Defusing workplace violence
Companies act to protect their employees and the bottom line
Jennifer Ehrlich Staff Reporter
On a Thursday morning last March, Lenard Johnson went to work as usual at Eaton Corp. in Eden Prairie. But other
employees heard a popping sound and saw Johnson leave before they found James Vit, the draftsman who shared
his cubicle, shot once in the head.
Two months earlier, a bomb threat forced the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to shut down five buildings
as a precaution. A seasonal worker, still stinging over a poor evaluation, had told several employees that he would
blow up the St. Paul headquarters.
"Since then we have definitely increased security," said Scott Pengelly, a DNR information officer. "But these are
public buildings and the DNR has to be accessible."
It is the most extreme examples of workplace violence that have captured public attention and startled businesses
into turning general concern into company policies, designed to identify and diffuse tensions before a violent
outburst occurs. While
homicides in the workplace are still relatively rare, nonfatal violence on the job has become so widespread that
companies have been forced to face the issue.
Nationwide, about 20 people are killed by homicide on the job per week. Homicide still remains the leading cause
of death on the job for women, and the second-most-frequent cause of workplace death for men, according to
statistics published by the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite the high-profile media coverage of murders in the workplace, the actual rate of homicide has been stable
over the last several years. In Minnesota, there have been an average of seven workplace homicides a year since
Yet corporate fears are on the rise that escalating workplace violence represents a danger to employees and, in
turn, a threat to companies that can find themselves in expensive litigation.
The fear, whether real or perceived, has spawned a new breed of workplace-violence consultants who teach
companies how to put policies into place to prevent violence and protect companies from being sued by injured
At Eaton Corp., the initial reaction of employees following the recent shooting was shock that violence could erupt at
their plant in the safety of Eden Prairie, said William Steinkirchner, divisional human resource manager at Eaton.
But beginning just hours after the murder, employees were introduced to the business reaction to violent events.
Eaton first ushered in a corps of counselors, teams of risk managers, and even a chaplain to meet with employees.
Since then, the company has instituted new training programs in an effort to help the employees deal with the crisis
and, of course, to protect the company from litigation.
"Primarily the policies are in place to protect the employees," Steinkirchner said. "But secondly we are trying to be in
compliance with federal and state regulations, and the third is that if there is a legal issue after the fact we want to
show we did everything we could to prevent it."
Assaults, fist fights and verbal threats are more common examples of workplace violence than incidents similar to
what happened at Eaton. A recent survey of human resources managers around the country suggests that nonfatal
workplace violence is much more prevalent on the job than the murders that make the front page.
Nearly half of the survey respondents said that a violent incident has occurred in their workplace in the last three
years, with 25 percent saying the violence has since increased, according to the June 1996 report from the Society
for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.
In Minnesota, cases of workplace homicide have been relatively rare, but workplace violence that resulted in a day
away from work is widespread. In 1994, according to the most recent survey results, about 508 assaults and violent
acts occurred statewide. There were 662 violent acts in 1993, up from 539 in 1992, according to data from the
Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
After a violent event occurs in the workplace, an employee has a number of potential claims that could be brought
against the company. Most of the legal issues surround the hiring practices and workplace environment the
company has created.
Negligent hiring and retention, lack of supervision, and harassment -- where violence was motivated by sex, race or
religion -- are some of the more frequent claims made by employees if they are injured on the job, according to
Steven W. Wilson, an attorney with Briggs and Morgan, in the labor and employment section.
"The company tends to be the deep-pocket," Wilson said. "They [victims] are going to be angry with the employee,
but if they have complained about it then they are going to be quite angry with the company."
In his presentations to businesses, Wilson cites a 1995 case in Minneapolis involving Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. to
illustrate the expense of ignoring harassment. The company ultimately was required to pay more than $1.2 million
in damages, fees and penalties after a Hennepin County District court found a female employee had been
subjected to sexual harassment, negligent retention and supervision, and battery on the job.
According to the records, she was subjected to sexual comments and a wide range of offensive touching that
included being placed in a shrink-wrap machine and wrapped in cellophane by male co-workers.
But advising businesses on which policies to have in place to best indicate the company has done the most
possible to prevent violence from a legal standpoint is only one aspect of workplace-violence consulting.
Duane Fredrickson, a detective sergeant with the Minneapolis Police Department and workplace-violence
consultant, says he tells his clients to expect the fallout from having a violent incident on the job to far outweigh the
cost of putting a sound policy in place beforehand.
"For six to 18 weeks after an incident happens there is a 50 percent decrease in productivity -- in other words less
widgets -- and a 20 to 40 percent turnover in employees," Fredrickson said.
Duane and Carol Fredrickson, both police force veterans, run their consulting business, Fredrickson Consulting
Inc., in Minneapolis. Fredrickson said Minnesota businesses are just waking up to what they need to do to prevent
workplace violence. Most frequently businesses request the training only after an incident has already happened, he
Eaton's Steinkirchner said that the company has not experienced any loss of its staff of 550 employees due to the
incident, but he declined to discuss in detail how the workplace has fared.
"A company usually does not want to say they've had workplace violence -- they don't want to look like a bad
employer," said Mary Kloehn, vice president and managing director of Organizational Dynamics, a division of Career
Career Dynamics is a Minneapolis-based consulting firm that got into workplace-violence training after the company
experienced a scare of its own. An employee had been laid off during a downsizing and threatened to come in and
"blow people away," Kloehn said.
Kloehn said the company's executives realized they should have had a policy in place for handling a violent threat.
Now, as part of its outplacement services, the firm advises companies on how to handle mass layoffs and
"It's sort of like a fire drill -- we like to draw that connection," Kloehn said. "You need to have a plan and everyone
needs to know what to do and practice it."
Ford Motor Co. in St. Paul has had a system in place for dealing with workplace violence for several years. Although
the Ford Parkway plant has never experienced a shooting, the corporation is highly sensitive to the issue because
there have been six shootings in three years in Ford plants near the Detroit area, according to Jack Halverson,
human resources manager.
The most recent case occurred last August at the Wixom, Mich., plant. Employees witnessed a man dressed like
Rambo wielding a semi-automatic weapon open fire at a vehicle-assembly plant, killing the plant manager.
"We do have incidents from time to time of what we call behavioral emergencies," Halverson said. "The things that
go on outside also happen in here and we deal with the company and the union to put systems in place."
Whether workplace violence training actually can prevent violence is still up for grabs. Many of the suggestions of
consultants include employees monitoring each other's behavior and essentially assessing the organization to see
if it's responsive to employees and screens new hires.
Nonetheless, several weeks before the shooting at Eaton Corp. employees attended a seminar on workplace
violence where they were taught warning signals to watch out for in co-workers.
Steinkirchner said the main impact of the new training is that employees are more attuned to the issue and not
hesitant to monitor colleagues' behavior. But he does not think training is a cure-all.
"I don't think what happened here could be prevented in the future."
© 1997, Minneapolis/St. Paul CityBusiness