Workplace Violence Tragic, But No Epidemic


By James Alan Fox and Jack Levin,

August 22, 2010


A cloud of sadness hangs over the Manchester area following the recent massacre that claimed the lives of nine people, including the gunman, at Hartford Distributors Inc. As with most horrific episodes like this, fear and anxiety ripple across workplaces everywhere from Boston to Bakersfield. If terror could strike in the suburban community of Manchester, it could strike anywhere, and at any time.

The fear arising out of the Manchester shooting was heightened by disturbing news reports — in both print and electronic media — about the prevalence of workplace violence. As fast as the Internet could carry them, figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics were downloaded, e-mailed, faxed, twittered and broadcast, suggesting that almost 1,000 American workers — nearly three a day — are murdered each year on the job, usually by gunfire. In addition, workplace violence is the third leading cause of employment-related fatalities.

Actually, the number of workplace homicides has dropped steadily for well over a decade, mimicking the decline in homicide generally. Regardless, with reference to multiple killings daily, the message is painfully clear: You had better watch out, because the next disgruntled and murderous employee may be working at your office or warehouse.

A better understanding of these workplace murder figures is sorely needed. The vast majority of the incidents involve robberies — taxicab holdups, convenience store stickups and assaults on police and security officers. Others stem from domestic disputes that spill over into the office. The least common form of workplace homicide, claiming fewer than 100 victims per year, is the murderous act of a disgruntled employee or ex-employee seeking revenge over work-related issues. The term "epidemic," which has been used to describe the problem of workplace violence and murder, is more hyperbole than reality.

By no means do we wish to trivialize or deny the pain and suffering of the Manchester victims or their friends and families. The devastation is unfathomable. Yet we also need to keep in perspective the level of risk.

The few dozen people slain each year by embittered employees are a tiny fraction of the millions of Americans who ostensibly put their lives on the line every day at work. The likelihood of becoming a victim is literally less than one in a million. American workers are far more likely to be killed in a highway pileup while commuting to the job than to be gunned down by the seemingly quiet guy at the next desk.

In the midst of the ongoing economic downturn, concerns about corporate downsizing, company layoffs, bankruptcies and factory closings increase the level of stress and despair in the workplace. How then can we protect ourselves against the possibility that more beleaguered workers will turn their worksites into battle zones?

Whatever steps we take to combat workplace violence should not be driven by hysteria, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. We must come to terms with the small risk of workplace murder, such as the Manchester tragedy, in the same sound and rational way we tolerate occasional deaths from plane crashes or tornadoes.

One lesson is that we all need to make greater efforts to reach out to co-workers to combat the true epidemic of loneliness, isolation and resentment. At the same time, companies should do all they can to humanize the workplace, rather than trying to single out the potentially violent employee who might have murder on his mind.

Of course, we could conceivably reduce the risk of workplace homicide virtually to zero through draconian measures: by transforming office buildings into tightly secured fortresses, with metal detectors and surveillance cameras at all entrances; by requiring intensive psychological screening of all job recruits including polygraph tests; by scanning the computer files of all employees in search of violent Internet downloads; by locking up all workers who look or act unusual or who lack social skills and close friends; and, finally, by strictly prohibiting private ownership of all guns.

We're not about to do any of these things because we value our personal freedoms. They need to be protected as much as life itself.

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin are professors of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston and co-authors of the book "Extreme Killing."