Before the boss needs to call 911

One community's long-term response to a fatal episode of workplace violence: close collaboration with local police.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Every time a fellow police chief stands before a bank of microphones in the chilling aftermath of a workplace homicide, Stephen Doherty knows what the toughest question will be: How could this have been prevented?

He's been enlisting business owners, researchers, and his own officers in the Wakefield, Mass., Police Department to help find the answer for nearly three years now - ever since the day his town, "a Norman Rockwell kind of place," lost its can't-happen-here naiveté.

Chief Doherty was among the first officers on the scene that day, Dec. 26, 2000, after Michael McDermott walked into the Edgewater Technology office and fatally shot seven co-workers. The jury put Mr. McDermott behind bars for life without the possibility of parole. But when the legal case closed, Doherty's mission was just beginning.

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"We can never remove ourselves from that deadly roll call," Doherty says of the list of workplace murders trotted out most recently after last month's shooting by an ex-employee at a Chicago warehouse. What Doherty wants is an asterisk next to Wakefield "that says we tried to ... develop strategies to work toward awareness and prevention."

The resulting collaboration in Wakefield is known as the Workplace Violence Pilot Program. Rather than focusing solely on mass shootings, the program confronts the less-sensational but much more common incidents of harassment and assault that undermine people's safety at work. And part of the equation is to bring the community- policing concept into places of business.

An average of 1.7 million people a year were victims of violent crime on the job between 1993 and 1999, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That accounted for nearly 20 percent of all violent crime in the United States. The vast majority of the incidents were considered simple assaults; homicides numbered more than 800 a year on average.

Doherty speaks to business leaders around the country whenever he can, hoping to reach them before workplace violence escalates into tragedy. It's a tall order.

"[Workplace violence] is not the kind of issue that companies are eager to tackle one day out of the blue," says Kathleen Brickley, an attorney for Barnes & Thornburg in South Bend, Ind., who advised concerned employers last year after two fatal workplace shootings in her community. "What sparks interest is it happens ... and they say, 'Could it have happened here?' "

In Wakefield, researchers from Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice say they are encountering tremendous openness and honesty in the business community. A 12-page survey sent to Wakefield employers last December received 183 responses, about 40 percent of the businesses contacted. One-third said they have policies related to workplace violence. In the past year, 15 percent of managers had reported to the police that they were victims of a violent incident at work (not necessarily at the hands of a co-worker). Another 8 percent had experienced violence but did not report it. A similar survey is under way with employees, so their perceptions can be compared with those of their bosses.

Managers often don't know how helpful the police can be if someone is making co-workers feel uneasy but hasn't done anything obviously criminal, says Jack McDevitt, associate dean of the College of Criminal Justice. "We're not saying the police are the right solution to all problems, but they may be a solution that's frequently underutilized."

It's fitting that Doherty's office is a classroom in an old school building, while a new police station is under construction. In addition to overseeing 44 officers, the chief has taken on the role of educator.

Propped up on the chalkboard behind his desk is a pie-chart poster in primary colors, illustrating the places where community policing has led to crime prevention: schools, homes, and the streets. The sliver labeled "workplace" simply has a question mark by it - a challenge to do more.

Doherty also coined a catchphrase: "Call us with 10 digits" - dial the office phone number to discuss concerns, he tells employers, instead of waiting until you need to dial 911.

Phyllis Pearl has taken that message to heart. She's the office manager for Kawasaki LSI USA Inc. in Wakefield, part of the company's semiconductor division. Serving on the advisory board of the Wakefield initiative "has allowed me to feel useful, when that was a situation where we all felt helpless," she says, referring to the shootings at Edgewater, right across the street from her house.

It's also made a difference in her own office. When she worried about a software engineer who was upset about being let go, she contacted Chief Doherty for advice. Her bosses didn't feel the need to hire a security guard, but they took suggestions about changing locks and computer access, and everyone was alert during the transition, when the employee had to return equipment to the company and pick up his final paycheck.

"Yes, we're under stress, but let's pull together," she says of the high-tech industry. "I would love to see more companies do that instead of just having employees punch a time clock."

Officer on call

Twice a week, patrolman Dave DuShane holds office hours at the US headquarters of Comverse Network Systems, a telecommunications-services company perched on one edge of Wakefield's Lake Quannapowitt.

Primarily, he's a resource for managers, but any of the company's 400 employees can call him confidentially or stop by his office, which Comverse provides in exchange for his free services. "They'll come talk to me about whatever's affecting them at the workplace or in their private lives," Mr. DuShane says.

The company first consulted with Wakefield police in the late 1990s, after a series of thefts, Doherty says. But when Comverse was preparing for several rounds of layoffs after Edgewater, nervous managers wanted advice about how to assess risks and keep the office safe. They decided to have one uniformed officer on site and to position plainclothes officers within earshot when someone considered potentially volatile was being notified. No one reacted violently.

"We've been able to add appropriate levels of security ... but it hasn't gone to the extreme where it's undermining [the idea that we] trust our employees," says assistant vice president Nick Thurlow.

DuShane holsters a gun on his right hip, but he says he blends into the woodwork at Comverse. On a recent morning, one employee passed him in the lobby and joked, "I didn't do it." And he helped another one fill out an accident form for a traffic mishap the week before.

He's never had to arrest a Comverse employee, though he recalls that a security guard hired by the office park was once accused of flashing someone and making lewd gestures. Managers asked that he be escorted off the property, and DuShane insisted on going one step further. "I said, 'He's going to have to be escorted off the property in the backseat of a cruiser, in handcuffs.' " In Massachusetts, "open and gross lewd lasciviousness" is a felony, he says, but civilians often don't know what legally constitutes a crime.

Making the rules clear

It's difficult for managers to navigate the legal maze of privacy rights and anti- discrimination laws when they have concerns about an employee's behavior. But there are many tools that companies don't use often enough, experts say.

"They can make clear in employee handbooks that violence and threats of violence are not acceptable and can lead to termination," says Thomas Mullen, the lawyer for the city of Wakefield and a member of the workplace-violence advisory committee. "They can absolutely forbid the presence of guns and other weapons on the work site.... They should encourage employees who for whatever reason may not feel safe to go to their managers or to call the police."

Bit by bit, these ideas are spreading. Last year, Congress appropriated nearly $2 million for a task force on workplace violence. Some states require training for high-risk jobs like late-night retail.

"I kind of feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills," Doherty says. "But if we can ... prevent any one of those horrific incidents, then it's worthwhile."

How violence at home is felt at work

Employers can't afford to believe that the devastating effects of domestic violence stop at the office door. And they don't need to feel helpless.

That's the message going out in a public-service ad next month from Altria, the parent company of Kraft and Phillip Morris and a founding member of the Safe@work coalition. The group's website (www.safeatworkcoalition.org) includes statistics, legal information, sample workplace policies, and success stories showing how co-workers' support can help people break free from victimization.

Many employers "don't really recognize that domestic violence needs to be addressed in the workplace, and those that do [understand] don't know what to do," says Diana Echevarria, who gives grants for domestic-violence prevention as manager of Altria's contributions outreach.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace, and intimate partners commit 16 percent of those murders, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Safe@work reports that domestic violence costs businesses $3 billion to $5 billion a year. Among battered women, it says:

• 74 percent are harassed while at work, either by phone or in person.

• 50 to 85 percent miss work more often because of the abuse.

• Up to half say the abuse is at least partly responsible for them losing of a job.

In late August, a business in Nashville, Tenn., experienced the lengths to which abusive partners can go. A man out on bail awaiting trial for raping and kidnapping his ex-girlfriend came to the video-production rental store where she worked and asked for her, using a fake name.

According to the local newspaper, The Tennessean, the employee at the front desk turned him away after calling the woman and finding out she wasn't expecting anyone. The man then pulled out a shotgun and made his way toward her upstairs office. By the time police arrived, he had killed a co-owner of the company and himself. The woman and other employees had taken refuge in a locked office.

No matter how secure a workplace is, such extreme situations are difficult to prevent. But companies can take steps to protect victims and their co-workers, says Greg Bujac, Altria's vice president of corporate security.

"We've walked folks to the subway; given them emergency numbers to call," Mr. Bujac says. One employee called the 24-hour security center from an office in another state and was able to get information about late-night local resources.

Brochures about domestic violence placed in the restrooms at Altria have become models for other firms. Managers and supervisors are trained to identify employees who might be experiencing domestic violence and reach out to them gently, Bujac says. "That's the most difficult part in any of these situations, because victims want their privacy."

Some may decline help, but others will see it as a lifeline. Safe@work's website quotes women's testimonies to this effect: "My co-worker screened my calls when my ex-husband was harassing me," says one. "She volunteered to change her shift so that I could go to a support group.... The support I got at work made the whole process so much easier for me."

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