SHRM Conference Recap: Day 2

The second day of The Society for Human Resource Management annual conference and expo in Orlando, Florida, provided plenty of interesting things for human resources professionals to think about.

For me, today has proved to be particularly thought-provoking on a few topics, first among them workplace violence. I attended a breakout session this morning featuring Kathleen H. McComber, senior director of human resources at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. When McComber worked as corporate vice president of human resources for Edgewater Technology in 2000, one of the firm’s employees, Michael McDermott, showed up to work one day with a bag filled with guns and shot seven of his co-workers to death.

According to McComber, McDermott was upset that the Internal Revenue Service had started to garnish his wages because he failed to pay his taxes. Two weeks earlier, human resources had informed McDermott of the move, and McDermott, according to McComber, went ballistic. On the day of the shootings, the first person McDermott — a software developer for the firm — shot and killed was the woman from human resources who had informed McDermott of the IRS’ decision to garnish his wages.

Needless to say, this personal story from McComber was chilling. McComber proceeded to tell the story of how she had to act — and act quickly — to rush to the aid of those affected by the shooting. Hotlines had to be set up, and counselors were brought in to deal with the emotional after-effects of the tragedy. The most important messages I took away from her personal story weren’t necessarily about her reaction to the shooting — which, in and of itself, was incredibly impressive and effective — but in her words of advice for how employers can be proactive in preventing acts of violence in the workplace before they even happen.

For some, this means rethinking how your office or office building is set up from a security perspective. How many doors provide access to your building and office? Is there a concentrated security desk in the front? In other instances, being proactive means having the necessary awareness to recognize warning signs of an employee who may be prone to potentially violent acts.

In McComber’s case, with the benefit of hindsight, McDermott clearly exhibited warning signs as he reacted with immense anger when he learned of his IRS wage garnishment. Taking such lashing out seriously — even if it may never result in a violent act — is an important step. Even the mere threat of some act could warrant termination if the company feels the employee poses a serious threat to the safety of other workers.

What’s perhaps most disturbing about this story is that McDermott had clearly premeditated his actions. According to McComber, he tried unsuccessfully during his trial to claim insanity, saying during the shooting he had delusions that he was in the 1940s killing Hitler and his minions. When he was arrested, the first thing he said to police officers was, “I don’t speak German,” presumably in an attempt to set up a basis for insanity.

Ultimately, stories like this show that human resources has to have workplace violence on the agenda. Form a task force to research and design a policy and practice for the potential of workplace violence. Train managers on warning signs traditionally associated with workplace violence.

On a less downbeat note, the exposition floor at the conference closed its doors at 2 p.m. ET. As always, there was plenty of interesting activity. In the course of 20 minutes, I saw a giant guy walking around and taking pictures in a bird costume and a Tim McGraw look-alike taking pictures with people at a vendor booth — it definitely wasn’t the real guy.

During the usual expo floor chaos, I had a moment to chat with the folks with wellness provider Interactive Health. As readers of Talent Management know, wellness — specifically, the emergence and popularity of wellness providers — has boomed in recent years. Much of this development has to do with the health care changes for employers in light of the Affordable Care Act, which has propelled many employers to find new ways to mitigate health care costs. Wellness programs — in which employers set up systems to promote healthy activity, including exercise, among employees — have become one of the more popular methods for employers to try to mitigate the amount of money they spend on employee health care. Interactive Health, based in the Chicago area, says it has seen a big boom in recent years as client companies look for guidance on how to develop a wellness culture.

For me, the big question surrounding the effectiveness of wellness programs isn’t around those who choose to participate — employee participation in wellness programs is a choice, and Interactive Health says employers typically do not mandate it — but those who don’t. Being unhealthy — eating bad foods, not exercising, etc. — certainly isn’t a lifestyle I would openly adopt, but it’s not illegal.

What’s more, unhealthy employees can still be high performers, despite their perceived poor health choices. The question therefore becomes: How does a company create a robust wellness culture without isolating those who choose not to live a wellness-friendly lifestyle?

There’s certainly a thin line to tread. And who knows what the answer is. Companies that are serious about building a wellness program, in my opinion, should think of how they can promote wellness as an option at employees’ disposal — similar to a 401(k) — instead of pushing it loudly into employees’ faces on a daily basis. Provide the tools and create awareness, but don’t stuff it down people’s throats.

SHRM departs a little bit from the HR world tonight, as Tim McGraw — yes, the real country singer — takes the stage to perform. I’ve got my wristband ready to go. It should be a good time. HR folks sure do know how to throw a party.

The conference wraps up Wednesday, with former first lady Laura Bush delivering the morning keynote and a host of breakout sessions that end in the early afternoon.