Workplace Violence: Not Gender Exclusive
Although it is true that most violent acts in the workplace are committed by men, workplace violence by women is more common than you might think. Around seven percent of shooting incidents at work are committed by women, while women are responsible for about 30 percent of the reported workplace bullying incidents.
Definition: Workplace violence is defined as any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the worksite. (OSHA)
Although the biology of men and women differs in significant ways, their emotions are similar; and since most workplace violence is emotion-driven, that fact is important to keep in mind. When we talk about emotions in a workplace violence context, we refer to the spectrum of emotions associated with job performance (disappointment, anger, a sense of betrayal, helplessness and hopefulness/hopelessness), our perception of how we are treated and judged by our superiors and colleagues, our workplace relationships – from the intimate to the casual – and relationships with others outside work.
Women are thought of as more restrained and more logical than men when it comes to emotional violent loss of control in the workplace. While women tend to internalize negative emotions, men tend to be more likely to express them violently in public. According to Dr. Carter Hay, a Florida State University criminologist: “Females are more inclined to internalize, to direct their reaction to themselves, and maybe experience anxiety or depression,” he said. “Males are more likely to externalize.” (source)
Workplace Violence General Statistics:
- About 2 million people each year report some type of workplace violence.
- In 2016, 17% of workplace deaths were the result of violence.
- It is estimated that 25% of workplace violence goes unreported.
Still, women can be as expressive and as violent as men, can lash out under certain circumstances and can even commit murder. According to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox: “Men tend to view violence as an offensive strategy, and women tend to view it in a more defensive mode.” (source)
Key Drivers of Workplace Violence
Several key elements drive workplace violence by women:
- Increased competition between men and women over the same jobs – As competition between women and men for the same jobs increases with the current and evolving changes in the marketplace, women are likely to become progressively more aggressive. According to anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan, in societies where women compete more amongst each other whether in occupations, or over spouses, their levels of stress hormones and testosterone increase. (source)
- Perception of slight/insult (e.g., body shaming, lack of promotion) – As women assert themselves more in the workplace, they become less willing to accommodate comments and other suggestive behavior. It is likely that more overt responses will elicit increased conflict in many cases.
- Response to administrative acts (e.g., loss of custody) – As pressure to retain earning capabilities increases, women are more likely to respond violently to administrative decisions that result in a real or perceived threat to their ability to sustain and improve their level of earning. (source)
- “Queen Bee” Syndrome (e.g., “The Devil Wears Prada” – a woman manager who treats subordinate women harshly) – This phenomenon is becoming increasingly visible as more and more women become managers and executives, and find themselves in supervisory positions over large teams of men and women. (source)
Workplace Bullying by Women
Workplace bullying is often the catalyst or “entry point” into workplace violence for women, as it is similarly for men. It is also where most women-led workplace violence takes place, and where it is likely to take place in the future. While men remain the majority of workplace bullies, women are more often becoming the bullying targets of other women. More than two thirds of women who report being bullied at work, testify that the bully was another woman.
Workplace Violence Case Studies
Once violence does occur, incidents tend to be similar regardless of the attacker’s gender.
Case Study 1 – The Barre City Child Custody Murders
Barre City, Vermont, August 8, 2015 – Jody Herring, 40, was arrested and charged with the shooting death of Lara Sobel, a social worker for the Department for Children and Families, as well as the murder of three relatives.
Herring was seeking revenge for the loss of custody over her nine-year-old daughter. Sobel was the social worker in charge of this case.
Several witnesses saw Herring ambushing Sobel, 48, and shooting her twice with a hunting rifle in a parking lot outside City Place, the new Agency of Education building in Barre, as Sobel was leaving work.
In addition to the social worker, Herring also murdered her cousins, Rhonda, 49, and Regina, 48, and her aunt, Julie Ann Falzarano, 73.
Case Study 2 – The Goleta Postal Facility Shootings
I have a personal connection to this case study as I led this investigation for the US Postal Service in 2006 during my tenure as Inspector in Charge of the Los Angeles Division.
On January 30, 2006 Jennifer San Marco, a former US Postal Service employee previously diagnosed with mental illness, returned after five years of retirement to her former neighborhood and workplace (the USPS Postal Processing and Distribution Center) in Goleta, CA and shot and killed seven people, before taking her own life.
San Marco first shot and killed her one-time neighbor, Beverly Graham, with a handgun as she returned home, then drove to the mail processing plant where she previously worked as a mail processor. Just prior to a shift change, she entered the facility’s parking lot by “piggybacking” behind another car where she shot Ze Fairchild, 37, in the head. She then turned to Maleka Higgins and shot her at point-blank range, and continued by shooting Nicola Grant as she was leaving work.
San Marco then entered the building with an access badge taken from one of the victims, and continued firing. The building was occupied with over 80 employees at the time of the shootings. Once inside, San Marco shot supervisor Charlotte Colton, then approached her old work station and shot Guadalupe Swartz four times, killing her. San Marco proceeded to murder Dexter Shannon, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War with grandchildren. After murdering seven innocent people, San Marco committed suicide by shooting herself in the head while still inside the facility.
San Marco apparently believed that she was the target of a conspiracy centered at the Goleta postal facility, according to writings recovered from her house in New Mexico.
Workplace violence, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by a male or female attacker, yields the same result: innocent lives are taken often in attempts to get revenge for a perceived slight or unfair treatment. Unfortunately, we will continue to see these types of incidents going forward as law enforcement and security professionals continue to look for ways to end them.
But there is hope…
Maintaining a high level of organizational/personal awareness and readiness when dealing with individuals with a potential for workplace violence is an important first step in preventing these types of incidents. Specific triggers and warning signs for violence in the workplace include:
- Mental illness
- Disgruntled employees or other individuals
- Domestic disputes/domestic violence spillover
- Past or present history of violent behavior
- Frequent mention of or known obsession with weapons
- Changes in behavior, angry, agitated, confrontational
- Behavior consistent with mental illness
- Talk of suicide or harming self
- Belief they are being persecuted
- Bullying – continuous workplace harassment
Maintaining a high level of organizational/personal awareness and readiness when dealing with individuals with a potential for workplace violence is an important first step in preventing these types of incidents.
Important strategies to prevent and handle workplace violence incidents include:
- Resolve issues at the lowest possible level
- Handle terminations utilizing “Safe Termination Procedures”
- A “See Something Say Something” culture should be promoted
- Implement a WPV program incorporating industry best practices
- Provide Active Shooter training to employees
- Thorough pre-employment background checks and reviews are important and often the first line of defense; not hiring a violence-prone employee to begin with is key.
Mr. Oscar Villanueva
TAL Global Corporation
Managing Director, Investigations
About the author: Mr. Oscar Villanueva is an international security expert with decades of investigative, risk assessment & management, emergency preparedness, training and critical infrastructure security experience in the U.S. and around the world.
Mr. Villanueva had a distinguished career as a federal security and law enforcement agent, and as an executive at the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). In this capacity, Mr. Villanueva led large scale investigative, security and law enforcement operations in several large metropolitan areas in the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. These operations earned Mr. Villanueva respect and appreciation in the public and private sectors.
Mr. Villanueva’s corporate security experience, active client engagement, and expertise in workplace violence threat assessments, insider threat investigations and retail loss prevention and logistics security, among other disciplines, have continued to be strong asset for clients domestically and internationally.
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