How not to make a killing at work

Fancy bumping off your boss, or doing in your colleagues? In the US, knifing them in the back or giving them the bullet seems, literally, all the rage.

Fancy bumping off your boss, or doing in your colleagues? In the US, knifing them in the back or giving them the bullet seems, literally, all the rage.

A delightful article was posted last week on the HR.com website: “Don’t hire a killer — how to avoid a violence-prone employee”.

While Kiwis appear far less likely to resort to lethal brutality over work problems, the US workplace is a relative battleground. The number of violent acts there has increased by 300% in the past ten years and homicide has become the second leading cause of death on the job. An average of 20 people are murdered at work each week in the US — that’s 1000 a year — and 18,000 are reportedly assaulted each week.

Dr John Towler, a psychologist and senior partner of Ontario management consulting firm Creative Organizational Design, says the cost of workplace violence is $US4 billion to $US6 billion, but he claims this is only the tip of the iceberg. Employees who witness violent acts suffer from increased stress, lower morale, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism and staff turnover.

But the costs for US employers are greater because of how US law holds them liable, often on grounds of “negligent hiring or retention” of staff. “A supermarket chain was found liable for the actions of an employee who attacked a boy urinating on the building. The child was awarded $US150,000,” says Towler.

“In another case, the family of a female employee who was stalked and killed by a fellow worker sued the company for negligent hiring and retention of the killer.

And not only do the survivors of attacks or the families of the victims sue, but also the violent offenders themselves. “There have been cases in which the violent offender successfully sued the employer for wrongful dismissal, claiming that their actions were the result of mental illness,” he says.

Towler says the best way to avoid such violence is to avoid hiring the violent in the first place, claiming a range of psychometric and other assessment tools can now weed them out, some of which are offered by his firm.

Of course killers don’t usually make themselves known at interview, but he says the potentially violent may show these characteristics:

  • is a loner with low self esteem
  • has trouble controlling anger
  • is frequently in disagreement with management
  • abuses drugs or alcohol
  • is obsessed with weapons
  • complains about injustices at work
  • makes frequent threats
  • complains of being victimised
  • blames mistakes on someone else
  • stalks or harasses co-workers
Towler also warns of four general types of employee:
  1. The Overtly Violent, who make their intentions known and will not hesitate to physically attack others, engage in arson, or destroy company or other people’s property.
  2. The Dangerous Employee, often recognised only after the event. They have trouble handling anxiety, are quick to anger and may have been violent in the past.
  3. The Covertly Violent employee may not exhibit violent behaviour, but is often involved in covert behaviour designed to disrupt the workplace or co-workers.
  4. Estranged Spouses and Partners, who make threatening calls to their mates or ex-mates and may be known to police because of previous problems. When they become violent, they attack their victims in the workplace and often include others as their targets.
Fortunately, such violence is not a major problem here in New Zealand. IT recruitment consultants spoken to by Computerworld or the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) had no record of any workplace killings.

EMA manager of employment relations Peter Tritt recalls frustrated customers becoming violent (such as the ACC stabbing in Henderson last year) but violence in the workplace is “not a major issue”.

“However, the thing employees have to be aware of is to ensure that people are not harassed. The most popular thing is stamping out bullying,” he says.

Our employer liability is not as tough as in the US, but firms have to show they have “taken all reasonable practicable steps to eliminate, isolate and minimise” risks.

“OSH can bring a prosecution for [employers] failing to have a safe workplace,” he says.

Private individuals cannot sue in New Zealand as in the US, though that is under review, and violence at work is usually grounds for summary dismissal.

The US has a different legal system and “bizarre habits”, but Tritt says two recent “stress” cases involved payouts where the alleged victims had other health issues. “You have to draw the line on employer legislation, otherwise no one in their right mind will employ anyone.” he says.

Greenwood is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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