Pondering the Impact of Workplace Violence

Organizations prepared to deal with violence are the exception rather than the rule. There were 564 workplace homicides in 2005, and homicide is the leading cause of death for women at work and the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury for men.

“…May all who leave here know the impact of violence…” – Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

Having accepted a gracious invitation from Ms. Leslie Goddard, Director, Idaho Human Rights Commission, to speak on workplace violence prevention at the Idaho Employment Law Conference, I was working on my presentation when I suddenly had to go to Oklahoma City on business. 

On the flight from Denver, I sat next to a very nice, gregarious gentleman who turned out to be the uncle of Rachel Scott; his 17-year-old niece was the first student killed at Columbine High School in that notorious mass murder on April 20, 1999.

Rachel was well-known for her acts of kindness and compassion.  Larry Scott related to me an example in which several guys at school were obviously picking on a boy that she knew.  Rachel immediately called the bullies on their actions; despite her slight frame, she put up her fists and told them that before they could pick on the other boy again they would have to come through her.  This courageous effort to prevent bullying was typical of Rachel, who was awarded the Acts of Kindness Association 2001 National Kindness Award for Student of the Year

Larry told me about his work with “Rachel’s Challenge,” noting that the basis for the name of the program was her statement that “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”

Rachel’s family and friends had turned their grief into a positive force by creating a foundation in her memory to educate school children and their parents – at first around the country and now around the world — about Rachel’s challenge.  The organization has more than two dozen speakers who reach hundreds of thousands of school children and parents each year.

I was so fascinated by Larry’s stories about Rachel and the foundation that the flight to Oklahoma City seemed exceptionally short.  I had never been to the downtown area, but the building at which I conducted training for two days was just about directly across from what had been the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.  This U.S. government office complex was, as so many of remember all too clearly, bombed on April 19, 1995, in a terrorist attack which claimed 168 lives and left over 800 injured.   

“The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum was created to honor those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever” by the bombing. “The Memorial and Museum are dedicated to educating visitors about the impact of violence, informing about events surrounding the bombing, and inspiring hope and healing through lessons learned by those affected.” 

After the class was over the first day, I walked past the exterior wall of the memorial, where I first read the solemn inscription that leads off this article.  The next afternoon I went into the National Memorial & Museum.  I did not have time to go through the museum, but was allowed to wander around the lobby and go into the gift shop.  I then went out and walked the grounds, taking the time to talk with a National Park Service interpretive ranger. 

The whole area has been beautifully designed, with such features as the Gates of Time, marking the moment of destruction in the different sides of the building, and the Field of Empty Chairs, which includes 168 symbolic chairs, crafted of brass and stone, each with a glass base etched with the name of a victim.  The chairs are placed in nine rows, representing the nine floors of the building; they are designed in two sizes, the smaller size representing the 19 children who died.

The Reflecting Pool occupies what was once Northwest Fifth Street.  This “shallow depth of gently flowing water is intended to help soothe wounds, with calming sounds providing a peaceful setting for quiet thoughts.”

I found my visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum to be a very moving experience.  I incorporated both it and my impromptu discussion with Larry Scott into my presentation for the Idaho Employment Law Conference.

It was obvious from the reactions and questions from the audience in Boise, which included a number of human resources and equal employment opportunity practitioners from state and local government entities as well as representatives of the Idaho Attorney General’s office, that these folks were familiar with threats of violence at the workplace and with bullying behavior.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the workplace is the most dangerous place to be in America.  As I noted in a previous article (See Violence in the Workplace: Is Your Agency Prepared?), workplace violence is so pervasive that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have classified it as a national epidemic.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), there were 564 workplace homicides in 2005, and homicide is the leading cause of death for women at work and the second leading cause of fatal occupational injury for men.

Often, domestic violence follows employees to work.  For example, the DOJ estimates that husbands and boyfriends commit 13,000 acts of violence against women in the workplace each year.

As I also mentioned in the previous article, USA Today ran a series of articles a few years ago under the headline, “Managers not prepared for workplace violence.”  From all that I have read, organizations prepared to deal with workplace violence are still the exception rather than the rule.

I plan to address three aspects of workplace violence in future articles:  1) Dealing effectively with threats; 2) how to protect employees who are victims of domestic violence as well as their fellow workers, supervisors and managers, customers, and anyone else who might be at the workplace at the time of an incident; and 3) bullying, a fast-growing problem in many organizations.

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.