Workplace homicide is the leading cause of death among female workers in the US and is the second leading cause of death for men. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 856 employees that were murdered on the job in 1997 and of those, 731 (85%) died during robberies. Among those killed during robberies, 46 percent worked in the retail trade such as convenience stores, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants. Another 17 percent worked in the service industry which includes taxi service, hotels, auto repair, and guard services. Of the remaining 15% of workplace homicides, 10% involved vindictive customers and co-workers, and 5% involved angry relatives and acquaintances.
High Risk Occupations
Law enforcement, prison and jail officers, security workers, convenience stores, gas stations, fast-food outlets, liquor stores, and taxi services have always had a greater exposure to violence because of the nature of those occupations or cash-based, extended-hour businesses. Aside from homicides, we can’t forget about the 18,000 employees who are non-fatally assaulted every week while on the job. Similar to homicides, 85% of those employees assaulted worked in those same high-risk occupation categories.
One can logically understand the violence associated with high-risk occupations. The nature of the premises and location creates a criminal opportunity for those desperate for cash. See my webpage on Crime Foreseeability. But how does one explain the recent pattern that is emerging where seemingly safe locations, such as private office buildings, are being used as the site for seeking revenge against one’s enemies?
There is not one single answer to explain why gun violence occurs in office settings. In high-risk occupations and locations, the business is usually the target and an employee becomes victimized during the commission of a criminal act. In the office setting the targets are co-employees and supervisors irregardless of the nature of the business.
Even though workplace homicides in business offices only represent a small percentage of the total, it is disconcerting that we can no longer feel safe in an otherwise safe setting. What makes workers go on a rampage and start shooting fellow workers is too complex an issue for this single web page. However, most experts agree that the rage associated with the desire to kill fellow workers was probably detectable before the incident and was not adequately addressed either at home or on the job.
Unlike youthful robbers, workplace killers are usually older, over 35, and have significant tenure on the job. Almost all are male. Many have been described as "loners" who have been chronically disgruntled and have had problems with authority. The killer profile suggests that they never accept blame for their mistakes and had a tendency to transfer responsibility to others. The profile indicates that they don’t accept change well and are overly suspicious and sometimes even paranoid of co-workers. Many workplace killers believed that they were being intentionally held back from promotion by their incompetent supervisors.
The media would have us believe that these workplace killers were normal everyday people who just "snapped" one day and then went on a killing spree. Well, it doesn’t happen that way…people don’t just snap! If they did, there would be a lot more incidents of workplace homicides. In almost every case following a shooting spree, investigators were able to identify multiple "red flags" that indicated that the worker was angry, frustrated, and blamed their victims for their troubles. Some flags seen in other workplace killers have been a pattern of dehumanizing or objectifying others through comments, rude remarks, and harassment. These blaming behaviors are a way of assigning blame to others for one's own shortcomings.
Often the conduct increases in frequency and intensity and includes seemingly empty verbal threats. Employers should watch for changes in behavior, attendance, productivity, personal hygiene, and social isolation. Killing sprees usually are the culmination of many years of unresolved personal problems and mismanaged stresses. Problems with alcohol and drugs, financial worries, and marriage and family pressures often aggravated their problems while coping with this fast-paced society.
Most experts agree that there are "triggers" in the workplace that sometimes will seemingly push the unstable person over the edge. How a company handles the triggering event can make a difference in the escalation of a potentially violent situation. Common workplace triggers that might instigate violence are terminations, layoffs, bad performance evaluations, and believing they were passed over for promotion. It seems that it is the workplace triggering event that often brings the focus of the aggression against the employer rather than some other target. However, we have seen rampages where family, friends, and co-workers were all targeted as if in one clean sweep.
Workplace violence experts believe that disgruntled employees need to have an outlet to vent frustrations and a pipeline to submit grievances to upper levels of management. They argue that if such an outlet existed then violence triggers would be more than likely be defused. A problem that we now recognize is that supervisors are often ill equipped to handle such emotional needs of those they oversee.
In addition to having knowledge about fair employment practices, discrimination, and drug abuse, now business managers and supervisors need training on how to deal with these potential violence triggers. Problematic employees will still have to be terminated and disciplined, but now more than ever they need to be treated fairly and with dignity.
Workplace violence will not be a simple problem to solve because it is so complex and often involves external pressures unrelated to the job. A simple knee-jerk reaction won’t resolve this problem nor will doing nothing. Metal detectors and armed guards at all building entrances are too extreme of a solution in most cases to be socially acceptable. More gun control legislation won’t solve this problem very soon either. It is recommended that companies adopt a zero tolerance against employee-to-employee violence in the workplace. Key mangers should be trained to detect the early warning signs and how to handle them. A system needs to be in place where complaints are received and investigated. A clearly defined and articulated workplace violence policy is important, along with a fair and even-handed discipline procedure for those would don't follow the rules.
Like many other problems we face today, awareness and education is the key to understanding along with better communication. Meanwhile, corporate America will be addressing workplace violence in various ways. Some are taking extreme physical security measures and shoring up their company policies and procedures. Others are taking the attitude that it won’t happen here and will do nothing. Our society is rapidly evolving and hopefully we will move past this current crisis.
What do you think?