Workplace Violence In the Spotlight After Mississippi Killings

Tuesday’s (7/8) tragedy in Meridian, Mississippi, where Lockheed Martin employee Doug Williams shot five of his coworkers and injured nine others before killing himself, again draws attention to the problem of workplace violence. When compared to other workplace safety concerns, incidents such as those in Meridian may appear relatively isolated and unpredictable, but the tragic consequences when disgruntled employees seek to harm their fellow employees lead everyone to look for ways to minimize the risk of these occurences.

Doug Williams, a 48-year-old white male, was by all accounts, an angry person, and someone that many considered to be a racist. He was said to be frustrated because he thought black people had a leg up in society, and angry that he had been passed over for promotions during his 19 years as a Lockheed Martin employee. He was known as a “hothead” who had used racial epithets and made threats against blacks, and recently offended coworkers after arriving at work wearing a white covering over his head that resembled a hood, which some thought resembled a Ku Klux Klan outfit. (See Washington Post article.) Two years ago, William’s behavior had come to the attention of company officials, after he angrily confronted a black coworker who complimented a white woman, telling the man that blacks had no business being with blond women and using a racial slur. The company suspended Williams and sent him to a psychological facility for two weeks of anger management counseling. Tuesday’s shooting spree happened after Williams stormed out of a required ethics and sensitivity training course, returning with a shotgun to target his coworkers. (See New York Times article.)

Unfortunately, incidents similar to the Meridian shooting spree are not so isolated as one would think. A compilation of workplace shootings prepared by the Washington Post shows dozens of incidents over the past several years, while another compilation by USA Today details over one hundred deaths in workplace killing sprees since 1986. Just one week prior to Doug Williams opening fire on his coworkers, Jonathon Russell, a manufacturing plant employee in Jefferson City, Missouri, killed three coworkers and injured five before killing himself. (See Kansas City Star article.) And these are only the most famous tragedies: a 1997 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that an average of 20 workers are murdered each week in the United States. Clearly, the problem is a significant one that no employer can afford to ignore.

What can be done to stem the tide of workplace violence? Although their actions are certain to be second-guessed in the days ahead, Lockheed Martin officials undoubtedly believed that they were doing the right thing in addressing concerns about violence with Williams, between disciplining him two years aga and requiring him to undergo anger management counseling before returning to work, and scheduling ethics and sensitivity training sessions for all employees. And going to far as to terminate an employee and remove him or her from the workplace is not necessarily a solution, as historically several of the workplace incidents have involved fired employees who have returned to the company armed to avenge their firings. Yet coworkers claimed that there were unmistakable warning signs: Williams was “mad at the world,” and had previously spoken of being capable of killing. (See USA Today article.)

Experts say that it is critical not to ignore the typical warning signs, which include individuals fitting “[c]ertain personality profiles…irritable, intimidating, disregards rules, preoccupied with fire arms and even talking about killing people.” (See article.) Many of Williams’ coworkers were not so surprised at his actions on Tuesday, as he appeared to fit the classic stereotype of an angry person and disgruntled employee. However, not all workers display these personality traits–in last week’s Jefferson City killings, coworkers and law enforcement investigators remain baffled, as the killer, Jonathon Russell, by all accounts provided “no indication among the employees or the people at Modine that there was anything abnormal going on in his life.” Warning signs, if present, should certainly not be ignored or minimized, but they may not be present in all situations.

What about increased workplace security? While installing metal detectors and security guards might deter some violent incidents, this form of security is extremely expensive and beyond the means of many employers. Also, many security systems subject current and especially long-term employees to relatively minimal security checks, and thus would be unlikely to screen out employees such as Williams, a 19-year Lockheed employee. As one security expert noted, “You get to feeling pretty bad asking someone to strip down to go through security every day for 10 years. After awhile, you just say, ‘Oh, that’s Jim,’ and you let him through even if the machine beeps.” (See Clarion-Ledger article.)

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) strongly recommends that companies follow a “zero-tolerance” approach when it comes to workplace violence. In OSHA’s fact sheet on workplace violence, the agency recommends that all employers “establish a workplace violence prevention program or incorporate the information into an existing accident prevention program, employee handbook, or manual of standard operating procedures. It is critical to ensure that all employees know the policy and understand that all claims of workplace violence will be investigated and remedied promptly.” Yet a zero-tolerance policy also has limitations, as one expert notes: “Some people are going to say you need a zero-tolerance policy for violent threats, but that doesn’t tend to work too well. Co-workers may be reluctant to report Joe’s unusual behavior because they think he might be fired when he really just needs some help.” (See Clarion-Ledger article.)

We all grapple for answers when a tragedy like the one in Meridian occurs. While solutions such as workplace training, a zero-tolerance policy, identification of problem employees for counseling, and increased security may not work in every situation to deter violence, these kind of tragedies encourage both employers and employees to be increasingly vigilant for signs of violence in their own workplaces, and to take as many steps as appropriate to hopefully deter future occurrences.

Other Resources:

OSHA’s Workplace Violence Page

NIOSH’s Workplace Violence Page

AFSCME’s Workplace Violence Page

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.