Between 2004 and 2008, an average of 564 work-related homicides occurred each year in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though a majority of workplace shootings were committed by robbers, coworkers and former coworkers were the assailants in about 63, or 12% of all shootings in 2008, with the average being around 68 per year between 2004 and 2008.
“This type of violence is certainly uncommon, but it might not be as rare as employers would like,” said Harvey, an assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire. Harvey has written about workplace violence, including co-authoring chapters on workplace aggression in two books, “Managing Organizational Aggression” in Managing Organizational Deviance (Sage, 2005) and “Understanding and Managing Organizational Deviance: A Causal Reasoning Perspective” in Research in Social Issues in Management: Managing Social and Ethical Issues in Organizations (Information Age Publishing, 2007).
“Obviously a fatal shooting is the most severe sort of violence, and it’s probably the least common, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he added.
Harvey explained that there is no single agreed-upon definition of organizational aggression in use among those who study this phenomenon, but he explained that workplace violence can encompass many types of aggression.
When any act of workplace violence occurs, victims find themselves wondering how they could have seen it coming. To help predict and prevent workplace violence, Harvey works with the model of perceptive predictors of aggression, which details internal and external factors that affect organizational violence. This model states that the way in which a person perceives triggering events determines whether or not they will react violently. If a person has what is known as a “hostile attribution style,” he said they will be more likely to attribute a work setback to outside factors and blame others.
“For example, say you get fired from your job, we looked at how the employee draws their conclusions about that firing,” he explained. “If you believe it is something internal to you, such as doing poorly at work, we have found that these people are less likely to engage in outwardly violent behavior. Whereas when people externalize these events, such as blaming others for losing your job or not getting a bonus or blaming their bosses for being out to get them, externalizing your anger can lead to blame and that can lead to aggression.”
Harvey said the hostile attribution style is commonly seen in workplace shootings and other violent acts where perpetrators blame their bosses, coworkers, or their company for their work-related problems.
“When something bad happens, these types of people blame external and typically stable causes; they don’t think it is just a onetime thing; they think people are out to get them. An example would be someone who thinks their boss is consistently out to get them even if they are not.”
For example, in the Manchester shooting, according to reports, shooter Omar Thornton pulled out a handgun after a meeting in which he was shown video evidence of thefts he committed on the job and was offered the chance to quit or be fired. In another incident in February 2010, three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville were killed and three other faculty members were wounded when biology professor Amy Bishop started shooting during a faculty meeting after being denied tenure.
What can organizations and employees look for as warning signs of a propensity for workplace violence? That’s where it gets tricky, Harvey said. Even those with hostile attributions styles don’t always seem like violent people.
“People who tend to go this far tend to have a long history of externalizing their anger throughout their lives, but they may not always be violent,” he explained. “They may externalize their anger for so long without anyone noticing it until then one day it goes ‘boom.’ The typical red flags are people who are quick to anger, those people when something goes wrong and they are screaming and yelling.”
Alabama’s Amy Bishop appeared to have had previous episodes hidden in her past, Harvey explained, such as being questioned in a 1993 pipe-bomb incident directed towards her then lab supervisor who was evaluating her work as a postdoctorate or an incident at an International House of Pancakes in which Bishop punched a fellow customer for taking the last booster seat at the restaurant.
“The tricky thing about that is that probably most people who have a hostile attribution style never appear outwardly violent,” Harvey added. “A lot of these people who reach this level of violence, it seems that more often than not those who know them are taken by surprise. But what’s interesting is that when you dig deeper, the things that these people say often do indicate a hostile attribution style: They’ll blame other people for bad things that happen to them and say things that show how they externally place blame, but they may never actually get violent. If everyone who had this hostile attribution style always acted outwardly violent and had outbursts, it would be easier to pick them out, but what happens more often in real life is that for some reason or another people have some mechanism for emotional control and they don’t act out. That might be a reason why some of these people who end up going on rampages take everyone by surprise.”
Harvey said another body of research looks at the situational perspective of workplace violence.
“It is like the metaphor of employees being popcorn kernels in hot oil that represents the workplace,” Harvey said. “Eventually one of them is going to pop. The idea is that you assume you have a ticking time bomb somewhere in your company, so if you look at the situation and keep your oil cooler, you decrease the probability that someone will get so angry at you as a supervisor or angry at the company as a whole that they would go off and do something crazy.”
Harvey said this doesn’t mean organizations should feel they cannot discipline their employees.
“You still want to have discipline, but a lot of organizations are characterized by stress that doesn’t need to be there and unusual policies,” he explained. “That’s why the postal office took so much flack in the 1990s. It may be that they didn’t have any more people capable of acting out than any other company, but they had such a bureaucracy that it made the workplace stressful for many employees.”
In fact, according to the 2005 Survey of Workplace Violence Prevention, the higher reported incidence of violence in state and local government workplaces may be attributed to their work environments. These workplaces reported much higher percentages of working directly with the public, having a mobile workplace, working with unstable or violent persons, working in high crime areas, guarding valuable goods or property, and working in community-based settings than did private industry.
Harvey said organizations can help combat this type of violence-inducing atmosphere by taking a good look at their practices and culture.
“For organizations and supervisors, ask yourself, are you egregiously mistreating a group of employees and thinking that it isn’t a big deal?” he advised. “If those types of stressors are avoidable, it might be a good idea to avoid or reduce them.”
Harvey said it’s important for organizations to understand that they can’t prevent every violent act committed by their employees.
“Sometimes I think there’s a tendency to look for a silver bullet,” he explained. “I think it’s really important to remember the back end of this. You do want to do things to minimize your risk, but you can’t totally get rid of any risk. Don’t assume that by doing these things to prevent violence that you’ll never have a problem No matter what you do in an organization to minimize the risk of something like this happening, there’s always going to be a chance that someone will snap and come in with a gun.”
Harvey said organizations should have a plan in place or an escape route for the rare chance that these things do occur. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) offers a great deal of advice and information on workplace violence and safety, he added.