Preventing Violence in Today's Workplace

Workplace crime and aggressive behavior experts look at what can be done to prevent workplace shootings before they occur

On Monday, Jan. 30, 2006, a female ex-employee walked into a U.S. Post Office processing facility near Santa Barbara, Calif., and opened fire on employees. At the end of the incident six people were dead, another seriously injured, and then the shooter turned the gun on herself. Without surprise, the major news media reported that the shooter was believed to have had mental problems that may have exacerbated the situation.

Where do these kind of incidents start? What should security persons know about preventing these kinds of scenarios before they occur?

Profiling the Crime

Rosemary J. Erickson, Ph.D., a forensic sociologist and president of Athena Research Corporation, who deals with workplace crime prevention, says that the incident at the Goleta, Calif.-facility, doesn't fit the typically profile of workplace violence.

"In general, about 75 percent of workplace violence incidents are robbery-related," says Erickson. "The multiple homicide incidents perpetrated by someone inside the company are really only about 10 percent. While these are the events that tend to get the most exposure, they are by far much less common than the scenario of the criminal coming into the company for a robbery. So, after the 75 percent that are robbery-type crimes, you have 25 percent left, and much of those are domestic-violence related, such as a husband attacking a wife at the workplace. Then the last 10 percent is the type of incident that happened at the postal facility in California.

"Another important part of the profile is that 90 percent of violent crimes at the workplace are by males, so even if you're on alert for this kind of behavior, you're looking for a male, not the woman," continues Erickson. "So you can start to see how rare this kind of incident is where a female employee commits a multiple homicide/suicide."

But even though the statistics mark Monday's workplace homicide as an unlikely incident, Erickson says that she has been seeing an up-tick in these kinds of incidents that don't fit into the typical criminal profile.

"This multiple slaying is where I'm seeing an increase. While crime on the whole has been declining, we're seeing homicides increasing, especially instances of multiple slayings, so this is erratic in terms of the overall picture."

Erickson says that employers and security personnel can work up a profile of the kind of person that is likely to commit a workplace shooting.

"The warning signs are anger, first and foremost. Employers have to be able to gauge that anger, whether that's during a firing process or just in the normal workplace environment," says Erickson. "In terms of the profile, they tend to be loners, they tend not to have made close relationships with others in the workplace, they may have made threats, and sometimes they may have an obsession with weapons."

Preventing Workplace Shootings

But while profiles can be used to identity potential "unknowns" visiting the facility, profiles are, at least at some level, a reactionary tool. Erickson, as well as a number of other aggressive behavior mitigation trainers, agrees that preventing these kinds of situations has a lot more to do with improving workplace emotions than it does with efficient revoking of access control privileges.

"There is so much of an emphasis on cyber solutions," says Erickson, "but what I always try to bring HR and security back to is that it is a human that commits these crimes. We can get caught up in the cyber solutions and we can get too focused on the hardware and the gates and the cameras, but it's important not to forget that the human element is in play."

Paul Mains, a security consultant and president of West Bay Security Training in Auburndale, Fla., says that kind of reactive attitude is starting to diminish.

"I think that it's changing," says Mains. "My background is chiefly police, and the police model is typically reactive. But in corporate security and in guard services, we see more proactive use of security, and that fits hand-in-glove with how we have to respond."

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