhD, Consultant and Facilitator for Gailforce Resources, is an accomplished public speaker, facilitator and media commentator on human resources, leadership, motivational, national security and community issues. With a BS-Zoology, MBA, Masters in-Strategic Studies, PhD- in Organization & Management specializing in Leadership, Terry has earned the respect of his peers, employer and Gailforce clientele. Terry is an ISO 9000 Certified Lead Assessor, a Baldrige Quality Examiner with the Center for Excellence in Education and the Michigan Quality Council and a recipient of the Michigan Quality Council Quality Hero Award. Terry has served as an adjunct instructor in Business Management for the University of Maryland. He is a member of the Academy of Management and serves as a member of the Academy’s Organizational Development and Entrepreneurship committees. Terry plays active consulting and facilitating roles for Gailforce Resources, working with CEO’s, Boards of Directors, Business Owners, Municipalities and Sector Groups to turn their business strategy into execution and their people into valuable business assets.