OHS Canada Magazine

Pepsi’s safety director breaks down warning signs for workplace violence

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September 20, 2022
By Todd Humber

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(Mark Poprocki/Adobe Stock)

Editor’s Note: This week, the OHS Canada team is at the National Safety Council (NSC) conference and exhibition in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Violent workplace incidents often seem like they’re unpredictable and come out of the blue. But when the dust settles, the investigation almost always reveals warning signs that things weren’t quite right, according to Lev Pobirsky, the Philadelphia-based senior director of safety and security at Pepsi.

That’s why it’s crucial for managers and leaders to engage with employees on a regular basis. In too many cases, managers and leaders are turning a blind eye, Pobirsky told the audience at a session at the National Safety Council (NSC) conference in San Diego on Sept. 19.

For one, it’s easier to ignore a problem. Some managers are what he called “95 years old in spirit.”

“They’ve already got their ticket to Miami, and they’re retiring and they will see no evil,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with it.”


On the other end of the scale, young and relatively inexperienced managers might be afraid to have conversations.

“We try to tell them, ‘Look, you’ve got to have the intestinal fortitude to approach people and have different conversations,’” he said.

Labour shortage lowers the bar

Another issue facing employers is the talent shortage, which is forcing some employers to lower hiring standards.

“Folks that we wouldn’t have hired 10 or 20 years ago we’re now begging to come to work for us,” he said.

That includes people who may have been in prison and had prior criminal convictions, which is great — as people deserve a second chance, he said. But it also means employers and managers are working with people with complex histories.

Warning signs

One of the first things Pobirsky sees as a red flag is a shift in someone’s attitude.

“It’s when a good employee suddenly becomes a not great employee. Or maybe if they’re already bad, now they’re really bad. Maybe they’re more argumentative or their performance decreases.”

That shift in attitude merits some intervention, he said.

Another issue is when a person starts to take interest, or has a weird obsession, with other workplace violence events. For example, he discussed the mass shooting in December 2015 at an office Christmas party in San Bernadino, Calif., that killed 14 and injured 22 others.

If an employee were to talk about that, or express admiration for it and discuss how they might go about doing the same thing — that obviously is a major concern.

The third sign of something wrong is social withdrawal, he said.

“There is some evidence and correlation between suicidal ideations and workplace violence events,” he said.

Concerning behaviours

Pobirsky highlighted the following behaviours as warning signs:

Level one

  • Temper tantrums
  • Excessive absenteeism
  • Decrease in productivity/performance
  • Testing limits
  • Disrespect for authority/overreaction to policy

Level two

  • Verbalizes negative actions/harm: “If I could…”
  • Sabotage/theft
  • Number and intensity of arguments rises, paranoia

Level three

  • Intense anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Suicidal threats
  • Property destruction

False sense of security

Pobirsky warned attendees not to get complacent because they think there are “no bad people” where they live. Violence can happen in any workplace, in any community, he said.

And it’s not just limited to the United States. You don’t need to look far to find stories in Canada of workplace rampages that have resulted in death and serious injury. For example, the man who recently murdered a Toronto police officer promptly drove to his workplace and shot and killed two people.

“People always feel like it’s not going to happen here,” he said. “My employees, my team, they’re awesome. And yes, it seems like that outwardly but that might not necessarily be the case.”

Policy can go a long way

While it’s a broad stereotype, Pobirsky said organizations with policies in place are less likely to suffer a violent incident at work.

There are obvious things employers should be doing, such as having consistent and well-designed policies on how terminations are handled. The last thing you want to do is reinvent the wheel for every situation, he said.

There should also be a way to inform all employees that people have been let go and former staff should never be allowed access to the workplace.

“When I started at Pepsi, I would see employees that I knew were no longer here in the lobby of various buildings a month or two later,” he said. They came in to pick up their last paycheques.

“So that’s when I introduced Pepsi to the U.S. Postal Service,” he said. “We’ve got these things called stamps, and you put them on an envelope and they’ll take it wherever you want.”

Bottom line: Engage your employees

The most important thing employers can do boils down to one thing: Engage your staff.

“If you’re not engaged with them, they’re not going to tell you the issues that come up and you’re never going to be able to solve them before it’s too late,” he said.

It often gets a hot-potato treatment where nobody wants to deal with it, and those are the situations where things boil over, he said.


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