Violence in the Workplace: Is Your Agency Prepared?

Violence in the workplace can happen anywhere. Despite the myths that often accompany violent behavior, agencies can take action that can prevent violence. recently published an article by my GRA colleague, Bob Gilson (Are You Ready? Federal Managers and Supervisors Should Prepare for Difficult Situations and Events) that provided terrific advice to managers and supervisors on how to deal with a variety of difficult situations. In this article, I’m going to spin off (that sounds so much nicer than “steal”) one of Bob’s points, which was on dealing with violence in the workplace.

In the aftermath of a bloody 10-day period which included the Virginia Tech mass murders, a killing in an office building in Troy, Michigan and one at the National Aeronautical & Space Administration (NASA) in Houston, the inevitable second-guessing took place as to what, if anything, could have been done to prevent these tragic events from occurring.

Due to the enormity of the Virginia Tech tragedy, virtually every detail of the shootings has been recounted by the media, while somewhat less attention has been paid to the other two incidents.

In Troy, Michigan, a man walked into Gordon Advisors, PC, and opened fire on three coworkers. He had been fired from the firm the previous week, police said.

According to Associated Press accounts, the gunman in the NASA incident, a contractor, somehow managed to get a snub-nosed revolver through security, then barricaded himself in a building that houses communications and tracking systems for the space shuttle. He shot and killed a man and duct-taped a woman to a chair for hours before finally shooting and killing himself.

Houston’s Police Chief said William Phillips bought the .38-caliber revolver March 18, two days after receiving an e-mail citing deficiencies in his job performance and advising him that he was going to be reviewed. A copy of the e-mail was found in Phillips’ lunch bag on the day of the shootings.

On the day of the incident, Phillips had lunch with David Beverly and another man, police said. Then, early that afternoon, Phillips entered Beverly’s office with the gun in his hand and said "You’re the one who’s going to get me fired." After the two men talked for several minutes, Phillips shot Beverly twice, left the office, returned, and shot Beverly two more times.

One of the ongoing problems in preventing workplace violence is the myth that “It can’t happen here.” That myth is alive and well, as illustrated by the NASA situation, in which an agency spokesperson said after the incident, "Right now we’re trying to understand why this happened, how this happened. But of course we never believed this could happen here to our family and our situation."

As has been tragically demonstrated again and again, it can happen anywhere and at any time. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, workplace violence is so pervasive that the Centers for Disease Control have classified it as a national epidemic:

USA Today ran a series on the subject a few years ago under the headline, “Managers not prepared for workplace violence.” The articles noted that:

  • In an average week in the U.S., one employee is killed and 25 are seriously injured in violent assaults by current or former co-workers.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), there were 639 workplace homicides in 2001 in the U.S., out of a total of 8,786 fatal work injuries, not including the 2,886 work-related fatalities that resulted from the events of September 11th.
  • In 8 of 10 cases USA Today experts analyzed, killers left behind clear warning signs, such as:
    • Showing guns to co-workers;
    • Threatening their bosses; or
    • Talking about attacking.

The USA series debunked another prominent myth — that violence in the workplace can’t be prevented — but found in its analysis that:

  • Many companies fail to identify risks or to teach managers how to defuse tensions that can precipitate an attack;
  • Supervisors frequently fail to react when workers say they’re scared;
  • Management often fails to take extra precautions, even after an event that could trigger an attack;
  • Honeywell hired back an employee who served four years in prison for fatally strangling a co-worker; then he killed again.
  • In developing this article, I spoke with nationally known violence prevention expert John Nicoletti, Ph.D. Dr. Nicoletti, a police psychologist in the Denver area for more than 25 years, is the co-founder of Nicoletti-Flater Associates, testified numerous times before the Columbine (High School) Review Commission, and co-published Violence Goes to Work (1997, MSEC). He provided me with several additional points to ponder:

    Myth: People just snap.

    Reality: They always broadcast their intentions (i.e., to harm someone).

    Do’s: If they broadcast such intentions, believe them.

    Do Not’s: Don’t worry alone. In other words, when you perceive threatening behavior, immediately contact your supervisor, a security official, your Employee Assistance Program and/or others who are in a position to be of assistance.

    I will close by revisiting the question with which I opened this article: Is your agency prepared to deal with violence in the workplace?

    Despite the fact that the grim term “going postal” originated in the Federal sector, and that a number of violent incidents – some resulting in fatalities – have taken place in Federal agencies, I would guess that most Federal employees either don’t believe their agency is adequately prepared to deal with workplace violence or don’t know.

    In this article I have just scratched the surface of this important, complex and multi-faceted problem. In future articles, I will address such issues as dealing effectively with workplace threats and bullying incidents; workplace violence prevention training; planning for the aftermath of workplace violence; how supervisors and employees can help defuse potentially violent situations; and how individuals can best protect themselves.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.