What do these people have in common?
• Silvio Izquierdo-Leyva
• Bryan Uyesugi
• Alan Miller
• Mark Barton
• Mathew Beck
• Arturo Torres
• Arthus Wise
• Kenneth Tornes
• James Simpson
• Willie Woods
They are all violent employees and collectively they killed fifty-three of their bosses or fellow workers. These are neither isolated incidents, nor are they unusual. They have all happened in the past five years. The number of violent acts in the workplace has increased by 300 percent in the past 10 years and homicide has become the second leading cause of death on the job. An average of 20 people per week are murdered while at work in the USA and 18,000 are assaulted each week. More than 1000 workplace homicides take place every year in the US.
The cost of workplace violence is staggering. Canadian figures are not readily available, but in the USA it amounts to between 4 and 6 billion dollars a year. But this is only the tip of the cost iceberg. Employees who witness violent acts suffer from increased stress, lower morale, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and turnover. In 1997 this translated into 876,000 lost workdays and sixteen billion dollars in lost wages and the numbers are much higher now.
Employers have a duty to provide their employees with a workplace that is safe and free from hazards. This includes the actions of other employees. Companies are liable for the actions of their employees. This means that a company can be held responsible even if the company did nothing wrong. The employer is responsible for the actions of an employee even when the employee is not acting in accordance with company policies.
These laws are particularly important in the hiring process since employers can and are held liable on the grounds of negligent hiring or negligent retention of an employee who has a known propensity for violence. But how can you tell who is likely to be violent? There are some warning signs and profiles of violent employees, but few people are trained to recognize them and even fewer people understand what to do about it when they think they have identified a potentially dangerous person.
A potentially violent individual may show these characteristics:
• is a loner with low self esteem
• has trouble controlling anger
• is frequently in disagreements with management
• abuses drugs or alcohol
• is obsessed with weapons
• complains about injustices at work
• makes frequent threats
• complains of being victimized
• blames mistakes on somebody else
• stalks or harasses co-workers
There are four general types of violent employees:
1. The Overtly Violent Employee. These kinds of people make their violent intentions known and will not hesitate to physically attack others, engage in arson, or destroy company or other people’s property. If they say they are going home to go and get a gun, believe them!
2. The Dangerous Employee. These people are often recognized only after the fact, as a problem that was waiting to happen. They have trouble handling anxiety, are quick to anger and may have been violent in the past. Anyone who gets in the way of these people during a violent episode is in serious danger.
3. The Covertly Violent Employee. These people may not exhibit violent behaviour, but are often involved in covert activities designed to disrupt the workplace or co-workers. They may use anonymous letters, sabotage, rumours and other indirect forms of aggression to disturb people or damage the firm.
4. Estranged Husbands or Boyfriends. These people make threatening calls to their mates or ex-mates and may be known to the police because of previous domestic problems. When they become violent, they attack their victims in the workplace and often include others as their targets.
These assaults can happen in any business. Harris worked for a car wash; Uyesugi was a copier repairman; Miller was a truck driver; Barton was a day trader, Beck worked at a lottery, Wise was a parts plant employee, Simpson was with a refinery and Woods was a city electrician.
The financial problems for employers don’t end with the violence itself. Survivors of attacks, families of the victims and even the violent offenders themselves can and do sue employers. A supermarket chain was found liable for the actions of an employee who attacked a boy urinating on the building. The child was awarded $150,000. In another case the family of a female employee who was stalked and killed by a fellow worker, sued the company for negligent hiring and retention of the killer. There have even been cases in which the violent offender successfully sued the employer for wrongful dismissal claiming that their actions were the result of mental illness.
Identifying and handling a potentially dangerous employee is fraught with difficulties. Dealing with the aftermath of employee violence is horrible for everyone. The costs to employers are extremely high even before the settlement of lawsuits. Everyone hopes that they haven’t hired a potentially violent employee, but the very best solution is not to hire them in the first place. Up to now, this has been hard to do since there were no accurate, reliable instruments that could identify applicants that were prone to violence. However new assessment instruments have been created to identity proneness to violence, hostility, intimidation, disrespect for authority, subversion, intolerance, disciplinary problems, overbearing behavior, anxiety and arrogance. These instruments are important tools for any firm that hopes to avoid violent employees, protect their employees and stay out of court. Any firm that doesn’t take advantage of these tools is putting themselves, their co-workers and their firm in serious danger.