Homicide as the cause of death in the workplace has risen from ninth in 2015 to fourth in 2018.  OSHA has increasingly invoked the General Duty Clause to require employers to protect workers from workplace violence from bullying to homicides.

The safety community has been quick to respond with presentations at virtually every safety trade show and symposium. Unfortunately in their haste, many of the nouveau experts have done a sloppy job of bringing their ideas to the market. Not all workplace homicides are the same, and the differences in the motivations of the gunman should mean a corresponding change in our preparation and response. So what are the different kinds of workplace shootings?

1) Robbery

The number one motivation for murder in the workplace is robbery. Taxi drivers and retail clerk supervisors are most often the victims, as well as police officers responding to a robbery. We don’t know why some robberies end in murder while so many others do not. 

The daughter of a friend of mine was gunned down in a robbery and the murderer is still at large. He entered a Payday advance office, carefully concealing his face from the camera, moved around the counter and executed her. The whole scene was captured on film, but several years later the case remains unsolved, leaving those who knew and loved her to ask “why?” Without knowing the motive, this becomes a security issue where employers must take better precautions against their workers being killed during a robbery.

2) Mass Shootings

Technically the relatively few people who are on the job during a mass shooting would constitute a workplace homicide. But this is really not what we mean when we talk about workplace violence. The shooter may espouse some ideology, but the reality is some people just want to kill a whole lot of people. Their motivation is a big body count and to be infamous like the Unabomber, or Charles Manson. All they care about is killing and they don’t really care who. 

There are great resources for surviving a mass shooting, but they differ starkly from how you should prepare and protect yourself from workplace shootings. School and places of worship are not really workplace fatalities, although technically, teachers, janitors and other school employees might be killed. The majority of the victims tend to be nonemployees, and this muddles both the data and the debate.

3) Going Postal

The 1990s saw a rash of mass shootings in U.S. Post Offices. I was literally moments away from being in two of the first postal shootings. I was at the Royal Oak, MI, postal shooting, about to go in, when my boss (with whom I was headed out to lunch) said, “This is your lucky day. I have one stamp left.” I put in on the bill I was mailing and dropped in the mailbox. 

We saw the far off flashes of police car lights and beat a hasty retreat while the roads were still open. 

In the second case, I was going into the Dearborn, MI, post office to use the phone when a police officer stopped me. I told him I was just going in to use the pay phone and he said, “You don’t want to go in there; people are dying in there.” I didn’t have to be told twice.

The USPS undertook a massive investigation into the root causes and contributors to the rash of postal shootings and found many organizational practices that were unique to the post service. If you would like to know more, I would strongly recommend “Beyond Going Postal: Shifting From Workplace Tragedies and Toxic Work Environments To A Safe and Health Organization.” It’s interesting reading, but very specific to the post office. Those killed were indeed workplace homicides, but the circumstances that created them are very close to unique to the USPS, and the changes the USPS made have made a difference. There has only been one postal shooting since the 1990s when it began implementing its countermeasures

4) Healthcare

As you might imagine, healthcare presents a unique environment. Drug-seeking criminals, mentally unstable patients, patients who have violent reactions to medication, and the heightened emotional states of the relatives of patients combine to make hospitals, clinics, and EMT vehicles extremely dangerous places to work. Violence in healthcare tends to be an output of one of the aforementioned conditions, but despite the high rate of violence, there are relatively few homicides.

5) Targeted Workplace Violence

Targeted workplace violence is motivated by an individual’s desire to kill a select target or targets. It tends to be perpetrated by one of two types of people: the deranged employee or the jilted lover. 

The deranged employee is a person with a controlling personality who has found his or her life spiraling out of control. Some sudden trigger sends this person’s life into a tailspin. He or she may turn to drugs, which leads to money trouble, and performance problems at work, until the job is lost and the deranged worker seeks to exercise the final act of control, murder. 

There is often an overlap between the deranged worker and the jilted lover – the victim is a woman. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 percent of women who are murdered in the workplace are killed by a family member or domestic partner; only four percent of men are killed in this way.

The National Safety Council recently released a study reporting that 77 percent of the victims of nonlethal workplace violence were women. Perpetrators of targeted workplace violence have specifically pinpointed one or more of your employees for violence and there are ways in which this can be predicted and prevented.

Prevention begins with recruiting

The best way to protect yourself from a workplace shooting is to screen out those people you believe could be capable of such an act as part of the hiring process; this is neither as easy or as difficult as it might seem.

Social media is a good place to start to look for red flags of a person capable of violence or who has a volatile temper. A quick review of a person’s Facebook page, LinkedIn posts, or Twitter profile and tweets can save you hours of aggravation and perhaps the lives of you and your employees. Here are some things you should look for:

  • Hate Speech. One would think that a savvy job seeker would sanitize his or her posts, but the real headcases just can't help but tip their proverbial hands. It always amazes me that individuals are blithely unaware of potential employers’ ability to find and read overt or thinly veiled racial slurs, ethnic insults, or negative comments indicating bigotry toward one or more subpopulations. Similarly, even people who sanitize their own posts often overlook the posts of people who respond with various kinds of hate speech and leave these responding statements unchallenged.
  • Belligerence. Some people enjoy provoking others. I do, for example, but that is a major part of my job. I have to use provocation to move people out of their comfort zones so that they can change. But the candidate for accounting clerk that you are considering probably isn’t being belligerent to make the math work, so a belligerent tone or a pattern of belligerent posts should be weighed against the job and its requirements.
  • Volatility. If a person responds to comments with an explosion of anger and rage, do you really want him or her on staff?
  • Obsession with guns and violence. There’s a difference between a gun enthusiast and being obsessed with guns. I won’t fan the flames of the firearm debate except to say I know many gun owners who have never committed a crime, and still 80 percent of workplace homicides are committed using firearms. There is a major difference between favoring gun rights and being obsessed with guns and violence
  • Hostility toward an ex. My ex-wife died more than three years ago, an early victim of the opioid epidemic. People who are posting vitriol about their exes are demonstrating, at a minimum, a propensity for holding a grudge.
  • Excessive alcohol use. A lot of people post pictures of themselves drinking and having a good time; showing yourself having fun is a natural part of social networking, but there is a limit to what is acceptable. If every other post alludes to alcohol or drug abuse, steer clear of these people as a candidate, if for no better reason than the poor judgment shown in publicizing these types of posts.
  • An overall negative outlook. While everyone gets a bit negative or down once in a while, not everyone’s social networking presence is so saturated with negative comments and imagery that you get depressed just reading it.
  • No social media presence. We are at a point in history where if someone doesn’t have a social media presence it seems odd, and it should. I have friends who aren’t on Facebook but they are social maladroits who I only hang out with to make myself look better. Not all people without a social media presence are social maladroits, but many people who wish to conceal their poor decisions and life choices will often delete their accounts rather than to try to sanitize it.