ELI Blog

Understanding the Triggers of Workplace Violence

|August 4, 2010|No Comments

Take a harsh economy, add an unstable personality, mix in daily personal and workplace pressures and toss in a triggering event – small but repeated offenses or cruel indignities. Sometimes the perfect storm will lead to unfathomable tragedy.

We don’t know what trigger caused Omar S. Thornton, 34, to open fire and kill nine of his co-workers in Manchester, Conn. We know from news reports that he was losing his job, but thousands lose their job every week for a wide range of reasons and they don’t lead to violence.

While this is a unique event, we’ve seen other gruesome workplace murders in Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and other locales recently that have shared some similarities.

Nevertheless, here are my thoughts about the possible triggers. First, my guess is that there will soon be retrospective analyses suggesting warning signs in Mr. Thornton’s behavior that were either unreported or went unheeded. Second, there have been claims that Mr. Thornton believed that he experienced racial harassment at work, which reportedly went unaddressed.

Here are several questions:

  • First, were there signs of unusual behavior from Mr. Thornton? If so, were they reported to company or union officials and how were they handled? In the past, had the company encouraged people to bring issues forward in this small workplace community, which some have described as familial?
  • Second, did Mr. Thornton experience workplace harassment on the job? Some have claimed that racial epithets were directed to him and that outrageous graffiti was posted in company locations. Did he report this? Were others aware of the conduct and graffiti, whether he reported it or not?

Clearly, uncivil workplaces can contribute to daily frustrations, inefficiencies and disengagement, and end tragically. Yet, there can be no justification whatsoever for what Mr. Thornton did, irrespective of the treatment he may have received on the job.

We must always remember that human acts such as these are sometimes as unpredictable and unavoidable as earthquakes and flash floods.

However, in civil workplaces, individuals have a greater sense of community. They will let others know of danger signals for the good of their co-workers and the organization. In addition, actions will be taken to prevent improper language and actions regardless of whether they rise to the level of a viable legal claim.

By building communities where people speak up and prevent or stop uncivil and potentially illegal conduct, we can build more productive workplaces – and sometimes, we can even avoid terrible tragedies like the one that happened yesterday in Connecticut.

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