1. Archive

Trigger happy: a false crisis

When callers to a Virginia Beach, Va., production company are put on hold, they hear this recorded promotion for a new video on workplace violence: "Homicide is the second leading cause of workplace death in the U.S."

Readers of the handbook Breaking Point, by North Carolina consultant Joseph A. Kinney, learn that violence by workers is "a new poison" that has "made all of our lives very fragile, giving us a vulnerability that was never felt before."

In a pitch soliciting attendance at a seminar in Detroit, the Midwest Coalition for a Safer Workplace asks, "Are you sitting on a powder keg?"

Across America the message, at first glance, seems clear: Human time bombs are ticking throughout the Fortune 500.

Driven by a fear of disgruntled workers that now verges on hysteria, companies are forming threat-assessment teams and violence hot lines. Security directors have dusted off Cold War jargon and now talk of "target hardening." After repeated queries from psychologists and corporate security officials, Hilson Research Inc., a Kew Gardens, N.Y., developer of pre-employment tests, this year introduced a test aimed at establishing a job candidate's propensity for violence. One indicator: reckless driving.

Some companies are so skittish they won't discuss their anti-violence efforts. Motorola Corp. is said by managers of other companies to have developed a comprehensive anti-violence plan, but a spokeswoman declined to comment for fear of somehow making the company a target. "There are too many crazies out there," she said.

But just how violent is the American workplace? The answer depends in large part on how you define workplace, and what kinds of crime you include.

One thing is certain, however: The fear that a co-worker could suddenly "go postal," as some now put it, is grossly exaggerated.

A federal census of workplace homicides released in August found that 59 employees were killed by co-workers or former co-workers last year, out of a total national work force of 120.8-million people. That is one in 2.1-million. The National Weather Service puts the odds of getting struck by lightning at one in 600,000.

Misplaced fear

Herewith, the anatomy of a false crisis: How a series of horrendous mass murders, overblown news reports, widely misinterpreted research and an emerging army of consultants have driven companies to a fear of their own workers that is largely unjustified.

"Executives are scared to death," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, "but they're scared of the wrong thing."

Until lately, no one spent much time thinking about workplace violence. It became a distinct category of crime only after murders by disgruntled employees captured the nation's attention and caused reporters and researchers alike to hunt for evidence of a new crisis.

Only as recently as 1992, for example, did federal researchers standardize criteria to be used by medical examiners for determining whether a murder occurred on the job.

But workplace violence is not new. By current definition, the category would include attacks on Pony Express riders, even the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929, in which mobsters killed seven people at the S.M.C. Cartage Co. in Chicago. Criminologists, however, date the current preoccupation to Patrick Henry Sherrill's 1986 attack on an Edmond, Okla., post office, which killed 14 people and wounded six.

Corporate fears intensified markedly in 1993, a banner year for workplace gore.

In January, Paul Calden opened fire on his former colleagues at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. in Tampa, killing three. Over the next two weeks, four more workers attacked their employers. In May, two postal workers, one in Michigan and one in California, chose the same day to launch shooting sprees. On July 1, Gian Luigi Ferri attacked a San Francisco law firm, killing eight before killing himself.

Abundance of statistics

The year also saw the arrival of the first research on workplace violence from federal and private sources, almost all of it prone to misinterpretation.

In September, Kinney released his widely cited book, in which he presented his personal calculation that murder by employees had "doubled or tripled" since 1989.

On Oct. 1, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its first Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, which found that in 1992 homicide was the second leading cause of death in the workplace, after transportation-related accidents.

Seventeen days later, the employee-benefits division of Northwestern National Life Insurance Co. in Minneapolis released a survey showing that 2.2-million workers had been physically attacked on the job in the 12 months ended July 1993.

In July 1994 the Justice Department published its first report devoted solely to non-fatal workplace assault, breaking out data it collected from 1987 through 1992 as part of its ongoing survey of crime victims. It reported that nearly 1-million workers a year fall prey to non-fatal violence on the job.

The convergence of so much blood and data infused the common wisdom with the conviction not only that workplace violence was rampant, but that invariably the culprits were disgruntled workers or ex-employees. In fact, the underlying data actually challenged popular perceptions.

Consider, for example, the widely reported Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that homicide is the second leading cause of death in the workplace. Reporters often insert the finding when reporting the latest murder by a disgruntled worker, conveying the impression that workers are to blame for elevating homicide to the number two position.

"You read the headlines," says Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's prestigious National Opinion Research Center, "You think, "Gee that many killed by psychos.'


The numbers, however, depict a far more complex landscape, one most news accounts fail to describe.

In August, for example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its latest workplace death toll, covering deaths in 1993. Once again it ranked homicide second.

But a closer look at the study shows first of all that workplace murder is a rare event. Of 120.8-million people in the work force last year, 1,063 _ one out of 114,000 _ was killed while at work or on duty. However, the risk varied dramatically among occupations.

Raw numbers supplied to the Journal by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the chances that an executive, manager or administrator (other than hotel or restaurant managers) would be slain on the job last year by anyone, disgruntled or otherwise, were 1 in 226,000. For secretaries, the risk fell to 1 in 370,000. For doctors, engineers, computer scientists and other members of the Census Bureau's "professional specialties" category, the chances were still more remote: 1 in 457,000.

The study, moreover, provided a resounding vindication of co-workers and ex-employees, attributing to them only 59 killings, up from 45 the year before. Says Martin Personick, a senior bureau economist, "One of the first things you see is that this co-worker stuff is not a big deal."

The study itself helped obscure this conclusion, however, by defining workplace violence so broadly as to beg the question: When is workplace violence merely ordinary violence under a new name?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, like virtually every other organization that studies workplace violence, includes violent attacks that occur on company property or while the victim was on duty, regardless of whether the killing was related to work or not.

By this standard, a New York City housing inspector murdered aboard a subway while traveling between inspection sites is counted as a victim of workplace murder; if killed riding the very same subway home after work, his death is omitted. The bureau tally included the slayings of 67 police officers and 52 security guards.

The usual motive

The study also found that three-quarters of the year's homicides were committed during robberies where the motive was plain old greed. These 793 victims included cab drivers, convenience store clerks, owners of inner-city bodegas and pizza delivery drivers.

"It's robberies," says Guy Toscano, program manager of the bureau survey. "That's it. But who wants to read about a robbery, when you can read all the little details of the sex between two co-workers who go and kill each other?"

The Justice Department's 1994 study, which found 1-million workers a year to be victims of non-fatal workplace violence, inadvertently compounded confusion about the sources of such violence.

It didn't collect information specifically identifying whether the offender was a worker or an ex-worker, just whether the crime occurred at work or while on duty, and whether the victims knew their attackers. The department found no evidence that the incidence of workplace violence was on the rise, according to Ronet Bachman, the Justice statistician who commissioned the study.

It did find that one-third of the crimes, which ranged from threats of assault to rape, occurred in parking lots, garages or on public property ("such as streets and parks"). Only 14 percent occurred in an office, factory or warehouse. Its tally also included attacks on police officers, prison guards and convenience-store clerks.

James Alan Fox, dean of Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, says including so wide an array of crimes confuses debate over the causes of workplace violence.

"You start broadening it and talking about your run-of-the-mill thieves, you're talking about a different problem. When you have police officers getting killed, they're not getting killed over employment issues."

Northwestern National Life, however, wanted as broad a definition as possible for its survey in order "to capture anything that makes people begin to feel unsafe in the workplace," says Susan Braverman, executive vice president Crisis Management Group Inc., Newton, Mass., who helped design the survey.

Northwestern found that 1 in 4 workers was harassed, threatened or physically attacked in the 12 months preceding July 1993. Seeming to confirm that mayhem rules the workplace, the survey garnered immediate and widespread attention in the nation's press _ but little scrutiny of its underpinnings.

The company built the survey on the replies of 600 workers, a skimpy sample by social-research standards. The survey also had a low "response rate," that portion of an initially targeted population or "sample" who actually respond to a surveyor's questions.

Researchers are happiest when they get usable responses from 75 percent to 80 percent of the target sample, but the response rate for this survey was far lower. Northwestern didn't disclose its response rate in any of its public communications but, at the Journal's request, Peggy Lawless, a former Northwestern market-research manager who directed the survey effort, calculated a rate of 29 percent, meaning that the 600 people in the final sample represented less than a third of the initially targeted sample.

Smith of the National Opinion Research Center, using data that Northwestern supplied to the Journal, calculated a more favorable 42 percent. The rates vary because both researchers used different assumptions in defining the initial target sample. But both rates are low, says Smith, suggesting the reported results may reflect "response bias." Such low rates, he explains, increase the chances "that the people you interviewed are not representative of all people in the group you're trying to generalize to."

Yet Northwestern used the results to estimate that 2.2-million people had been physically attacked at work in the 12 months preceding the survey. It based this finding on the replies of only 15 people.

"It's unbelievable," says Ronet Bachman, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "People can just say what they want."

Dawn Castillo, an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, was a tad more circumspect when she wrote in a recent paper that the results "need to be interpreted with caution."

But the findings quickly became separated from their statistical moorings. News reporters accepted the results with little qualification. Most failed to note, for example, that co-workers, ex-employees and bosses caused only a third of the attacks.

Ms. Lawless defends the survey as being accurate and representative. "It was not necessarily the answer to all the questions, but to give direction to other researchers," she says.

But she adds that she too was "appalled" at how some television and print media used the results. She recalls one story that appeared in USA Today under the headline, "Survey: Homicides at Work on the Rise." The survey, however, never even mentioned homicide. A spokesman for the newspaper says: "Clearly, it wasn't a good headline."

Such statistics have armed a cadre of workplace-violence experts who in turn may also be fanning company fears.

Typically they concentrate on co-worker violence to the exclusion of far more common robbery-related murders. Anti-violence seminars for corporate executives have proliferated, and can convey the impression that massacres are almost commonplace.

In the interests of dramatic presentation, seminar organizers often recruit speakers whose companies survived the worst kinds of attacks. A two-day symposium held last month in Arlington, Va., drew 130 executives from many of America's largest corporations.

On the first day a NIOSH speaker tried to make the executives see that disgruntled workers are responsible for a small portion of workplace violence. But five of the corporate representatives asked to speak at the conference came from companies that had experienced a homicide, including IBM and Du Pont Co.

"Frightening possibility'

Fearful companies have hired consultants of all stripes, including motivational speakers, forensic psychiatrists and behavioral specialists formerly with the FBI.

Workplace violence "has kind of become a golden cow," says Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, which he operates from his home in Monroe, N.C. "What these people realize is that the possibility of violence in a large corporation is very frightening."

But such fear has benefited his career as well. In just the last 12 months he rose from anonymity in the field of workplace violence to being one of its most-quoted, most sought-after consultants.

"I've never marketed any of this," he says, "I do it when people call me."

He charges $1,800 to $2,500 a seminar, "and that's cheap," he says. He adds that he has conducted free seminars for law enforcement agencies. "I'm not out there because of the dollar signs."

His message is a mix of the practical and sensational. At a recent seminar sponsored by police for tenants of the World Trade Center in New York, he acknowledged that the chances of anyone in the room being murdered on the job were "one in a million." But later, commenting on how disgruntled workers indiscriminately pick their targets, he said: "In fact, those of you who are nice guys can count on being the first to be killed."

But officials occupying positions uniquely suited to gauging the incidence of violence by workers say it doesn't happen very often.

The New York State Public Employees Federation, a union representing 56,000 white-collar professionals working for state corrections and health facilities, has since 1989 provided its members with Assault, Trauma and Captivity Insurance _ ATAC for short. Of the 50 to 60 claims filed each year, says Richard Doucette, administrator of the program, two-thirds stem from assaults by patients at state mental-health institutions, including three hospitals for the criminally insane. At most, he says, he sees one claim a year involving violence by a co-worker or ex-worker.

David Frances, head of EAP Systems in Woburn, Mass., which provides employee counseling services to some 60 companies, says, "Offhand, I can't even think of a single case in my personal experience of an employee being violent in the workplace."

Nonetheless, the prospect of killings by workers continues to frighten companies far out of proportion to their true incidence.

"If this were purely on the basis of statistics in our work force, we couldn't justify the time we're spending on it," says Ann Leibowitz, labor counsel for Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass., which is now drafting a violence prevention and response plan.

But she likens workplace attacks to airplane crashes. "There are not many of those either, but the ones that happen scare the pants off everybody."

Reprinted with permission of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Copyright 1994 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.