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September 28, 2009

Dealing with grief in the aftermath of homicide

Last week, we posted about the violent death of Annie Le. Since that time, we learned about the horrific death of a part-time census worker in Kentucky, another person who met with a violent death on the job. While Bill Sparkman's death has not yet been ruled a homicide, like Annie Le's death, his death was a violent and sad event.

We've been thinking of the families and colleagues of these two folks and how they cope with the aftermath of such violent episodes. It's always hard to lose someone we love, whatever the circumstances - through age, through illness or through a sudden accident. But when the death is the result of a violent act, there is an added dimension to the death, insult added to the injury. It is often an event that is in the public spotlight and it can be extraordinarily difficult for survivors to achieve any closure.

"Violent dying is a human act, associated with human intention or negligence. Suicidal, homicidal, accidental or terrorist "killing" is followed by a socially proscribed inquiry to investigate and determine who is "responsible" because this is a dying that should not have happened. This intense inquest by the medical examiner, the police and sometimes by the courts socially reinforces the personal demand for investigation, and retribution if investigation determines that the deceased was the "victim" of a crime. Natural dying is rarely followed by such an inquiry, and it is not normative for grief following natural dying to include persistent thoughts, feelings or behaviors of retaliation or retribution or dread of its recurrence." Violent Death Bereavement Society
This lack of closure means that family and friends of the victims of violence are more likely to suffer from complicated grief, a type of grief that can be intense and prolonged, sometimes described as having aspects of both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder:
"The risk of developing complicated grief depends on both the immediate circumstances of the death and the background against which it occurs. PTSD is more likely to follow a traumatic experience if the person who undergoes it regards his reactions as a sign of weakness, fears that he will lose his sanity, or ruminates about how he or someone else could have prevented it from happening. These are also risk factors for complicated grief, and the disorder is more likely to occur after a death that is traumatic — premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected."
Often, the best source of support and solace comes from other family members who have lost loved ones to violent events. Eric Schlosser of The Atlantic wrote an excellent article on this topic entitled A Grief Like No Other - the article is about 15 years old, but is excellent for shedding light on a difficult topic.

We've previously posted Grief in the workplace - tips for supervisors - our advice there still stands.
Here are some other resources for managers in dealing with grief specifically related to victims of violence:
National Center for Victims of Crime
Friends and Families of Violent Crime Victims
Violent Death Bereavement Society
The National Center for the Victims of Violent Crime - Homicide Survivors
Survivors of Homicide - CT
National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children
Homicide Survivors - Dealing With Grief (PDF) - Prepared by the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime
Murder Victims - memorial to the many innocent victims of violent crime and a source for help for murder victim survivors

September 22, 2009

Death in the lab: workplace violence

If you were to ask someone to describe what comes to mind when thinking about workplace violence, most people would probably describe an enraged employee coming to the workplace with a gun and opening fire. The workplace would always be some "other" environment than our own: a manufacturing plant, a post office, a food processing plant. Most people probably wouldn't think of scientific lab. Most people wouldn't think of strangulation.

The tragic death of Annie Le in a Yale Lab was a jolt. From the setting to the victim to the alleged assailant - her death doesn't fit the stereotypical image of an enraged shooter that we have developed over years of sensationalistic reports of workplace homicides. Those reporting on the news look to make sense of it in ways that fit patterns: was this the result of some romantic relationship gone bad? Was this a boyfriend scorned and taking revenge on the eve of her impending marriage?

The reality is that being killed by a coworker is indeed atypical. Statistically, it's a relatively rare occurrence. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 517 employees were victims of homicide in the workplace last year, a number that has dropped by 52 percent from the high of 1,080 homicides reported in 1994. About three-quarters of all workplace homicides occur in the course of a robbery in settings where money is changing hands - taxis, grocery stores, and gas stations; other common scenarios include public safety workers such as police or home health nurses who are killed in the line of duty, or homicides that occur when domestic violence is carried into the workplace.

Perhaps the rarity of homicide by a coworker is part of what makes it so troubling and puzzling when it does occur. Often, in retrospect, neighbors and family members can point to clues leading up to the act: anger, frustration, or a sense of having been wronged on the part of the perpetrator. In this case, acquaintances express astonishment that lab tech Raymond Clark would be capable of such an act. His supervisor saw nothing in the history of his employment at the university that might indicate the potential for violence. There were a few hints of trouble: a matter of a former girlfriend who charged him with assault - certainly an issue of concern, but one that may not have been known in the workplace. Some coworkers say that he was "a control freak" about his work environment, but that fact alone doesn't seem to trigger concern - who can't point to a control freak at their job?

There is always an attempt to figure it out after work homicides occur, to make some sense of things, to spot signs, to find a profile or a pattern. To some degree, this is our very human way of distancing ourselves. It can't happen here.

Those of us who work in managerial or helping professions can only make sense of things by redoubling our efforts and our commitment to workplace violence prevention. This is always an issue, but perhaps even more so today when peoples' stress levels are high and nerves are frayed with the bad economy.

Here are some things that employers and managers can do today to honor Annie Le's memory and to help prevent violence in our own workplace:

  • Create a policy on workplace violence prevention and publicize it
  • Create a climate of respect and tolerance and ensure that your managers model this behavior
  • Have zero tolerance for bullying, bad language, intimidation
  • Take threats and talk of violence seriously
  • Teach people how to manage anger, conflict, and work disputes in productive ways
  • Provide a safe way for people to report incidents that make them uncomfortable
  • Give people an avenue to vent frustration or grievances
  • Train supervisors and managers to spot a change in work behaviors or symptoms of stress and anger
  • Use your EAP. Encourage managers to make referrals. Encourage employees to use EAP services for help with work/life problems.

September 13, 2009

Social networking as a tool for hiring and detecting employee fraud

An August study by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder.com points to something that will be no great surprise to either employers or employees: employers are increasingly using social networking sites to check out job applicants. About 45% of the survey respondents are using social networks to screen job candidates — more than double from a year earlier. "The report showed that Facebook was the most popular online destination for employers to do their online sleuthing, followed by LinkedIn and MySpace. In addition, 7 percent followed job candidates on Twitter."

But mining information from blogs and social networking sites doesn't stop at job hire - some HR managers have caught lying employees red-handed when they brag about playing hooky online. And now Roberto Ceniceros of Business Insurance tells us about how some employees are outing themselves as workers comp cheats by their postings on social networking sites:

"Some claimants supposedly too disabled to work post locations and dates for their upcoming sports competitions or rock band performances, boast of new businesses launched, and include date-stamped photographs of their physical activity, investigators say.

Others have openly bragged about fooling their employers with “Monday morning” workers comp claims for injuries that occurred the weekend prior and away from the workplace."

The article talks about how the Web is a valuable tool for insurance fraud investigators who are often able to substitute web tracking for the more costly practice of physical surveillance. And it's not just insurance companies that are finding social networking sites a good source of fraud: The IRS and state tax authorities are using social networks to identify tax cheats

Advice for employers and employees
New Jersey attorney Jonathan Bick offers some advice to employers when mining online data on prospective employees and suggests some best practice policies to ensure staying within the law. He reminds employers that it is unlawful to use any information about race, age, gender, sexual orientation or religion for certain employment decisions purposes, and that any information that an employer "...should only permit(s) employees to use the results of blog research as grounds for employment action if the information is related to work."

He also suggests that there could be some risk of liability for hiring employers who do not avail themselves of web-related information as part of the hiring process:

"From a legal prospective, some sources suggest that an employer who does not search social networks for readily available information may be negligent in their hiring practices. Internet social networks provide employers with a low-cost, easy-to-use, high availability screening tool for job applicants. For the safety of existing employees it may argued that a blog search is necessary. In light of the cost and availability, it may be argued that an employer has a duty to mine blogs of potential and existing employees."
For employers and employees alike, HR Daily Advisor offers advice to about 'friending' in Should you 'friend" your boss? Let your boss friend you?. The article offers some guidelines to help employees balance the line between work and personal information on social networking sites.

September 6, 2009

The way things were: photographic retrospective of the American workplace

In honor of Labor Day, a historical look back at the the U.S. workplace through images.

The Way We Worked - A photographic exhibit from The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that offers a view of the American workplace from the mid 19th to the late 20th centuries.

Lost Labor: Images of Vanished American Workers 1900-1980 - a selection of 155 photographs excerpted from a collection of more than 1100 company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures documenting America's business and corporate industrial history.

Labor Arts - The site states that it is a virtual museum, which gathers and displays images of the cultural artifacts of working people and their organizations. Its mission is "to present powerful images that help us understand the past and present lives of working people."

Women Working, 1800-1930 - focuses on women's role in the United States economy and provides access to digitized historical, manuscript, and image resources selected from Harvard University's library and museum collections.

U.S. Steel - Gary Works Photograph Collection - more than 2000 photos tell the story of the steel mill, the city, and the citizens who lived and worked there.

Los Angeles At Work: 1920 -1939 - a selection of images from the Chamber of Commerce.

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