Cover Story

By now, everyone knows what "going postal" means. After a series of high-profile murders by disgruntled employees or former employees, the U.S. Postal Service has inadvertently given its name to a seeming epidemic of workplace violence.

What most people don't know is that the phrase is grossly misleading.

"For an industry that has such a vast number of employees and so much contact with the public, the postal service actually has a surprisingly low rate of serious violence," says Gary R. VandenBos, PhD, executive director of publications and communications at APA and the co-editor of "Violence on the Job: Identifying Risks and Developing Solutions" (APA Books, 1996). "What we really should be saying is 'going convenience store' or 'going taxicab.'"

As VandenBos' comments suggest, most workplace homicides are perpetrated not by co-workers but by outsiders intent on robbery. Debunking these and other myths about workplace violence was the goal of a panel entitled "Work-place violence: what psychology can contribute" and a symposium entitled "Law, psychology and violence in the workplace," part of the 2000 APA Presidential Miniconvention at APA's Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4­8.

Both employers and employees at large corporations tend to overestimate their risk of becoming victims, misunderstand potential perpetrators and overlook external and internal factors that contribute to the risk of violence, said the psychologists and other experts participating in the presentations. Nonetheless, the number of threats is increasing and companies' potential liability is enormous when incidents do occur. Now more are seeking out psychologists to help them put preventive programs in place, creating a promising new niche for practitioners.

The surprising reality

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), homicide is the second leading cause of workplace death overall and the leading cause for women workers and workers under 18. But although the sheer number of workplace homicides has increased along with the population, says VandenBos, the proportion of workers killed on the job is actually decreasing (see graph).

Even the reports from some companies that lesser forms of violence, such as shoving, yelling or exchanging a few punches, are increasing may be exaggerated, adds VandenBos. National statistics don't reflect this increase, he says, noting that apparent increases may simply be due to the fact that companies are now concerned enough to routinely gather information about threatening incidents.

"Workplace violence of all types may be going down because of the prevention efforts--and good work of psychologists--during the 1990s," says VandenBos. "There has been improvement, but we need to continue building on those efforts."

The belief that violence is ever-increasing isn't the only myth the two presentations sought to eradicate.

Victims of workplace violence

Certain occupations attract trouble. According to the National Instittue for Occupational Safety and Health, the following occupations have the highest homicide rates:

Taxicab drivers and chauffeurs

22.7 per 100,000

Sheriffs and vailiffs

10.7 per 100,000

Police officers and detectives

6.1 per 100,000

Gas station and garage workers

5.9 per 100,000

Security guards

5.5 per 100,000

Despite several highly publicized cases involving lawyers, stock brokers and other office workers, those at risk are not the white-collar employees who are convinced there's an epidemic of workplace violence. In reality, it's cab drivers, convenience store clerks and the like who are being killed. And the most likely culprits are not fellow employees, but robbers and others who have no personal relationship with their victims. Current or former co-workers account for only 9 percent of workplace homicides, according to NIOSH.

The thousand or so workers murdered on the job each year tend to be either police officers and others working in inherently dangerous occupations or service-industry employees whose work environment puts them at risk. (See graph.) Risk factors identified by NIOSH include interacting with the public, handling money, delivering goods or services and working at night or alone.

"White-collar workers have an unrealistic view of their risk," says VandenBos. "In the most typical work environment, the risk of violence is incredibly low."

Forensic psychologist Harley V. Stock, PhD, ABPP, agrees. "The number of people who are targeted because of interpersonal relationships with their killer is greatly exaggerated," says Stock, managing partner at the Incident Management Group in Hallandale, Fla. What is growing is the number of threats from workers.

"A lot of people threaten," says Stock, noting that American workplaces now receive about 6 million threats of violence a year. "But very few people actually pose a threat."

Distinguishing between workers who are potential murderers and those who are just blowing off steam can be extremely difficult. It doesn't help that most of the risk-assessment research has focused on people with serious psychiatric diagnoses, such as schizophrenia.

That focus is misguided, says Stock, noting that most people with serious mental illness aren't even in the workforce. People who make threats in the workplace have less significant psychiatric disorders but are actually more dangerous since they're more capable of planning and carrying out their threats. The standard profiles many companies use to assess threats aren't very useful either, Stock adds, noting that many police officers fit the stereotype of middle-aged white men interested in weapons. Although such profiles are common in the literature on workplace violence, they merely describe the demographics of past killers rather than the psychological traits that make some workers so dangerous.

Now Stock has developed a new theory designed to help companies do a better job of identifying potential killers. According to Stock, the people who represent real threats suffer from what he calls pathological organizational affective attachment (see sidebar, page 48). These individuals are bonded to their supervisors, co-workers and workplace so strongly they can't let go, even years after they've been fired.

"It's like psychological crazy glue," says Stock, who speculates that some workers simply can't cope with the ruthless downsizing that has become a common feature of today's workplace. "You can't break the bond."

But companies shouldn't immediately fire these individuals when they make a threat, says Stock. Doing so only means the company has lost the opportunity to require a psychological evaluation and provide interventions that can prevent violence.

Companies also need to keep in mind that domestic problems often follow employees to work, says forensic psychologist Mary Ann Dutton, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Epidemiological figures suggest that one in four women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, says Dutton. And even if a women has left her abuser, in many cases he still knows where to find her: on the job.

"Domestic violence is a business issue because it affects the bottom line," emphasizes Dutton.

Domestic violence affects workers on a variety of levels, she explains. Abusers often keep their victims up all night or try to make them late for work. They cause psychological stress and injuries that hamper workers' productivity and increase employers' health-care costs. They harass their victims at work, tying up phone lines and getting their victims in trouble by calling or faxing repeatedly. They may show up at the workplace to threaten or even kill their victims and others.

In response, says Dutton, many employers simply get rid of the problem by firing abused workers. Some large corporations, however, are starting to develop policies and programs designed to help. Some companies have developed programs to sensitize and train supervisors and co-workers. Others extend their leave policies to cover women who need to go to court. Others accommodate women's need for flexible hours or even relocation.

"Having policies that protect rather than punish are key," says Dutton. "Companies are starting to realize it's more cost-effective to keep the woman there as a productive employee than to start all over again with somebody new."

But companies can't protect themselves by building fortresses, warns Steven L. Sauter, PhD, acting chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch at NIOSH in Cincinnati. Factors within the workplace itself can also contribute to violence, a 1997 NIOSH study found.

"Almost all of the research in this area focuses on constructing barriers and putting security measures in place," says Sauter. "We felt that the organizational climate had to be considered as well."

The study's results were startling: Psychosocial factors in the workplace were as strong as so-called structural factors, such as night shifts, when it came to predicting fear of violence, harassment and threats in the workplace. Workers reporting low group harmony, for example, were almost twice as likely to experience harassment or threats in the workplace. Other factors that set the stage for violence included fear of layoffs and unsupportive supervisors and co-workers.

But psychologists still don't have enough data to work with as they struggle to prevent incidents from occurring, says Joseph J. Hurrell, Jr., PhD, associate director for science in the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluation and Field Studies at NIOSH. "The Northwestern National Life Insurance Company's 1993 study is probably the largest to examine the relationship between working conditions and violence," he explains. "That study was one of the first to raise concerns about the relationship between stressful job conditions and violence, but unfortunately there hasn't been a lot of research since then to identify what those conditions are or what the exact relationship is."

A model program

Now an increasing number of companies are developing programs designed to prevent violence. When the aerospace industry downsized dramatically in the early 1990s, for instance, companies developed programs to help employees deal with layoffs that affected half the workforce. Hospitals, whose employees often face violent patients, have also been leaders in developing programs.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires companies with more than 25 employees to maintain a safe and secure work environment. For some companies, that means adopting "zero tolerance" policies that allow them to fire employees immediately if they harm co-workers or even property. For others, that means full-fledged programs to prevent violence and handle any incidents that do occur.

No matter what kind of program, the key is to create a work environment that employees perceive as safe, fair and respectful, says Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, a forensic psychologist in Tucson.

"Businesses that create that kind of environment have higher morale, have better productivity and make more money," says Dvoskin, a senior consultant with the Threat Assessment Group and past president of APA's Div. 18(Psychologists in Public Service). "The fact that we think it also prevents violence is a wonderful bonus."

Take the Intel Corporation, for instance. In response to a former employee's threats, the company developed a program that now includes guidelines for supervisors and workers, awareness programs for employees, training for supervisors and workplace violence teams at every Intel site in the United States. Comprised of representatives from Intel's security, human resources and nursing departments, these teams assess threats, assist threatened employees and manage any incidents.

The program does more than just protect workers, says Coeta Chambers, JD, a human resources attorney with Intel in Swindon, England. It also protects the company. Obviously, companies face potentially huge legal bills if incidents occur and they can't show they've taken steps to prevent violence, she says. But companies also face more subtle legal risks.

"You're always walking the line between not wanting people to be little psychologists and leaping to conclusions and wanting people to be responsible to the community that any workplace is," says Chambers.

Awareness and training programs help employees make their way through the minefield of legal issues involved in assessing and managing threats. Employees who make threats may have conditions covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for instance. Companies could also face infringement of privacy suits if information about an employee gets out to those without a right to know. And they could face defamation suits if their accusations turn out to be false.

A growth area

As companies become aware of these liability issues, they've become increasingly interested in developing programs like Intel's. The key is to create programs before there's a problem, says symposium chair William E. Foote, PhD, a forensic psychologist in Albuquerque, N.M.

"Trying to cobble something together when you have a guy on the phone who just threatened to blow up your plant is not the way to go," says Foote.

That growing interest in developing workplace violence programs represents a tremendous and potentially lucrative opportunity for psychologists, says Foote and others. In fact, VandenBos estimates that even in a town as small as 20,000 people a psychologist in private practice could devote one day a week to helping companies prevent and manage workplace violence problems.

"The need is increasingly dramatically," says Stock, who estimates that fewer than a dozen psychologists in the country work on workplace violence issues full-time. "It's an area that really needs psychologists."

But not every psychologist is qualified to take on this kind of work, warns Stock, who says he is often called in to clean up other psychologists' messes.

"Risk assessment and management in these high-risk cases are not the bailiwick of the traditional clinical psychologist," he says. "People are jumping in over their heads into situations that are really a matter of life and death."

Stock points to his own background as an example of the kind of experience needed to handle these cases. In addition to being one of only 160 board-certified forensic psychologists in the country, Stock has conducted more than 8,000 forensic evaluations, received training at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Academy and spent many years as the deputy director of the Outpatient Evaluation Unit at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has taught at the FBI Academy and the U.S. Secret Service Academy. He has also consulted with the Secret Service on threats directed at the President.

Young psychologists interested in developing this specialty should start early, says Stock, who recommends that they earn a degree from one of the few forensic psychology programs or create their own focus within a traditional psychology program get more specialized training via an internship and then go to work in a forensic facility. Established psychologists who want to move into this area should get their feet wet with the continuing education workshops offered by the American Academy of Forensic Psychology, says Stock, who acknowledges that few will go back for full-fledged postdoctoral training. They should then work under the supervision of a forensic psychologist.

Once they've got the proper training, says Stock, psychologists need to let companies know they're available. Sending out marketing materials, giving workshops and affiliating yourself with firms that already do this type of work are key ways to establish a practice in the field.

Although the financial rewards of this specialty are large, says Stock, so are the responsibilities. Since those who make threats don't take off evenings, weekends and holidays, neither can Stock and his partners. And the emotional pressures can be intense, too.

"You're dealing with people who are threatening to kill," he says. "Sleepless nights come with the territory."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

A new theory of workplace violence

Over the last decade, a risk-management consulting firm called Incident Management Group has developed a database filled with hundreds of names. They're all people who have threatened to kill in the workplace and who have been evaluated by forensic psychologists.

Now psychologist Harley V. Stock, PhD, the managing partner of the Hallandale, Fla., firm has drawn on the database to create a new theory about why workers make threats. Stock unveiled his theory at APA's 2000 Annual Convention, Aug. 4­8.

According to Stock, workers who make threats suffer from "pathological organizational affective attachment." Characteristics include:

  • Inability to detach themselves from a job and move on.

  • Difficulty forming bonds with others throughout their lives.

  • Past threats, whether in the current workplace or a former one.

  • Belief that their employer is treating them unfairly or singling them out for some reason.

  • Recurrent psychological disturbances that aren't significant enough to keep them from working--or being able to plan and carry out threats.

  • Blaming a specific individual for their problems.

  • Volatility, impulsivity, little emotional control and a failure to consider the consequences of their actions.

  • Oversensitivity to perceived insults or threats.

  • A tendency to use violence to solve problems and to threaten when they feel threatened.