Workplace Violence Against Women Is A National Disgrace

By Phil La Duke

Workplace violence seldom erupts without warning and you and your organization’s ability to spot the warning signs of a potential target can mean the difference literally between life and death.

What Led Me To This Point?

I was well into writing my third book, about the “Blood in the Pocket” syndrome, which is an unexpected consequence of safety incentives (many companies offer a bonus if no employee gets injured for a specific period of time, typically a quarter.). Many people conceal their injuries and see their own doctors so that it doesn’t impact the safety record and the corresponding reward from their employers.

One day my publisher told me to put that book on the back burner and write about workplace violence. As I did the research it took me to some very dark places.

For example, it conjured up the nightmarish memory of a high school friend of mine who was the victim of domestic violence. Her estranged husband stalked her and when he another man come to the house he entered, chased the man out and butchered my friend with a kitchen knife stabbing her so violently that he broke it and returned to the kitchen for another to continue his carnage. He mutilated her so badly that we couldn’t have an open casket. He was convicted and we all expected a life sentence.

He was out in four years; it was seen as a crime of passion. I often think about him now. Is he married? Online dating? Married? Does the woman in his life know about his grizzly past? These thoughts raced through my head after I learned that murder is the number one cause of death for women in the workplace and that of that population, 43% will be murdered by a family member of a domestic partner while only 2% of men will die like this. Of non-fatal workplace assaults 77% target women. Women are being beaten, raped and murdered at work, and yet no one seems to care.

When I tell men these statistics they are horrified and even challenge the data, and women just shrug and say, “nobody cares if you kill a woman.” I learned disturbing fact after disturbing fact about workplace violence. I even read articles that downplayed the role of domestic violence in the workplace by asserting that the majority of workplace fatalities were committed during robberies (which is true, but the majority of the victims of robbery-homicides are men).

Have you ever heard about something that was so shocking that you wanted to tell the world? That moved you to the point where you wanted to evangelize your new found epiphany to warn the unwary and to protect the vulnerable? Imagine if you did, how you would feel when you discovered that nobody cared, well at least not enough to do anything about it.

That’s what happened when I went down the rabbit hole of workplace violence.

We can prevent this

While it’s tempting to dismiss workplace violence as something that you can’t really do anything about, that simply isn’t true. The first step to protecting your workforce, something, by the way, that you are required to do under the General Duty Clause of OSHA, is to be able to spot the warning signs.

Targeted single shooter events (events where the attacker has a specific target or targets) are the last ditch attempt to assert control in a life spinning wildly out of control; it is the act of someone who is typically very controlling and who feels that he or she is out of options. Statistically, the attacker is a man using a gun, but women attackers are not unheard of, so for the remainder of this article I will use the masculine pronoun.

His life is likely spiraling out of control. The single shooter in the workplace is trying to exert the control he feels he’s has lost. This feeling of impotence is exacerbated through the heavy use of alcohol or drugs which in turn makes a mental imbalance worse. The woman that he has been controlling through threats, intimidation, and violence has left him and probably involved law enforcement. He wants to strike back at her and, lacking any other options, go to the place where he knows she will be, where he knows when she will be there, and too often , he knows he will have the element of surprise. He comes to her workplace with every intention of cashing in his proverbial chips and going out in a blaze of glory and gore. In other words, in the case of domestic violence spilling into the workplace, the aggressor is highly likely to have abused the victim before.

Spotting the Warning Signs

Workplace violence seldom erupts without warning and you and your organization’s ability to spot the warning signs of a potential target can mean the difference literally between life and death. There are no perfect predictors workplace violence, but that having been said, the warning signs that an employee is being abused and therefore at risk of being targeted include:

  • Bruising especially on the neck or forearm. A telltale sign that doctors and teachers look for when trying to spot signs that a child has been abused include the three-fingertip-sized bruises on the upper forearm (back of the hand side) and one thumb-sized bruise on the opposite (underside) side of the forearm. This is often indicative of someone being forcefully grabbed by the arm.
  • Limping or moving slowly as if in pain. Everybody experience those aches and pains from overdoing it on an outing or doing strenuous exercise, but when the movement indicates pronounced pain, ask if the woman has been to a doctor; if she says no, there is usually more to the situation than she is telling you.
  • Making excuses for obvious injuries. “I ran into a door” is so common an excuse that it is almost a cliche. When a woman makes an excuse for an obvious injury, ask how it happened. The more details she provides the more likely it is that she is lying about the cause of the injury.
  • Becoming withdrawn. If someone is normally sociable but suddenly becomes withdrawn particularly from friendly and moves from sociable to sullen and antisocial can merely be a symptom of stress, but when taken into consideration with they other indications it may mean that the person is being abused.
  • Excusing themselves from social invitations by saying their husband/boyfriend is jealous. Or suddenly turning down a social invitation. It doesn’t take much to go from jealousy to physical or verbal abuse; continued remarks about a jealous partner is a serious red flag and may be a cry for help.
  • Constantly checking in with their spouse or domestic partner. There is a major difference between checking in with a domestic partner to let them know that you are having dinner with coworkers or that you will be late, and incessant texting of phone calls to your partner to give them up to the minute reports on your activity.
  • Never having money on hand. Money empowers. It allows a victim of domestic abuse to make her own choices and maybe enough freedom to flee the domestic abuser.
  • A change in wardrobe. An individual may update his or her wardrobe from time to time, but we tend to stick closely to our personal style and a change from short sleeves to long sleeves or from skirts to pants, particularly if the change doesn’t fit the season should tip you off that the woman might be using the wardrobe change to mask bruises or other injuries.
  • Overly worried about pleasing their partner. There is a difference between wanting to create domestic harmony by making your partner happy and being so obsessed about pleasing your partner that the prospect of failing to do so triggers a panic attack.
  • Lethargy or apathy. When a person feels that they are running out of options, this feeling of malaise can manifest in lethargy or apathy. The individual stops caring about the consequences and the day-to-day mundanity of the job. This can apply to either the perpetrator or the target as both are in a horrible environment from which they can see no way out.
  • Becoming overly and inappropriately emotional. What, you may ask, constitutes “inappropriate” behavior or becoming “overly emotional”? Inappropriate emotional outbursts are the reactions that shock you because they are completely out of character for the person.

Detecting A Potential Unstable Worker

Not all workplace violence is caused by domestic violence spilling over into your workplace, but the type of person who abuses women is also the type who will attack his boss and it is important to be able to spot the warning signs of an employee who is about to become unhinged.

As for spotting potential assailants in your workplace you should look for:

  • Joking about or threatening violence. Joking about violence is thinking about violence, and even I have to admit to having resorted to gallows humor, but it not appropriate in the workplace.
  • Persecution complexes and delusional thoughts. A worker who fails to acknowledge his or her drop in performance, and blames others or claims that everyone is out to get them may be prone to violence — although generally speaking this is just a personality type and it’s important to recognize that a possibility of violent behavior is not the same as a propensity for violent behavior which is not the same as a predictor or violent behavior.These people will blame others for their mistakes and make repeated excuses. They may accuse their superiors of playing favorites or being “out to get them”. They will tend to look for reasons to take offense and will often take things very personally. These people will deflect criticism by claiming that “everyone” is doing it and may actually believe that they are being singled out for punishment.
  • Defiance of authority. The typical person who perpetrates workplace violence can holds grudges — especially against his or her supervisor — like a junkyard dog with a fresh bone. He or she will likely become openly defiant and voice his or her lack of respect for the company, the supervisor, and the executives.They often will talk about the bad things that will happen to the person against whom he or she has the grudge by saying things like, “don’t worry, he’ll get what’s coming to him” or other ominous idioms. This defiance of authority may take the form of pushing the limits to test the extent to which the authority figure will allow them to behave dysfunctionally. What’s worse is this defiance without consequence serves to embolden the behavior inviting even greater demonstrations of defiance.
  • Recklessness. The lone gunman has given up and honestly doesn’t consider or fear consequences, long before this manifests in an actual violent episode it will likely show itself in recklessness, from taking business extreme risks (like calling a customer obscene names) to theft or destruction of company property. In these extreme cases, it’s almost as if the individual is inviting a trigger whether he knows it or not. This behavior, coupled with the other behavioral changes is an observable prelude to a violent outburst.
  • Obsession with violent films or imagery. Violent films or television are popular and ubiquitous and clearly, not everyone who enjoys this type of entertainment is likely to go on a killing spree, but it is one factor to consider
  • Hostility toward women. A disproportionate number of violent men have a deep-seated hostility toward women, particularly women in positions of authority.

Physical changes

One of the best indications that someone’s life is spiraling out of control is the observable physical changes, for example:

  • Poor hygiene, wearing dirty clothing, It’s one thing if someone has body odor from the day you hired them (and why for the love of all that’s holy did you higher stinky?) and quite another if the body odor develops suddenly and is in conjunction with other physical changes. Be careful in this situation. Body odor can be caused by physical conditions that you cannot ask about under the protection of Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Certainly, you can confront a worker about poor hygiene but you cannot pry about physical conditions that might be causing said odors.
  • Bruising, cuts, or other indications of fighting. Some might argue that being in a bar brawl is none of your business, but you are in a position of authority and can, with genuine concern, ask if the person is okay
  • Watery eyes and blotchy skin. Watery eyes and blotchy skin can indicate illness, drug abuse, a change in diet, or many other things. Either way, there is nothing wrong with a show of genuine concern, like asking, “do you feel okay?”
  • Complaints about a vague feeling of illness or tiredness. Fatigue is not just being tired from a lack of sleep, high levels of stress can cause fatigue that manifests as vague aches and pains, lack of energy, or other vague illnesses. These symptoms are not imaginary and acting in a way that tells the worker that you don’t sympathize can be another building block in the road to an explosion. Also, a victim of domestic violence may exhibit these same symptoms. Intervening early can save lives.

Perhaps most important is to encourage everyone in the organization that if they see something suspicious, to say something to a person in authority, and do something like getting to safety or monitoring the situation until help arrives. Doing nothing makes us all complicit in these murders. People don’t have to die in the workplace. All we need to do is want the change badly enough that it spurs us to action.


About the author:

Phil La Duke is the author of Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence. His articles have been published in numerous magazines across the globe and he is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur magazine. Phil La Duke is the author of Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. His articles have been published in numerous magazines across the globe and he is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur magazine.

He can be followed on social media at @philladuke on Twitter