Relationships with our coworkers are a vital part of life. Considering that we spend a third of our day in the workplace, they have to be. No wonder we build friendships with workmates. That’s great. Unfortunately, the flipside of personal relationships in the workplace is that they can turn sour–and violent.
I’ve seen workplace violence up close. At my last job, my employer took out a temporary restraining order against an employee after he threatened to harm a number of staff members (myself included). Let’s just say that’s a tad awkward when you bump into that person in a mall. Oddly enough, a restraining order has little power in that situation, but running does. Back in the UK, a firm I used to work next to had a problem with one of their people. When they let him go, he tendered his resignation by throwing an office chair through a second floor window. A few days later, he came back at night and drove a car through the main entrance.
According to government statistics, twenty people are murdered at their place of work every week in the US. Retail jobs top the list as the most dangerous profession and women are the most likely to be killed. Now, the majority of these deaths aren’t committed by one coworker upon another, but it gives you an idea of how dangerous the modern workplace is. By the by, if you want to know which profession suffers the least from workplace violence, its mineworkers.
But it wasn’t incidents like these that became the inspiration for my latest thriller, Terminated, but what companies are doing to combat workplace violence. Workplace violence isn’t good for business. Not only is it disruptive, upsetting and frightening, it’s also expensive. And in the world of commerce, money talks. It’s the expense which is forcing companies to employ some interesting tactics. Some companies in high profile industries are hiring private security firms to handle claims against violent and potentially violent employees. The security firms provide protection for those threatened and their families, but that’s not the intriguing part. The security firms also investigate and run background checks on the accused. If the investigators find any dirt, indiscretions or infractions, this is used to build a case against the violent employee. The evidence is then used as part of a criminal case or it’s just dangled in front of the troublemaker to force that person leave of their own accord, unless they want their dirty laundry aired to the world. The whole notion blew me away. I was amazed at what a company has to do to prevent a potentially volatile situation.
This situation became the inspiration for Terminated. The book chronicles a personal grievance at work that takes on a life of its own. In the book, Gwen Farris has the unenviable task of managing Stephen Tarbell. Tarbell is already bent out of shape because he believes he should be manager, not Gwen. The ignition source for the conflict is an annual performance evaluation. When Gwen issues Tarbell a poor evaluation, he tells her to change it–or else. Gwen goes to her bosses, this only serves to inflame the situation, and it all goes downhill from there.
Now the book’s scenario may come over as extreme, but it isn’t. Looking through reports of real life incidences of workplace violence, the flame that has ignited a firestorm in the workplace have been as simple as an off color joke, a remark about someone’s girlfriend/wife/daughter, a humiliating prank, and an interoffice romance gone wrong, just to name a few. If you can name it, it’s been a source of conflict in the workplace. I came across the most astounding incident by pure luck after I finished the book, which surrounded Marta Bradley and Alan Chmurny. Chmurny was Marta’s boss and they enjoyed a friendship for a number of years. An incident occurred to change that which resulted in Chmurny stalking Marta’s every move for four years. His crimes against her escalated from vandalism to breaking and entering and ended in a failed murder attempt. Chmurny ended up committing suicide in the courtroom after a guilty verdict. What was the reason for all the emotional wreckage? Marta had said publicly that she hadn’t liked Chmurny’s deviled eggs at a company picnic.
Writing this book has been quite sobering. The workplace seems like a safe environment where we feel we know our colleagues, but how well do we really know them? It’s a dangerous world out there and the greatest threat you face might not be from a hostile nation abroad, but the other side of your cubicle wall.