Recession fuels worries of U.S. workplace violence

Recession fuels worries of U.S. workplace violence
By Ellen Wulfhorst

A worker recently laid off by a U.S. financial services company grew so upset that the firm had him followed to be sure he didn’t strike out violently at his former co-workers or bosses.

“Tough times will cause people to do crazy things,” said Kenneth Springer, whose company Corporate Resolutions Inc. did the surveillance. “People are taking more precautions.”

Indeed, stories of workplace violence are filling headlines of late — the San Diego bus mechanic who killed two co-workers or the unemployed man in upstate New York whose 12 shooting victims included a receptionist and a teacher.

With such jarring tragedies, fears of violence fueled by financial worries are growing as the recession puts strain and stress on anxious workers, experts say.

Job losses, job uncertainty and slashed budgets are all pressures that could push someone over the edge.

“People are flat out concerned,” said James Cawood, a security expert and author of “Violence Assessment and Intervention: the Practitioner’s Handbook.”

“People that are staying in companies where there has been significant downsizing and there’s also been major dislocation … are worried at every level,” he said. “Even in down economic times, I’m doing more training now than I’ve done in years.”


Workplace violence can range from harassment and intimidation to violence and homicides, experts say.

While economic stress can make some people violent, it won’t turn just anyone into a killer, said Laurence Miller, author of “From Difficult to Disturbed: Understanding and Managing Dysfunctional Employees.”

“People shouldn’t be sitting around wondering if someone they’ve been working with for years who has been a regular guy and no real problem is going to suddenly snap and go ballistic on them,” he said. “It’s usually somebody that’s had a long streak of problems.”

Moreover, people prone to violence tend to reveal their intentions, experts say.

“People aren’t mushrooms sitting in a dark closet by themselves and all of a sudden one day explode,” Cawood said. “If you listen and observe what they’re actually doing and saying, they’re communicating.”


Statistics on workplace violence in this recession will take years to compile and analyze, experts say. From 1997 to 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, there were more than 7,000 occupational homicides nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While most involved robberies, more than 1,000 involved work associates, the government agency said.

Whether or not the numbers will show a spike in economic-related violence, the fear is valid and significant, said Joel Shults, head of public safety at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado and an expert in safety awareness.

Elevating the fear is the fact that so many perpetrators in recent workplace shootings seemed normal, he said.

“It makes it hard to tell ourselves that we’re safe because they seem like such ordinary people in such ordinary circumstances,” Shults said. “It’s hard for us to tell ourselves, no, that’s not going to happen us.”

Ironically, he added, a heightened sense of fear can make matters worse. “That might potentially actually increase the number of people snapping. It’s one more thing to worry about,” he said.