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The Blind Spot in Workplace Violence Prevention Programs: Part One

By Steve Crimando, Behavioral Science Applications

Out of Sight Cannot Mean Out of Mind

Professionals concerned with safety, security and workplace violence prevention are likely to be familiar with Type IV workplace violence. In its well-worn four-type model, OSHA describes Type IV violence as intimate partner or domestic violence that follows an employee from their home to the workplace. But have we sufficiently considered violence that follows an employee from the workplace to their home?

The Case of Ms. Smith

Mr. Johnson, the stereotypical disgruntled former employee, has continued to send angry emails to his former employer perseverating about being unfairly terminated due to what he perceives as inadequate supervision and his supervisor’s personal dislike of him. The frequency of his emails has increased over the past several weeks, but there have been no overt threats made toward the organization or his former supervisor.

Ms. Smith, Johnson’s former supervisor has, for a number of reasons, transitioned to a different position within the organization that allows her to work primarily from home. She has set up a suitable home office, and has established an effective work routine allowing her to meet or exceed her performance objectives. Both Ms. Smith and her employer are satisfied with the arrangement, and in fact, nearly 20% of the company’s employees work at least part of their time from their homes or other remote locations.

About one year ago, Mr. Johnson was terminated due to performance and attendance issues. Ms. Smith was Mr. Johnson’s direct supervisor at that time. Mr. Johnson has continually sent hostile emails to the Human Resources department since his dismissal. These emails usually feature Mr. Johnson’s ravings, ventilating about the perceived injustice done to him by the company and Ms. Smith, who has remained a focal point of his anger. The emails always have an angry overtone, but have never been threatening.

Through some very basic social engineering and Internet research, Johnson is able to find out that Ms. Smith now works from home, as well as where she lives. Initially out of curiosity, but increasingly driven by an obsession about Ms. Johnson’s comfortable lifestyle and his personal misfortune, he begins several days of surveillance from a safe distance down the quite suburban street on which she lives. Smoldering with anger and resentment, Johnson develops a plan to confront Ms. Smith. He fabricates an ID card for a messenger service, and picks up a used jacket from a local thrift shop that can help him pass as a delivery man.

After concocting a plan to approach Ms. Smith to let her know how she has ruined his life, Johnson makes his move. On one particular morning, after Ms. Smith’s family appears to have left for school and work, Johnson approaches her home and rings the doorbell. Ms. Smith answers the door, apparently on a call since she is speaking to someone other than Johnson and wearing a wireless telephone headpiece. She continues her telephone conversation as she fully opens the door. With the brim of his ball cap pulled low, Ms. Smith doesn’t recognize Johnson at first and simply reaches to take the priority envelop he is holding out. Johnson, furious at Ms. Smith’s seeming indifference to him, a lowly delivery man, shoves her back in the door and pushes his way into her home. He launches into a tirade of verbal abuse and threats, and continues to push her back further into her home. Ms. Smith starts to scream, calling for help, but she is alone at home, and no one is on hand to intervene.

The other party on the phone call clearly understands that there is a serious problem at Ms. Smith’s office, but is not even aware that Smith works from home. Understanding the seriousness of the problem, she calls back the main number of Ms. Smith’s employer and tells the call-taker about the situation. The call is quickly relayed to the corporate security office, who in turn notify the local police in Ms. Smith’s town. When the police arrive, they find Ms. Smith dead, apparently of strangulation.

Is This Workplace Violence? The View from OSHA and Worker’s Compensation

For OSHA the term “workplace” is synonymous with “on the job” and “at work.” A workplace may be any location, either permanent or temporary, where an employee performs any work-related duty. It’s no secret that the workplace is changing. Today’s technology enables employees to work from anywhere in the world while simultaneously staying connected 24/7. For remote-working employees, this presents unprecedented freedom in choosing where to work, and significant numbers of workers are taking advantage of this option. A 2015 Gallup poll shows that 37% of American workers telecommute at least occasionally. The average worker now telecommutes two days per month and 46% of telecommuters do so during the workday. Whether the employer refers to such arrangements as remote work, telecommuting or as employees simply working from home, there are clear benefits to both the employer and employee. But there are also several risks that are often overlooked. One of those risks is violence.

Safety in the home offices has historically been a grey area for OSHA. When first pushed to state a position on employee safety in home offices in 1999, OSHA affirmed its position that the OSH Act applied to home-based workers and that employers ultimately were responsible for ensuring safe and healthful home offices. An uproar immediately ensued with concerns about an invasion of privacy and compliance issues that led OSHA to rescind the letter just two months later. In a letter of clarification in March 2009, the agency stated that from its perspective, “Injuries and illnesses that occur while an employee is working at home, including work in a home office, will be considered work-related if the injury or illness occurs while the employee is performing work for pay or compensation in the home, and the injury or illness is directly related to the performance of work rather than to the general home environment or setting.”

Workers’ compensation courts have found in many instances that employers were liable for employees who were injured or became ill while working from home, when such injuries or illnesses resulted directly from the employee’s work. Courts have found that an employer’s lack of control over the conditions of an employee’s home-based work premises is irrelevant. When an employee’s home is also an employee’s work premises, it is often interpreted that the hazards an employee encounters when performing work at home are also hazards of his or her employment.

Employers are responsible for providing the same safe work environment for home office workers as for employees who work on company property.

If your organization takes the issue of workplace violence seriously and has developed policies, plans, threat assessment capabilities and training for employees addressing workplace violence risks, you must consider how those same risks might extend to the worker’s home office environment.

All employers have a Duty of Care to their employees, regardless of where they work. Workers in home offices should not be at more risk than other employees in an organization. In the case of Ms. Smith, it would seem that her death was a direct result of her work relationship with a former employee. She was on company time, doing the company’s work at the very moment she was assaulted. While working at home, Ms. Smith had all of the same responsibilities and risks as she did in the corporate office, but without the same protections.

It’s About the Relationship, Not the Environment

Quickly revisiting the various types of workplace violence, let’s imagine how these might apply to the home office environment:

Type I: A Stranger/No Legitimate Business Relationship

Type I violence is perpetrated by stranger usually in the context of a robbery, theft or trespassing. Consider an employee working from a home office who may be a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company or jewelry retailer. They routinely transport drug or jewlery samples from their home to their clients and prospects as part of their work. Having high-value goods in and around their homes can increase the risk of robbery or theft.

Another employee sets up their home office in front large picture window to enjoy the view and the sunlight while working. From the outside others can easily see the worker’s desk, computers, and other electronic devices, again making the home office an attractive target for a would-be robber.

Type II: Patient, Client or Customer

While it might be an organization’s policy and practice that the home worker should never allow clients to visit their home-based office, a determine client, especially one energized by anger or frustration, may be able to find where the employee is working from. GPS tracking, Internet searches, and geotags in photographs that the employee has posted online, all can create a trail leading to the worker’s doorsteps.

Type III: Co-worker to Co-worker (Both current and former employees)

Through the same tracking means discussed above, or by way of their work relationship, other current and former employees may know where an employee lives, and visiting an employee at their home office with anger or aggression in mind is not out of the range of possibilities. Our firm has handled several cases in which angry employees simply followed co-workers or supervisors home, both in overt and covert ways, terrorizing the targeted employee and their family members.

Type IV: Intimate Partner/Domestic Violence

This has historically been a tricky issue for employers, but just as businesses have come to understand that violence at home can follow an employee to work with devastating consequences, an employee concerned about violence from a current or former partner can just as easily be visited upon someone working from a home office. In some instances, working from home may increase the risk and reduce the employer’s ability to be helpful by developing a safety plan at the corporate office.

Type V: Ideological Violence

Violence directed at an organization’s people or properties because of what that organization does or what it represents is considered Type V violence. This is the Intersection of workplace violence and terrorism.

The very best example I can offer was in fact my first experience Type V workplace violence. (If you are unfamiliar with Type V workplace violence please see: The Case for an Expanded Workplace Violence Typology: Improving Threat Detection Capabilities).

On Saturday morning, December 10th, 1994, Tom Mosser, an executive from a high-powered ad agency in Manhattan picked up a package from his kitchen table. Looking over the package delivered the day before, Mosser commented to his wife, Susan, that he didn’t recognize the return address. Susan, sitting in the next room called back, “Neither do I.” It was their last conversation. Mr. Mosser sadly became another victim of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski didn’t know Mosser personally, he only knew that the ad firm he worked for helped Exxon Mobile manage their reputation after the Valdez oil spill, and that he believed that ad agencies “manipulated people’s minds.” Kaczynski deeply believed that Mosser and his firm needed to be stopped.

Mr. Mosser was simultaneously a victim of domestic terrorism and workplace violence. He was targeted because of the nature of his and his employer’s work, and what that firm represented. Mr. Mosser was not a random victim. But one of the most frightening aspects of this case was that the violence found its way to Mr. Mosser‘s home, with his wife and children in adjacent rooms at the time of the blast. Sparing the reader the details of the bomb or its impact, it is sufficient to say an attack against an employee in their own home is beyond traumatic. At the time, it seemed unimaginable.

Consider then the employee who works for a life science company engaged in controversial work, often the target of environmental or animal rights activists. Extremists within such groups operate with the belief that a small harm may be necessary to prevent the larger harm done by the company. Targeting the offending organization or its employees wherever they may be found is within the scope of acceptable options for the extremist group or true believer who feels that violence is both justified and necessary.

Our world has not become more peaceful or less vulnerable to terrorism since the days of the Unabomber. Type V violence can be directed at employees in their home offices, as well as in the traditional workplace.

Reviewing the five types of workplace violence that concern employers in our current social climate, it is important to understand that no organization is immune from any or all of these risks. Certain industries and jobs may present higher-risks of certain types of violence, but it cannot be assumed that these threats do not apply to all organizations in some way.

It is also important to note that all five types of workplace violence are based upon the relationship between the affected employee(s) and the attacker(s). The types of violence have no relationship to where the violence occurs; it is about who perpetrates the violence and their relationship to the victim(s). Working from a home office does not change the relationship, real or perceived, with the potentially violent actor.

Employers concerned with safety and security must consider opening the umbrella of their workplace violence prevention programs wide enough to cover employees working from home offices.

In the words of the renowned law enforcement instructor, Gordon Graham, “If it is predictable, it is preventable.” Workplace violence has become a foreseeable risk in the modern workplace, but the place where modern work is done has changed. It is important, therefore, for all those tasked with workplace violence prevention to anticipate the possibility of violence occurring in an employee’s home office, as well as in the traditional workplace.

More to Come

Our discussion about violence prevention for employees working in home office settings will continue throughout Home Office Safety and Security Week (HOSSW). Part Two will explore the Ms. Smith case further, and introduce strategies and techniques for employers and employees to help detect, deter, respond to and recover from incidents of workplace violence that may occur in the home office environment.

Continuity Insights

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