On Aug. 2, 1999, an aircraft mechanic opened fire in a cafeteria at the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, killing five people and injuring 17 others before he was fatally wounded in a shootout with military police.
After the incident, the shooter’s co-workers, friends and family members revealed that the man had been deeply depressed by the impending closure of the Air Force base. Even though the Base Closure and Realignment Commission made the decision to shutter the base, the man blamed his superiors for not doing enough to fight for the base’s survival. Just two weeks prior to the shooting, the man’s wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and his friends and colleagues confided that they’d grown concerned about his drinking in recent months.
If this tragedy doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because it never happened.
In the six years between the BRAC decision and the base’s official closure on July 13, 2001, Kelly Air Force Base recorded no homicides, suicides or incidents of workplace violence. Kelly, which was the Air Force’s oldest continuously active flying base, employed some 13,000 people.
James Campbell Quick, a retired Air Force Reserve colonel and a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington, played a key role in managing the closure of Kelly Air Force Base. Although he was a full colonel at the time, it was in his capacity as one of the world’s foremost experts on stress management that base leadership called on Quick to help minimize any potential mental health problems triggered by the shutdown.
Quick helped the base develop a surveillance and intervention plan that focused on identifying the highest-risk individuals and making sure they got the help they needed.
“I told our [commanding general] at the time that I wasn’t worried about most of the 13,000 employees,” Quick recalls. “They might get a little diarrhea, and yell and scream, and the wife or the husband might get a little more energy directed at them – but they’d be OK long-term. I told him I was worried about the one, two or three people who would get a weapon and want to know who was in charge – of course, that was [the general].”
Under Quick’s guidance, the commanding general hired a full-time organizational clinical psychologist – Dr. Charlie Klunder – and the base identified roughly 300 people who fit into the “high-risk” category. To help identify those high-risk employees, the base created reference cards for supervisors, listing potential red-flag behaviors, intervention tips and points of contact. (For a list of red-flag behaviors, see related link on the next page, “Warning Signs of Workplace Violence.”)
Quick emphasizes that the goal was to help high-risk employees, not punish them. To that end, the base contracted seven “transition life advisors,” who conducted discussion groups and stress-management workshops and met with employees individually. The advisors referred workers to financial and family counseling, job-training programs and other services as needed.
“We engaged the security forces in what we were doing, but it was not about disciplining people or dropping the hammer on them,” Quick says. “It was about finding out who needed what help and how we could get it to them. And by helping those high-risk folks, we were able to prevent all kinds of problems.”
The focus wasn’t just on the so-called high-risk employees.
Quick penned an article for the base newspaper providing stress-management tips for all employees. The article explained that stress and anxiety from the impending shutdown are normal reactions, and the piece encouraged employees to seek help if they needed it.
Throughout the six-year closure process, the workforce’s mental health has the full attention of base leadership. Once a month, base leaders – along with Klunder, occupational health nurses, safety police and other stakeholders – met “to talk about what’s going on in the workforce,” Quick recalls.
Beyond the lives that were spared, the prevention strategy helped Kelly Air Force Base avoid an estimated $33 million in costs that the Air Force would’ve incurred from lawsuits, complaints and other repercussions of workplace violence.
Quick’s experience at Kelly Air Force undoubtedly informed the findings from his latest research paper. Quick, along with colleague M. Ann McFadyen, argue that employers can prevent workplace violence by keeping high-risk workers positively engaged, and by closely supervising them to ensure that they get the help they need.
Quick and McFadyen, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Texas at Arlington, analyzed FBI reports, case studies and HR records to focus on the estimated 1 to 3 percent of employees who are prone to acts of workplace violence.
Their research also concludes that “a strong newcomer socialization process” can go a long way toward preventing workplace violence.
“Corporations need to plug troubled employees into the social network immediately so they don’t store up these negative feelings whenever and wherever they get them,” says Quick. Encouraging new hires to “become part of the fabric of the organization” also helps them learn the organization’s core values, behaviors and expectations, “so they really understand what they’re getting into and there are no surprises.”
Ideally, organizations would be able to screen prospective employees for the threat of any “surprises” before they made it to the payroll. But Quick notes that it’s difficult to pre-screen employees for these tendencies, as they often don’t display the inclination for dangerous behavior during the interview process.
“It’s often something that those employees get once they’re in a job,” Quick says. “That’s why socialization and making sure employees air out what’s bothering them are two big factors in whether the behavior eventually becomes an incident.”
It’s imperative to keep high-risk employees talking about their issues, Quick emphasizes.
“You can’t allow the dangerous employee to bury the issue,” Quick says. “And sometimes organizations have a problem in wanting to see the issue come to the surface [before addressing it]. Organizations have to admit they could be part of the problem.”