Expert Commentary

Workplace Violence in the 21st Century: Emerging Trends

The problem of workplace violence is not a static phenomenon. Dynamic changes have taken place since the early 1990s. It is anticipated that the problem and its solutions will continue to evolve.


Workplace Violence Prevention
July 2005

Several of the most serious incidents of workplace violence occurred before the 1990s. On August 20, 1986, Patrick Henry Sherrill entered the United States Postal Service Office in Edmond, Oklahoma. After receiving a negative work report from his supervisor the previous day, Sherrill went to a National Guard Amory, stole some weapons, and then went to the facility where he had worked for 18 months. He opened fire, and by the time he ended his killing rampage, 14 of his coworkers were dead and 6 were wounded.

On December 9, 1987, a recently fired employee of PSA bypassed the metal detectors and boarded a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight headed for San Francisco. Once the plane was airborne he took out a pistol and killed the flight crew. The plane crashed near San Luis Obispo, killing all 43 people onboard.

Although these incidents were among the most deadly ever reported in the media, they did very little to effect how companies and organizations in the United States conducted their business. It wasn't until the 1990s that things began to change. In the early 1990s several well-known companies and organizations experienced incidents of workplace violence involving multiple homicides. Among these were the Ford Motor Company, Luby's Cafeteria in Texas, and the United States Postal Service. These incidents made national headlines and were covered extensively in the news media and on television.

Suddenly workplace violence was in the consciousness of the American public and the subject of considerable discussion and activity in America's board rooms. The term "Going Postal" became popular, and it seemed as if almost every day there was a report of a new incident of workplace violence taking place. A number of the country's businesses and organizations began developing workplace violence prevention programs, usually with the help of a consultant with expertise in violence prevention, threat assessment, and incident management.

School violence emerged as a national concern in the second half of the 1990s. Incidents at Moses Lake, Washington (February 2, 1996), West Paducah, Kentucky (December 1, 1997), and Jonesboro, Arkansas (March 4, 1998), brought the problem of school violence to the attention of the American public. On April 20, 1999, the horrible shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, that left 15 dead and many wounded, indicated the need for the development and implementation of effective school violence prevention programs, and research to help understand why tragedies like Columbine occur.

Halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, it is clear that workplace and school violence incidents and prevention efforts have changed since the early 1990s. Some changes have been for the better, some have not. The remainder of this article will discuss these changes.

Prevention Programs

At the present time, about half of America's businesses and organizations have some form of workplace violence prevention program. Many Fortune 500 companies have had programs for over a decade, and a number of smaller businesses and organizations have implemented programs of their own. Many of the newer programs are being developed internally, either without the use of an expert consultant or with the help of an expert on a limited basis.

There are a number of books and articles available on workplace violence prevention, and the Internet contains sample programs that can be downloaded at no cost. Some of these programs are good, some are not. Companies and organizations that select this way of developing a program are taking some risk. To help minimize their risk, they would do well to have an expert at least guide them through the development and implementation phases. They should also build into their program the ability to access the services of a threat assessment and incident management expert to deal with individual incidents as they emerge.

The Rise of the Internet

As the 1990s began, very little was known by the general public about the Internet. Now 15 years, later elementary school children are becoming experts in surfing the Web, writing word documents, developing power point presentations, and instant messaging their friends on a daily basis. The Internet has permeated almost every facet of American living.

Most of the developments involving the Internet have been positive. Unfortunately, some have had an adverse effect at the workplace. Employers have found that Internet abuses include employees using the company's Internet services to view and download pornographic material, sometimes on a daily basis for several hours. Some employees have attempted to run their own private business from their employer's computer while they are at work. Both of these activities have cost employers millions of dollars in lost work activity.

Other employees have developed schemes utilizing the Internet that enables them to steal from or defraud their employers. Angry workers have attempted to express their anger at their employer by hacking into the employer's website, and doing things such as defacing the website or disrupting the flow of business. Still others have used the Internet to make threats against coworkers, and even stalk a coworker with whom he or she is romantically obsessed.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence incidents are occurring at an alarming rate in the United States. An overwhelming majority of adult domestic violence victims are women and the perpetrators are men. According to a recent survey, one out of every three American women report being the victim of physical abuse by an intimate partner. Over the past several years, many employers have found that they have had to deal with an increasing amount of domestic violence incidents that have entered the workplace.

Approximately 1,000 women are murdered every year as a result of domestic violence. In 2003, almost 50 women were killed at work in domestic violence related incidents. Seventy-four percent of employed battered women report experiencing domestic related abuse at work, either in person, or over the telephone. It is very likely that the trend toward increased domestic violence related incidents at work will continue during the next several years.

Homicide Statistics

In 1992 the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor began conducting annual surveys of deaths due to homicide in the workplace. Every year since 1992, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the results of their survey. From 1992 to 1999, there was a steady decline in the number of workplace homicides, ranging from 1,074 deaths in 1992 to 645 deaths in 1999. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of homicides has not decreased very dramatically. There were 672 homicides in 2000 and 634 homicides in 2003.

Although the data reported above indicates a leveling off in preventing workplace homicides, it does suggest that workplace violence prevention programs do work. As the number of companies and organizations implemented prevention programs during the 1990s, the number of fatalities decreased. Hopefully, as more and more programs are implemented over the next several years, there will be another significant decline in the number of workplace homicides.

Concluding Thoughts

As each year goes by, more information becomes available and more companies, organizations, and school systems have developed and implemented violence prevention programs. Hopefully if this trend continues, there will be fewer and fewer homicides and non-lethal forms of workplace violence, and the workplace will become safer than it has been the past several decades.


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