Circumstances of Aurora Shooting Should Remind Employers to Treat Employees Like Human Beings

I’ll say this upfront. There is no justification in the murder of five employees by Gary Martin at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, IL. There is no justification of Martin’s shooting of five police officers. There is no justification of the terror Martin created in an hour of senseless death and mayhem. There is no justification in denying children of their fathers, of wives their husbands, or of parents their children. One of the employees killed had only been been employed at Henry Pratt for one day.

But I will also say this: Gary Martin knew he was going to be ignominiously fired, stewed about it for weeks, and finally took the worst recourse that any employee can take under the pressure of termination from an employer.

Yes, Martin was a convicted felon. Twenty years ago. Yes, his crimes involving the beating and stabbing of a girlfriend were horrific. But if the State of Mississippi felt that Martin had paid his debt to society through incarceration and any other terms of release, that episode was over. Martin served three years, moved to Illinois, and started his life anew. Where did he eventually land a job? At the Henry Pratt factory.

Thus began a fifteen year or more stretch of employment at Henry Pratt. Martin kept to himself. He had three things in his life–his job, his drone and remote control car hobby, and working on his car. His neighbors did not know him well, as he understandably stayed out of trouble and largely kept to himself, but he carried on a number of positive relationships with the merchants local to his home.

There are yet no reports from the Henry Pratt Co. or his co-workers whether he was an outstanding employee or a troublesome employee. The reasons for his termination have also not been released–whether it was for economic or disciplinary reasons. This really doesn’t matter. When employers are going to lay off or fire employees, particularly long-service employees, it should be noted that it is always best to treat them like human beings. Like you and I would like to be treated.

Employees should only be fired or laid off after all attempts have been made, assuming the employee is not disruptive, to rehabilitate an employee or provide for retraining to take advantage of their particular skills. Former Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher, who died last month, said it best: “Nothing kills your company’s culture like layoffs,” he said to Fortune in 2001. “You want to show your people that you value them and you’re not going to hurt them just to get a little more money in the short term. Not furloughing people breeds loyalty. It breeds a sense of security. It breeds a sense of trust.”

A certain machismo has triumphed in American management, one where employees are fired like chattel via email, via sudden conference room meetings, or in Martin’s case, personally by a faux-regretful general manager and smiling human resource staff in a get-tough-rip-off-the-band-aid style. US companies have really never been known for their warm fuzzy handling of employees, and I would guess this is the case for the environment at Henry Pratt, a division of Mueller Water Products. A check of crowd-sourced review site Glassdoor shows that Mueller gets mixed marks from its employees, with high marks for interesting work, friendly workers, and challenging engineering offset by low marks for an unprofessional HR department, arrogant managers and executives, and an unpopular CEO. The few reviews specific to Henry Pratt on job site Indeed generally follow the gist of Glassdoor reviews for Mueller.

So while the nation mourns the loss of life in another workplace shooting, Mueller has some cleaning up to do in its human resource department and maybe among its management ranks. Assuming the company is capable of being introspective at all. Assuming the company want to improve relations with its employees and its union. And assuming the union wants to prevent the circumstances of Martin’s rampage from arising ever again. Because people like to be treated like human beings. And the unintended consequences for not doing so can be horrific.

2/19/19 update: Comments by Herb Kelleher were added.

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