By Johnny Lee, Peace at Work
With the tragic massacre at the beer distribution plant in Connecticut earlier this month, the fear of workplace violence has reared its head again. While these cases are rare overall, it does comes on the heels of another workplace shooting when a former employee killed two and wounded others at a manufacturing plant in Albuquerque, NM. However, in this case, the motive did not appear to be due to his dismissal from his employer but rather his girlfriend. While much attention is given to screening applicants and managing termination issues, the threat of violence from employees intimate relationships can be just as great.
How does a domestic violence situation become a workplace hazard? After all, by definition, the violence is something that relates to home life. Unfortunately, especially for many women, the danger is very real. After leaving an abusive partner, they may be staying at a women's shelter or otherwise undisclosed location, but the abuser knows just where they can find them, Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm. Particularly in service and retail occupations, the workplace may be one of the most exposed aspects of their lives.
In a comprehensive study conducted in North Carolina, it was found that 75 percent of women killed at work were murdered by their ex-partners, excluding robberies. Therefore, when we are talking about workplace violence, a woman’s main fear is not a fired employee or a disgruntled client, but rather someone who has intimate knowledge of work habits. The Emcore shooting in Albuquerque mentioned above occurred just when the victim was taking her smoke break outside.
However, statistics only confirm what experience already knows. Almost all veteran security professionals can relate a string of cases that involved an estranged husband or boyfriend threatening a female employee. In one quote from the Personnel Journal, 94 percent of corporate security directors rank intimate partner violence as a high security problem.
And we are not just talking about employees. Clients often bring with them security concerns. Hospitality, health care and education all have high incident rates of patrons or patients whose personal troubles become the security director’s responsibility. In an example that also shows how sometimes the male can be the victim, a woman shot her husband last summer as he lay in intensive care at West Virginia’s Charleston Area Medical Center. The wife had allegedly been arguing with her spouse before she was made to leave. She returned later in the day with a handgun and shot him in the head before passing the pistol to a doctor and waiting for security to seize her.
This single-minded focus on the homicide is not only common but also has implications for security planning. In Peace@Work’s 2009 study of 500 domestic violence assaults that occurred in the workplace, almost 10 percent of the assailants waited to be arrested or actually called the authorities themselves. Add this to the third that attempt or commit suicide and security planning needs to incorporate the fatalistic character of the assailants. Simply put, security cameras may only provide forewarning if continually monitored but would not act as any deterrence. In fact, there were only a few cases where the perpetrator tried to evade capture or identification.
Perhaps the most valuable finding was the parameters around the event. The most common situation for the assault (20 percent) was in the parking lot, at the beginning of the shift. When planning the assault, the workplace was where he was certain to find her next. Additionally, the parking lot was the most frequent location of the assault (42 percent), perhaps due to the exposure but often because the victim went outside for privacy when the abuser showed up at work and the argument ensued. Understanding these risk areas has clear implication in security planning as to where to put your resources.
While every situation needs to be thoroughly assessed, a few prevention ideas to consider are to offer the most protected parking location, request patrol presence at the beginning and end of shift, and even have them use a different car, if possible. Obtain a copy of any restraining orders and consider taking one out as the property owner. As harassment and threats are common, change the victim’s phone extension, screen calls and remove them from any exposed positions or duties. One case that I know of involved a woman who worked in one of those little parking booths at the lot entrance. Naturally, re-assignment was an immediate measure. For more dire situations, moving to another location, site or even remote working are other options to consider, along with hiring an off-duty officer.
Prepare for the worst and have an action plan established should he arrive, provide them a means to summon support or even a code word if captured. Do not forget security planning for their off-duty situation as well; your local domestic violence shelter can be great assistance (or call the National Hotline at 1.800.799.7233). However, all of these measures may be received differently from an executive threatened by a laid-off worker.
There are complex issues that often frustrate security directors who work with the targeted victim. All too often, the case is red-lined to take precedence with multi-departmental meetings and resources engaged only later to have the victim fail to follow up or worse yet, return to the abuser. Combined with the fact that the victim employee will most likely have serious attendance and performance issues, it all lends towards “letting the employee go”. This would not only maintain employee discipline consistency but would also remove the potential threat. After all, in 42 percent of the 500 cases, co-workers, clients, managers and even security personnel were also assaulted or even killed. In the worst case, in March 2009, Robert Stewart murdered seven elderly residents and one nurse in a Carthage, N.C. retirement home where his wife was working.
However, simply firing the victim could also be the most dangerous tactic. While you may “resolve” the current threat, this action will discourage the disclosure of other threats from victims and co-workers. With some studies showing 1 in 5 women experiencing violence at some point from a partner, it is likely that any large employer will have multiple potential domestic situations, if not current, certainly pending. If you fire an employee for just being a victim, you may not know about the next potential threat till it comes bursting through the door with a fully loaded clip.
As always, early prevention is best and that means creating an environment and workplace culture where the victim feels safe and supported when they disclose their extremely embarrassing and personal situation. Ensure that management provides administrative support such as time off or changing personnel information (beneficiary, emergency contact, wage allocation). An Employee Assistance Program should be connected with community resources. Post flyers in the women’s bathroom and provide training or brown bag luncheons. But most importantly, when the victim or a co-worker comes forward with a concern, confirm that they did the right thing by responding confidentially, with support and with a focus on safety for all. For real, long term prevention, it is the atmosphere for support and care of employees that encourages the disclosure of potential threats.
Johnny Lee is founder and director of Peace at Work, an agency that has been working to stop violence in and throughout the workplace since 2003. He wrote Addressing Domestic Violence in the Workplace in 2004, published by HRD Press. He was the former Workplace Violence Specialist for the N.C. Office of State Personnel and is also the creator of the ePanic Button, a duress alarm software program.