Notable workplace violence examples and how to prevent them

Even if there’s never been a violent incident at your workplace, you still need a functioning workplace violence prevention program.

That’s especially true if your work involves certain risk factors like:

  • Handling cash

  • Working late at night

  • Working in high-crime areas

How do you know which preventive measures to implement?

One of the best ways is to view actual workplace violence examples to learn what went wrong. More often than not, workplace violence incidents occur because of glaring blind spots in workplace safety — such as poor incident reporting, ignoring the warning signs, or failure to implement security measures like surveillance cameras.

Learning from the past in this way will help you create a violence-free work environment, both in terms of criminal incidents and violent acts that occur between co-workers. That’s why we will view some of the most notable workplace violence incidents from the past. Along the way, you’ll learn what exactly went wrong, as well as how the organizations could have prevented the incidents from occurring at all.

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The examples we’ll cover encompass all types of workplace violence, including criminal intent, client-on-worker, worker-on-worker, and domestic violence.

As of this writing, there have been 13 workplace shootings in 2023, 5 of which were fatal — which is why every organization needs to take the risk of workplace violence seriously.

Stay tuned to strengthen your violence prevention program by learning from real-life violent incidents that happened on the job.

How OSHA defines workplace violence

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration provides the official definition of workplace violence, which is as follows:

“Workplace violence is any act or threat of violence, harassment, intimidation, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at the work site.”

Notice that the definition includes threats in addition to violent acts. That means if an employee at your organization engages in verbal abuse or acts in an intimidating manner – it counts as workplace violence and should be treated as such.

Workplace bullying also counts as violence, and it’s been a growing concern for years now. 35% of employees report experiencing bullying at work, which can take a strong physical and mental toll. Bullying negatively affects engagement and productivity levels and contributes to high turnover rates.

Even remote workers aren’t safe from bullying and harassment during work hours. In fact, the evidence shows that bullying is even more prevalent amongst remote workers, as 43.2% have experienced it in some shape or form.

Most of the time, the harassing behavior occurs during virtual meetings, but it can also take place over email.

Reasons why violent incidents go unreported

Violent incidents can be tricky to uncover, as there are many reasons why an employee would choose not to report instances of bullying, harassment, or violence.

Some of the most pressing reasons workers stay silent include:

  • Fear of retaliation. If an employee reports violent or bullying behavior, they often fear retaliation from the other party — especially if the perpetrator is their supervisor or immediate boss. It’s crucial to let your employees know that all reported incidents will be completely anonymous and that you’ll protect them from retaliation.

  • Being seen as a ‘snitch.’ Workers may choose to remain silent when experiencing harassment to avoid being seen as the office snitch by their peers. They may fear that they’ll be ostracized or isolated from their co-workers due to them being perceived as a backstabber. Keeping incident reports anonymous while enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for violence and bullying is how you can avoid the ‘snitch’ issue.

  • Fear of losing their job. If the perpetrator is an executive or higher up at the company, the victim may fear that they’ll lose their job if they speak out. This is common for instances of sexual harassment that occur between female employees and their bosses.

  • No policy for incident reporting. Another reason why an employee may not report a violent incident is if there’s no policy in place for doing so. Your employees need to know how to properly report incidents that occur at work, violent or otherwise. The best way to prevent this reason is to establish a crystal clear process for incident reporting that you include in your employee handbook and during training.

As a manager, one of the best ways to encourage incident reporting is to conduct regular 1:1 check-ins with your employees in a private setting. Don’t just wait for your employees to come forward, either. Make a habit of asking your staff if everything is running smoothly and if anything is bothering them.

Prompting your employees in this way will make them feel more comfortable coming forward with an incident (and may also jog their memory).

Understanding the 4 types of workplace violence

Before we dive into some notable examples of workplace violence, it’s crucial to know the 4 different types that can occur.

Workplace violence is an umbrella term that encompasses all violent incidents that take place during work hours.

The different types of workplace violence include:

  1. Criminal intent. In criminal intent incidents, the perpetrator has no personal relationship with the victims or the organization. Theft accounts for a majority of criminal intent cases, with robbery accounting for 85% of workplace deaths in the United States. Increasing workplace security measures like armed guards, surveillance cameras, and flood lights are the best ways to prevent criminal intent incidents.

  2. Client-on-worker. The next type is where the perpetrator is a client or customer of the organization where the violence occurs. Physical assaults on law enforcement and attacks on healthcare workers from unruly patients qualify as this type of workplace violence. As such, criminal justice, social service, and healthcare settings are at higher risk of client-on-worker incidents. Preventive measures include providing proper training on how to deal with and properly detain hostile individuals.

  3. Worker-on-worker. This type occurs whenever two co-workers engage in violent, threatening, or harassing behavior. Bullying and excessive gossiping also qualify as worker-on-worker violence, as the behavior isn’t limited to physical violence. Worker-on-worker encompasses all employees, regardless of status. As such, bullying can occur from the top down, laterally, or even from the bottom up.

  4. Domestic violence. The final type of workplace violence occurs whenever the perpetrator does have a personal relationship with the victim. Examples include disgruntled spouses showing up at work to threaten their significant others, threatening phone calls from boyfriends or girlfriends, and assaults from angry family members.

Each type of violence requires unique preventive measures, which is why it’s worth knowing the difference between them all. It’s also beneficial to identify which types are most likely to occur at your place of business.

For instance, if you manage a convenience store, you’re most at risk for criminal intent incidents like robberies, shoplifting, and physical assaults. If you work in the healthcare industry, you’ll most likely run into client-on-worker issues.

Even if you work at a relatively quiet office in a nice part of town, the risk of worker-on-worker and domestic violence incidents is always present, so it’s essential to remain vigilant.

Infamous workplace violence examples

Now that you’re familiar with all the acts of violence that can occur at the workplace, it’s time to look at some classic incidents to learn how to prevent workplace violence.

Creating a safe work environment is a constantly evolving process, so let’s look at some notable incidents from the past that helped shape the preventive measures we use today.

The Edmond Post Office shooting of 1986

The United States Postal Service garnered a negative reputation in the late 80s and early 90s due to a string of shootings by disgruntled post office workers – the most infamous of which took place in Edmond, Oklahoma.

On August 20th, 1986, Patrick Henry Sherrill brought a firearm to work and proceeded to kill 14 co-workers (including one of his supervisors) and wound 6 others. The entire incident took place in a span of 15 minutes, and Sherrill would turn the gun on himself whenever police responded to the scene.

It was a horrendous massacre that shocked the American public, as it was one of the worst mass shootings in America at the time. Many consider the Edmond Post Office Shooting to be the beginning of the ‘going postal’ era (a term that was coined after the incident).

What Went Wrong?

What was causing so many workplace homicides to take place in United States Post Offices across the country?

While it’s impossible to know Sherrill’s true motive the day of the incident, it was reported that he was disciplined harshly by two of his supervisors the day prior. Since he targeted both supervisors (one was able to escape since he showed up late for work that day), most believe the disciplinary action was the reason for the attack.

Vincent Sombrotto, the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, had this to say after the incident:

While we are shocked and dismayed by what happened and offer our prayers to those surviving victims now in the hospital, we cannot help but believe that Mr. Sherrill was pushed over the brink by irresponsible and coercive management policies by the Postal Service in the Oklahoma region.”

This comment received considerable backlash at the time, but further investigations proved that Sombrotto’s comments weren’t entirely without merit.

Due to constant pressure from politicians and the economy to do more with less, the USPS had a long history of squeezing workers for every hour of productivity they could muster. Their managers were also infamous for handing out harsh punishments without prior warning.

These intense working conditions had detrimental effects on postal worker’s mental health, which likely contributed to the ‘going postal’ era.

How to prevent similar incidents

To prevent disgruntled employees from lashing out, your human resources department should emphasize your worker’s well-being and mental health. That means not overworking them, providing warnings before handing out punishment, and helping employees find ways to improve whenever they make mistakes.

Regular employee check-ins are also excellent in this regard, as they give your employees a chance to let their managers know if they’re stressed, burnt out, or angry with another co-worker.

The Wendy’s attack in Prescott Valley, Arizona

This incident presents a twist to the typical client-on-worker incident, as it was worker-on-client violence instead of the other way around.

In July 2022, a Wendy’s worker sucker punched a customer after the 67-year-old man complained about his order. Witnesses said Wendy’s employee Antoine Kendrick sprung out from behind the service counter and struck the man in the head.

The injury would prove to be fatal, as the man succumbed to his injuries in the hospital 10 days later. A surveillance camera caught the incident, but there was no audio, so it was impossible to know what caused the argument over the food to escalate.

Kendrick was charged with second-degree murder after the victim died in the hospital. It was a complete act of negligence on the employee’s part, and it struck a considerable blow to Wendy’s reputation.

How can you prevent similar incidents?

The Wendy’s attack reinforces the need for a secure recruitment process, particularly by doing criminal background checks on all new employees.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to train employees to provide exemplary customer service at all times and never to resort to violence when dealing with customers.

The best way to prevent similar incidents of workplace violence is to ensure you hire consummate professionals to work at your organization.

Man kills wife at work in Southern Ohio

The following is an example of domestic violence taking place at work.

In September 2022, Jason Madden received a notice that he could no longer work at the same company as his estranged wife. The two were going through a divorce, and his wife wanted to distance herself from him.

Directly after receiving the notice, Madden drove to the Southern Ohio Lumber Company — his former place of employment. He entered the premises with a gun, killed his wife, and then turned the gun on himself.

It’s an incredibly sad story that reflects the lingering danger of domestic incidents that can occur at work.

Preventive measures

Security measures are your best bet for preventing domestic workplace shootings. It’s always a good idea to keep all entrances locked if your organization doesn’t allow access to the public. Another rule of thumb is to routinely change keys and access codes to prevent former employees (like Madden was) from entering the premises without permission.

If you have the budget, security guards and metal detectors can help prevent employees from bringing firearms into your work environment.

Armed robbery at McDonald’s in McKinney, Texas

Lastly, let’s take a look at an example of a criminal intent incident. In 2011, an individual held up a McDonald’s restaurant at gunpoint in McKinney, Texas.

The offender entered the restaurant, approached the counter while withdrawing his firearm, and then demanded the employee hand over the money from the register. He would then steal ‘an undetermined amount of money’ before fleeing the scene.

What disturbed witnesses and law enforcement the most was the threatening and aggressive nature of the perpetrator, as it was a traumatizing ordeal for everyone involved.

The offender was captured on security camera, but it’s unclear whether he was eventually apprehended or not. The man had no relationship with the establishment, as he was neither an employee nor a customer.

This is a classic criminal intent incident that, unfortunately, happens all too often in businesses that carry cash.

Prevention techniques

The McDonald’s in question had surveillance cameras, which is one of the most effective ways to deter would-be robbers. As a bonus, the footage they capture is invaluable in aiding law enforcement officers in apprehending offenders who commit robbery.

Beyond that, it’s wise to provide de-escalation training to employees who work in establishments at high risk of robbery. It’s crucial for employees to do their best to remain calm during such incidents, especially when the offenders are especially hostile (like the man in the example). Workers should also know how to properly notify the authorities without placing anyone in harm’s way.

Signage can also act as a deterrent, such as notifying patrons that you only carry a limited amount of cash on hand.

Wrapping up: Workplace violence examples

Workplace violence is an unfortunate fact of life, and the best we can do is try to prevent as many incidents as possible. That means implementing security measures like cameras, locks, access codes, motion-activated lights, and guards to reduce criminal intent incidents.

You should also keep a close eye on your company culture to reduce gossip, bullying, and heated disagreements between co-workers. As long as you have a solid prevention program in place, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about violent acts occurring during the workday.