Violence in the Workplace: An Age Old Problem Leads to New Solutions

A man did not take his dismissal from his employer well. Fired for drinking heavily, he wandered his office in a drunken haze, carrying with him letters naming co-workers who he felt had wronged him and outlining his plans to either shoot them or chop them up violently. This was not an unplanned act as he carried a gun in his pocket.

A foreman found him and informed him that strangers were not allowed on the premises. He demanded to speak with the head of the company but the boss did not have the time or inclination to accommodate the man’s grievances. He did not know this man, nor of his record of drunkenness, neglect of duties, domestic violence, or that he was currently out on bail. He just knew that he was being bothered by a man he didn’t know and who had probably deserved to have been fired.

In the ensuing struggle, the gun was pulled and went off hitting his boss in the leg. The boss, as he had discounted the man who had eventually shot him, downplayed the incident and continued to work after several days of convalescence. What seemed to be a simple wound became infected and the boss died several weeks later.

This story has played out many times over the years, but what makes this one most interesting is that it happened 132 years ago…the year was 1880 and the boss was George Brown, one of Canada’s founding fathers and head of the Globe newspaper where both men had worked.

The shooter, George Bennett, was tried and found guilty. His defense was that he was under the influence of alcohol and had gone to see Brown for a simple matter and “could not control the event.”

“He has gone to his death through an oversight on my part. It was a foolish thing for me to have drawn the revolver, but I was in liquor or I would have never done it. I could not control the event. I went there purely on a matter of business and my business was very simple and very plain. The result was as it was. I am prepared to die.”

Bennett was hung just short of 3 months after the incident.

The assassination of George Brown has been called a case of the victim being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a lesson on how not to handle an agitated former employee.

While violence in the workplace has been around for thousands of years, the term “workplace violence” did not originate until the 1980’s following a number of post office shootings in the US, the first of which occurred in 1986 when a part-time letter carrier shot 14 people to death before killing himself. The term “going postal” has been colloquially related to workplace violence where the employee goes off the deep end through stress or other motivators. Statistically however; the USPS does not have higher occurrences of workplace violence than other industries. Even more surprisingly, Canada ranks fourth in the world, ahead of the United States, in the number of workplace violence incidents (albeit not homicides).

Giving workplace violence a label has no doubt escalated the problem with copy cats and providing a solution to some people who may feel they are otherwise powerless in the workplace. Also, mass media coverage of incidents from around the world shows us that this is not a unique phenomenon but a part of life.

So what does all this mean? It means that workplace violence is nothing new; it is something that has persisted for as long as recorded history. If nothing else, it has evolved to include new types of incidents such as road rage, air rage and cyber bullying. As society places more and more demand on workers and fragments the family unit, this will serve to create other previously undocumented types of violence.

Violence in the workplace – whether directed from one worker to another or from the public towards your workforce – is not going to go away.

All is not bleak however. Identifying the problem has started a trend of solutions. Recognizing the workplace violence phenomenon and its precursors is the first step in mitigating the risk of it happening to you. Learning the warning signs, preventive strategies, workplace counselling and clearly defined policies draws the line in the sand and defines what is and isn’t acceptable. Also, some workplaces rehearse or hold active shooter drills so that people know how to react when a situation reaches the melting point.

Most importantly, knowing that workplace violence is a part of our way of life and is omnipresent forewarns and forearms us to protect ourselves. Unlike George Brown, we now know the consequences and risks associated with terminations and with mistreatment of workers. With respect, tolerance, forethought, a clearly defined policy and outlets available to staff in stressful situations, the problem won’t go away but can only get better.