If you were to ask someone to describe what comes to mind when thinking about workplace violence, most people would probably describe an enraged employee coming to the workplace with a gun and opening fire. The workplace would always be some “other” environment than our own: a manufacturing plant, a post office, a food processing plant. Most people probably wouldn’t think of scientific lab. Most people wouldn’t think of strangulation.
The tragic death of Annie Le in a Yale Lab was a jolt. From the setting to the victim to the alleged assailant – her death doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of an enraged shooter that we have developed over years of sensationalistic reports of workplace homicides. Those reporting on the news look to make sense of it in ways that fit patterns: was this the result of some romantic relationship gone bad? Was this a boyfriend scorned and taking revenge on the eve of her impending marriage?
The reality is that being killed by a coworker is indeed atypical. Statistically, it’s a relatively rare occurrence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 517 employees were victims of homicide in the workplace last year, a number that has dropped by 52 percent from the high of 1,080 homicides reported in 1994. About three-quarters of all workplace homicides occur in the course of a robbery in settings where money is changing hands – taxis, grocery stores, and gas stations; other common scenarios include public safety workers such as police or home health nurses who are killed in the line of duty, or homicides that occur when domestic violence is carried into the workplace.
Perhaps the rarity of homicide by a coworker is part of what makes it so troubling and puzzling when it does occur. Often, in retrospect, neighbors and family members can point to clues leading up to the act: anger, frustration, or a sense of having been wronged on the part of the perpetrator. In this case, acquaintances express astonishment that lab tech Raymond Clark would be capable of such an act. His supervisor saw nothing in the history of his employment at the university that might indicate the potential for violence. There were a few hints of trouble: a matter of a former girlfriend who charged him with assault – certainly an issue of concern, but one that may not have been known in the workplace. Some coworkers say that he was “a control freak” about his work environment, but that fact alone doesn’t seem to trigger concern – who can’t point to a control freak at their job?
There is always an attempt to figure it out after work homicides occur, to make some sense of things, to spot signs, to find a profile or a pattern. To some degree, this is our very human way of distancing ourselves. It can’t happen here.
Those of us who work in managerial or helping professions can only make sense of things by redoubling our efforts and our commitment to workplace violence prevention. This is always an issue, but perhaps even more so today when peoples’ stress levels are high and nerves are frayed with the bad economy.
Here are some things that employers and managers can do today to honor Annie Le’s memory and to help prevent violence in our own workplace:
- Create a policy on workplace violence prevention and publicize it
- Create a climate of respect and tolerance and ensure that your managers model this behavior
- Have zero tolerance for bullying, bad language, intimidation
- Take threats and talk of violence seriously
- Teach people how to manage anger, conflict, and work disputes in productive ways
- Provide a safe way for people to report incidents that make them uncomfortable
- Give people an avenue to vent frustration or grievances
- Train supervisors and managers to spot a change in work behaviors or symptoms of stress and anger
- Use your EAP. Encourage managers to make referrals. Encourage employees to use EAP services for help with work/life problems.