HR Management & Compliance

Employee Unwellness and the Rise of Workplace Shootings

Workplace violence has been a problem in California and across the nation for decades, and it appears to be getting worse. Some governmental estimates have identified up to 36 mass killings in California workplaces in the last decade, including five since the start of 2021. According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, more than two million people a year report being victimized by workplace violence, and the unreported number is probably six million more.

Source: Andrey Burmakin / shutterstock

When you read the reports on Samuel Cassidy’s behavior, you might ask yourself why nobody spotted and stopped him before he recently killed eight coworkers at San Jose’s Valley Transit Authority (VTA) maintenance yard:

  • Cassidy’s ex-wife reported that more than 10 years ago he displayed out-of-control anger and spoke about harming his coworkers;
  • In 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials detained him on his way back from a trip to the Philippines because of writings indicating he hated his coworkers and had an interest in violent terrorism; and
  • Coworkers described him as a disgruntled employee, and acquaintances said he was uncomfortable to be around.

Workplace violence experts note potentially violent employees often display anger, weak impulse control, and hatred or resentment toward coworkers. But, far and away, most people who display the signs will never act on them, and it’s likewise true that some perpetrators show none of the signs at all.

Nor is it accurate, or legal, to weed out all mental health issues from your workplace as a means of preventing violent behavior. As far as the problem goes, acting on the basis of stereotypical signals alone is a dangerous employment strategy.

Postpandemic Anxieties Won’t Help

As with the syndrome of workplace burnout, when given the same stimuli, some people are more prone to violent behavior than others. In both instances, the contributing factors likely include a sense of isolation, separation, or detachment from coworkers, frustration with office circumstances, and a feeling of helplessness, vulnerability, and lack of control. An important goal is therefore preventing the factors from coalescing.

That will be a more difficult task than usual in the coming months. As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, employees may feel uncertainty about whether they have stable jobs, when offices will reopen at full strength, and how people will closely relate to one another after 15 months of varying degrees of separation. Anxieties will increase as employees try to reenter their central workplace after growing used to operating from home.

Employee families may have lost their housing, child care, or an income. Some still may be very concerned about getting sick. Others may feel general anxiety from the confluence of factors. If those are left unaddressed, common stressors ranging from traffic to office space to deadlines and criticism could be the trigger for an employee to lash out at a company or coworkers.

What Employers Can Do

Recognizing the risk of violence exists a little bit in all of us, and more in some than others, we must do what we can to create and maintain an environment minimizing the risks:

  • Without a doubt, you should institute as strong a ban on guns at all workplaces and work sites (including parking lots) as your jurisdiction will permit.
  • Strong and effective workplace zero-tolerance policies can go a long way toward preventing problems before they start, but they aren’t enough to stop some violent employees.
  • Maintaining vigilant observance of employee behavior is also important, but again nowhere near 100% effective.
  • Another key is providing resources to help employees work out and cope with difficulties.

As we move through the reopening phases, try to give your returning employees as much flexibility and control as you reasonably can over the details of their reentry. Sharing timely data can provide them with a feeling of control even if your requirements are rigid. After all, an atmosphere of collaboration and control is often as important as the reality. In areas where it really makes no difference to you as an employer, let the employee call the shots.

It takes real desperation to commit the unspeakable act of workplace shootings. Unfortunately, the disruptions of the past 15 months and the insecurity of the return to work create circumstances out of your control, which may increase the feelings of desperation. Do all you can to prevent those conditions from taking tragic control.

Mark I. Schickman is an editor of California Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at Schickman Law in Berkeley, mark@schickmanlaw.com.