Death In The Office: Workplace Homicides

Reprinted from The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (April 1995)


Sgt. Duncan serves in the Patrol Division of the Department of Public Safety, Sarasota, FL.


This is what you get for firing me.


These were the last words that three former coworkers of Paul Calden would ever hear. Fired 9 months earlier from an insurance company in Tampa, Florida, Calden returned to the cafeteria of his former employer and began shooting. Within minutes, five people were wounded, three of whom died.1 Calden fled in a rental car, only to commit suicide in a park where he used to play frisbee.


In many ways, Calden was a classic, violence-prone ex-employee, and in many ways, he was not. But the type of crime he committed is on the rise and is one of the newest and most threatening dangers in the workplace.


This article focuses on workplace homicides committed by known assailants. It highlights common offender characteristics to help law enforcement apprehend suspects. Finally, it identifies the causes of such crimes, which may prevent them from occurring in the first place.




According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), homicide was the third leading cause of occupational death from 1980 to 1985, accounting for 13 percent of all workplace deaths.2 For women, homicide is the leading cause of death in the workplace. A 1993 study conducted by an insurance company found that strangers made only 16 percent of threats in the workplace; customers or clients made 36 percent; current or former employees accounted for the majority_43 percent.3


In these nonstranger workplace homicides, two categories of victims emerge_supervisors and domestic partners. Although no organized central effort currently exists to collect data on the characteristics of these cases, many media reports cite the initial intended victim as a former or current supervisor. While at one time employers could fire employees with no fear of repercussions, they now must contend not only with avoiding employee-filed lawsuits but also with avoiding violence. Obviously, employers should handle terminations with concern for the well-being of the person being fired and for the safety of those who remain employed.  According to the NIOSH study, domestic cases also can spill over into the workplace. The cause for the victimization of women in the

workplace by domestic partners is easy to understand. While a woman may change her residence, her work address remains the same.


This presents a special problem for employers. Do victims of dom-estic threats deserve special pro-tection in the workplace?  Because the courts consistently have held employers liable for protecting employees from known hazards and for the peace and efficiency of the workplace,4 employers should enact special security measures when their employees bring problems to their attention.




Like many of the assailants in workplace homicides, Patrick Sherrill had a history of work problems, and he knew that he faced dismissal. On August 20, 1986, he walked into the post office in Edmond, Oklahoma, and before he finally took his own life, he killed

14 other postal employees.5 Robert Farley's fruitless obsession with a female coworker led to his eventual dismissal in 1986, but it was almost 2 years later, on the day that he missed a hearing for violating a restraining order from the same woman, that he

returned to his former workplace in Silicon Valley. Farley was prepared; he brought along a shotgun, a rifle, two handguns, bandoliers of extra ammunition, and gasoline. When he finally surrendered, seven people were dead and four (including his imagined girlfriend) were wounded.6


Patrick Sherrill, Robert Farley, and Paul Calden had different jobs in different places at different times, but they did have some things in common, as do many workplace assailants. The cases reviewed for this article were selected from 89 incidents of nonstranger workplace homicide reported by the media between May 1988 and May 1994. Thirty-nine reports had adequate detail to study the following criteria: Sex of the offender, means of at-tack, age of the offender, rela-tionship of the victim and offender, type of workplace, number of victims, and resolution of the act. The cases studied were chosen mainly because they were reported in the most detail; however, thousands of workplace crimes occur every year.


Man With a Gun


Review of media accounts produced two glaring results: 97 percent of the assailants were male, and a firearm was used in all cases studied. This may be because, in addition to having experience with firearms, men often strongly identify with the traditional role of the "breadwinner." The loss of a job can mean a loss of identity for many men, even if they have a family or support system. At the same time, society has been breeding what has been called a "culture of excuse,"7 where individuals claim to be "victims" who are not responsible for their own behavior. These factors certainly are at work in these cases, and their recent emergence coincides with the growth of this type of crime.


The use of firearms in these crimes reflects extensive planning by the offender. The assailants usually have plenty of time to prepare. Their crimes are not spur-of-the-moment, temporary insanity cases. Their mission is to go to the workplace for one purpose_to kill_and the most effective way to do that is with a firearm. Moreover, these assailants sometimes carry extra firearms, ammunition, and even a list of their intended victims.


Mid-Life Crisis


While murder suspects in general are under 30 years of age,8 the nonstranger workplace killers examined here averaged 38.2 years of age. In fact, only 2 of the 39 assailants were under age 25. Several studies have shown that these assailants often have a history of frustrating life experiences.9 Older individuals have more of a chance to build up a series of these frustrations. Thus, the growing number of middle-aged workplace assailants may reflect the increasing age of the general population.


Disgruntled Employees


The relationship of the assailants to the workplace was split almost evenly between current and former employees, 41 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Many of the employees had grievances or disciplinary actions pending at the time of the attacks. In several instances, the employee/assailant was seeking retribution for being passed over for promotion. The remaining 13 percent of the cases consisted of domestic partners, clients or customers, and others. Civil Servants


The employer most likely to be victimized by workplace homicide is the government--local, State, or Federal--accounting for 38 percent of the cases. The Federal Government is still the largest employer in the United States, but with only 15 percent of the country's work force,10 Federal employees are involved disproportionately in workplace violence. Post offices have had the worst experiences; 38 postal employees have been murdered since 1986.11 In nongovernmental occupations, factories and production facilities accounted for 18 percent of the incidents, which may be due to a disproportionate number of male workers, as in the postal service.12


The Body Count


While the media tend to accentuate the cases with the greatest number of victims, the average number of deaths per incident (including offender suicides) was 2.5. In 39 percent of the cases, the assailant killed one person.


The Final Act


Thirty-six percent of the assailants committed suicide, reflecting the finality of their intentions. This represents a real danger to responding officers. If offenders do not care about getting hurt_or worse, if they expect to get hurt_they may react recklessly aggressive, which gives them a tremendous tactical advantage over police officers.




As with any crime, prevention remains the best way to approach nonstranger violence in the workplace. Unfortunately, intimidated by hundreds of laws pertaining to the selection of applicants and employee rights, many employers believe that they can do nothing to screen job applicants. In reality, many methods exist that enable employers to judge applicants.


In all cases, a good background investigation is essential. While law enforcement agencies have experience conducting background investigations, private employers may be reluctant to venture into this area, so they may wish to hire outside contractors.  Some companies have found that only 10 percent of the applicants with criminal records actually admitted this fact when applying for employment. Further, up to one-third of all job applications contain a major falsification.13 In addition, employers often lack experience in dealing with problem employees and have no procedures in place to guide them. Problem management depends on

recognizing the various warning signs that these employees usually exhibit. Some of the classic warning signs are chronically poor work performance, conflicts with supervisors and/or other employees, unfounded grievances and complaints, abuse of sick leave, and view of self as a "victim."


Any threat of violence, subtle or direct, should be taken seriously, then documented and investigated by the local police if appropriate. While none of the above factors guarantees future violence, workplace murderers sometimes do make their plans very clear, if anyone is paying attention. Early recognition and intervention with a problem employee give the best opportunity to manage the problem. Then, if the employee does not respond and must be terminated, the properly documented case history provides an easily defensible action in court. Termination implies an ending, but it may be only the beginning of a series of problems for an employer. Harassment, stalking, vandalism, and assaults by ex-employees should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. Employers should increase all security measures, which even may mean issuing bulletins to current employees identifying ex-employees who are causing problems. Current employees near termination most likely should be placed on administrative leave to prevent them from using their access to the workplace to commit crimes or to stage false injuries, harassment complaints, or similar incidents that portray them as victims.




Answering Calls for Service For the uniformed patrol officer, disputes, trespassers, and reports of unknown problems in the workplace now take on a new meaning and require a heightened sense of caution. Officers should respond to a dispute at a law office, bank, or factory at 11 a.m. using the same caution as they would for a domestic disturbance at 3 a.m. in a housing project.


Like domestic disputes, the emotional extremes and high degree of lethality demonstrated by workplace assailants mean that warnings, counseling, or any leniency often prove ineffective. Officers should encourage victims to pursue arrest, prosecution, and followup security to prevent future, possibly fatal, incidents.


Investigating Unknown Assailants


Although workplace assailants often make little attempt to conceal their identities while the crime is in progress, officers and detectives will respond oftentimes to cases involving an unknown perpetrator. In such cases, officers should look for indications that the crime was committed by someone who had some kind of working relationship with the victim, whether an individual employee or place of business.


As in domestic crimes, workplace crimes by nonstrangers routinely share a unique characteristic that differs from most other types of crimes_the lack of a profit motive. Personal crimes, sabotage, and vandalism are classic crimes of revenge committed only to victimize the target and emotionally appease the perpetrator. Also, as in domestic incidents, these crimes always focus on a specific victim. While the perpetrator may enter a workplace and then start shooting apparently indiscriminately, the victim is the entire institution, not a particular employee. Another factor appearing in workplace homicides is the occurrence of overkill. One incident not included in the 39 case studies provides insight. The manager of a muffler shop was stabbed 28 times and had his throat cut. This evidence, coupled with the fact that the murder had occurred soon after the manager had opened the shop for the day's business, with no sign of forced entry and nothing taken from the victim or the business, eventually led investigators to arrest a recently fired employee.14


With the rare exception of union-related violence, crimes by nonstrangers in the workplace almost always are committed by single perpetrators. Terminations, disciplinary actions, and promotions within an institution rarely affect groups of people.


Although the current downsizing trend has led some companies to institute massive layoffs, none of the nonstranger workplace homicides studied here had any relationship to corporate restructuring. Possible factors to consider in such cases include the assistance--job placement, severance packages, etc.--that corporations often give to laid-off employees and the fact that these employees do not perceive themselves as being singled out. One final factor to explore in unsolved workplace crimes is the recent history of employee problems within the institution. Employers may be reluctant to share information on terminations, disciplinary actions, and internal grievances, but investigating officers must emphasize the importance of solving the current crime to prevent others. In cases of violent crime, the list of terminated employees may have to be reviewed for the past several years.  Termination-related workplace homicides have occurred as soon as 5 minutes and as long as 3 years after the termination of the assailant.


If officers do not find leads when looking at terminations, they should look at internal grievances, complaints, and disciplinary actions. In almost all cases of workplace assailants, there are indications of substandard work performance. For example, Paul Calden had a lengthy history of conflicts with management and other employees over events that he often exaggerated. In one instance, he filed a formal complaint of harassment against a female coworker because of a joking bumper sticker on her personal vehicle that made fun of his alma mater.


Advising Employers/Victims


Few institutions have any prepared policies or training related to workplace violence. As a result, when the time comes for action, they often find themselves, at least initially, completely dependent on local law enforcement agencies. These victims expect the police to do a complete threat assessment on the case and predict what will happen next. In such cases, perhaps the only advice that police can give is that no one can predict what one person likely will do under any circumstances, let alone in stressful situations. Explaining the seriousness of these offenses to potential victims remains difficult because most institutions, when dealing with crime prevention, have grown accustomed to facing perpetrators who want to steal something and then leave. In addition to present and former employees' knowing the institution's physical plant and security procedures (or lack thereof), these perpetrators often do not care if they are identified because as the data show, for over one-third of them, this crime will be the last act of their lives. Potential victims must realize that they should take every physical and procedural security precaution available.  Employers should change security codes each time they terminate an employee and warn all remaining employees that the dismissed employee no longer should be admitted on the premises.


When corporations fail to take these measures, the results can be fatal. When Pacific Southwest Airlines terminated David Burke in 1987, security employees still admitted him without a pass because he was "a familiar face." Burke boarded a plane carrying his former supervisor, and while in flight, shot him and the pilots. Inevitably, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.15 Potential victims also must be advised strongly to report all criminal activity to the police and to document every instance of malfeasance by current or former employees. A successful prosecution for a crime such as stalking may depend on an accurate record of all of the problems the perpetrator caused during and/or after employment.


Looking in the Mirror


Violence by employees is, unfortunately, not foreign to law enforcement agencies. The presence of firearms and the predominantly male composition of the profession, combined at times with a strict disciplinary system, expose law enforcement agencies to the major factors involved in workplace violence. Each agency should review its own internal policies and make sure they are adequate.  Each agency also must appraise honestly how well it documents performance problems. Agencies that do not maintain accurate personnel files may send an employee with serious problems to wreak havoc at another agency.




Violent crime by nonstrangers in the workplace has been on the rise recently, and there is no reason to expect it to decrease. While these crimes are as unique as their perpetrators, warning signs oftentimes identify employees who may be prone to acts of violence.


Officers in the field should approach workplace disputes with a heightened sense of caution and be able to spot characteristics of these crimes while conducting investigations. Finally, law enforcement agencies also are victimized by these crimes, and like all other employers, they should review their own preparedness and make improvements where needed. The lives they save may be their own.




1 "Former Employee Kills Three in Cafeteria," The Tampa Tribune, January 28, 1993, 5(A).

2 "Homicide in U.S. Workplaces," National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Morgantown, West Virginia, September 1992.

3 "Fear and Violence in the Workplace," Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1993.

4 D.G. Sarvadi, Environmental Law Handbook (Rockville, MD: Government Institutes, Inc., 1993), 513.

5 "2 Killed, 4 Injured in Shootings at Post Offices," The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, May 6, 1993, 4(A).

6 "Gunman Says Love Led to Massacre," The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 18, 1988, 3(A).

7 "Sympathy Factor Dominates Courtroom of the 90's," The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 18, 1988, 3(A).

8 1990 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice), 420-421.

9 James Fox and Jack Levin, Mass Murder_America's Growing Menace, cited in "Worker's Despair May Fuel Killings," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 20, 1994, 10(A).

10 The 1993 Information Please Almanac (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 63.

11 Supra note 4.

12 "Post Office Shootings," The ABC Evening News, 3 April 1993.

13 "Mistakes in Hiring Are Painful and Expensive," The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, November 1, 1993, 6(D).

14 "Workplace Violence," The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Television, December 16, 1993.

15 "Settling a Score," Newsweek, December 21, 1987, 43.