U.S. worker-on-worker violence under-reported: experts

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The murder of a graduate student at Yale University, and the arrest of a lab technician, is a case of workplace violence, authorities say, that has pushed the issue of danger at work into the spotlight.

This undated handout image, provided by the New Haven Police Department on September 18, 2009, shows a family photograph of Yale graduate student Annie Le whose murdered body was found in the basement of a campus laboratory building. REUTERS/Courtesy of the New Haven Police Department/Handout

While workplace violence is not uncommon, actual worker-on-worker violence is rare or at least under-reported and undercounted, experts say. As a result, there’s plenty left to be learned about it, they say.

At Yale, Annie Le was missing for five days until her body was found stuffed behind a wall in a research lab on September 13, which was to have been her wedding day. Lab technician Raymond Clark was arrested and charged with the murder.

It’s a case of workplace violence, police said, and no motive has emerged. Colleagues called Clark a “control freak” who clashed with others over cleanliness at the lab.

The case is unusual, experts say. Workplace homicide has dropped dramatically, to 444 such cases last year from twice as many in 1995, according to government statistics. And most of those deaths occur in robberies of taxi drivers and clerks.

The worker-on-worker homicide rate hovers around a hundred a year nationwide, leaving little data to help predict who is likely to kill a co-worker, said Tom Tripp, co-author of “Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge.”


“Lots of people have grievances,” he said. “How do you know which of the very rare few are going to go do it?”

Reports of nonfatal workplace violence amounted to roughly 17,000 incidents that led to time off from work in 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But other BLS research that set out to sample 7.3 million businesses about workplace violence in 2005 found a much higher figure -- some 355,000 incidents in the previous 12 months.

Workplace violence is “undercounted in general and not all that simple,” said Corinne Peek-Asa, professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa.

One factor is the definition. Some experts limit it to physical violence or work days lost, while others extend it to verbal abuse, stalking, bullying and threats.

“What we don’t have a good sense of is how often there is threatening behavior or harassing behavior,” said Peek-Asa.

Such behavior often is simply not reported, said Richard Denenberg, author of “The Violence-Prone Workplace,” who said most statistics are suspect due to under-reporting.

“Other workers notice it, but they don’t report it,” he said. “They don’t think it’s their business or they tiptoe around it or they dismiss it as trivial.”


One typical factor in worker-on-worker violence is chronic conflict between two employees, which can seem as trivial as “who gets to use the screwdriver first,” Denenberg said.

“Suddenly the person seems to snap, but it’s a buildup of the stress and strain of being engaged in this kind of conflict,” he said.

In fact, such violence never comes out of the clear blue.

“There is no one who just snaps in the workplace,” said Tom Capozzoli, associate professor of organizational leadership at Purdue University in Indiana. “Start searching through all the evidence, and you find this person was giving off signals that they were going to be violent in the workplace.”

Statistics put the nationwide economic cost to business at more than $120 billion a year in lost productivity, lost wages, interrupted business, security and legal expenses.

The best results for averting such violence come at companies with procedures that let employees report any concerns and have staff trained to respond, experts say.

“Businesses need to care about this issue,” said Peek-Asa. “That is a very direct threat to productivity, to employee retention.”