There is no specific "profile" of a person who might commit workplace violence, said Nellie J. Brown, director of the ILR School's Workplace Health and Safety Programs and an expert on workplace violence, in the aftermath of the murder of a graduate student working in a Yale University laboratory. A co-worker is the prime suspect.
"Profiles can lead to unfair and destructive stereotyping of employees," said Brown. However, changes in a person's conduct can signal they are at risk for dangerous behavior. "An organization can reduce the risk of workplace violence by planning and being prepared to act swiftly to deal with threats, intimidation and other disruptive behavior at an early stage," she said. Confidentiality of employees who report incidents or warning signs should be protected, she said; in that way, troubled employees may get the help they need and serious incidents may be prevented.
Risk factors for potential victims that have been common threads in workplace violence cases, Brown said, include people who:
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not have a specific regulation dealing with workplace violence, she said. Instead, it draws on the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 that states that employers shall furnish workplaces "that are free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees."
OSHA has workplace violence-prevention guidelines for health care and social services organizations, late-night retail establishments and taxi drivers. It also issues citations for workplace violence and has a recommended workplace violence prevention program, Brown said.
New York state law on workplace violence prevention, which covers public-sector employees, is similar in its requirements. It includes mandates to:
Further, organizations need to be prepared to deal with critical incident stress and care for employees should violence occur, Brown said.
While news reports have tended to create the impression that most workplace violence is the result of a disgruntled employee, statistics tell a different story, she said. About 79 percent of workplace homicides occur during such criminal acts as robberies; about 9 percent are committed by workers or former workers. Some violent acts occur when the perpetrator has a legitimate relationship with the business, such as becoming violent during a business transaction or when being cared for as a patient in a health care setting.
A small percentage of cases, Brown said, occur when the perpetrator does not have relationship with the organization, but has a personal relationship with the intended victim, such as a domestic partner.
Mary Catt is the ILR School's staff writer.