American Morning

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October 7th, 2009
06:57 AM ET

When co-workers kill: Workplace violence on the rise

For Johna Lovely, who lives in Presque Isle, Maine, news coverage last month of Annie Le’s murder, allegedly by a co-worker at Yale University, brought back painful memories of the day she lost her daughter. “It brought everything back,” Lovely said. “I just cried and cried.”

Erin Sperrey was killed by a co-worker on January 2, 2005 in Caribou, Maine.

Erin Sperrey was killed by a co-worker on January 2, 2005 in Caribou, Maine.

Lovely’s youngest daughter, Erin Sperrey, was killed by a co-worker on January 2, 2005. Sperrey was a supervisor for a fast food restaurant in Caribou, Maine. She was working the overnight shift with one other employee – Christopher Shumway.

Shumway is now serving 45 years for beating Sperrey to death.

Nationwide, 517 people were murdered at work last year according to government statistics. And while that number is down 52 percent since 1994, an American College survey found things like bullying, harassment, and physical altercations are up.

Laurence Barton, who studies workplace violence at the American College, a nonprofit educational institution that trains financial services professionals, says that kind of violence is becoming epidemic.

“The call volume to human resource officers, to their EAP programs, to counselors is sky rocketing,” Barton says. “We are absolutely in a period right now of among the highest periods of threats at work in certainly recent memory.”

That doesn’t surprise Lovely and her daughter, Amanda. They’ve worked tirelessly since Erin Sperrey’s death to stop workplace violence. They’ve set up a fund in Erin’s name (erinsfund.org) and have traveled around Maine to convince companies to install panic buttons, connected to police departments, so employees in danger can get immediate help. They thought armed with Erin’s story it would be a cinch. They were wrong. They told us just eighteen companies out of hundreds agreed to install new security systems or educate their employees about workplace violence.

“It was frustrating,” said Sylvia. “You kind of want to look at the business owners and just scream at them and say, why? Why? I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to keep your employees safe.”

Watch Sperrey's mother tell her story Video

Experts in workplace violence are frustrated too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005, only 30 percent of employers had formal programs that addressed workplace violence.

A shame, says Laurence Barton, because a lot of the violence that happens in the workplace can be stopped if employees know what to look for in potentially violent co-workers. Barton says it’s a “myth” that co-workers “just snap” one day and become violent. “I’ve studied literally thousands of cases of persons at risk at work,” says Barton. “About 82 percent of the time there are signals that a person is having difficulty.”

Those “signals” are often subtle, like an overreaction to criticism, or anger directed at co-workers on blogs. Other signals include, an obsession with people or work policy or bullying others to do things a certain way.

Watch experts say what signs to look for Video

If some of those kinds of behaviors had been reported by Erin Sperrey’s co-workers, Sperrey might be alive today.

“Her supervisors complained Shumway (Sperry’s killer) rubbed against them,” said Sperry’s mother, Johna Lovely. “He made them feel bad and stuff like that. But I don’t think anybody really took it seriously.”

Lovely added, “I don’t think people are trained in doing that.”

Some companies and agencies realize that and have taken proactive steps to prevent workplace violence. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, near Washington DC, has come up with a new program called, RESPECT. It spells out if a co-worker’s behavior should be of concern on its Web site.

If employees still aren’t sure, NOAA has made a hotline available so employees can complain anonymously or seek help. Charles Baker, deputy assistant administrator at NOAA, says the program is inexpensive. It’s manned by a human resources employee trained in workplace violence. And, he says, if it’s effective it will serve as a model for other companies across the United States.


Filed under: Crime • When Co-Workers Kill
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Tian

    I work at a call center and being bullied everyday at my workplace. I have been through it all; from being oustracized to being reduced in silent. And the funny thing is those who started the bullying are being rewarded and I am being punished. I pray everyday before I start my work and keep on focusing doing what I am supposed to do but I felt it has to do due to the fact I am a college graduate working with people who did not even finish high school. I am looking for work in my field meanwhile I am subject to the everyday sexual harrassment and emotional abuse from my mean co-workers.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:58 am |
  2. Josh D - Tampa Fl

    Allow employees to carry concealed weapons if it is legal for them to do so in their state.

    I have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and my employer is one of the few places I go daily where I feel the least protected.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:27 am |
  3. Jon

    Anyone who has ever worked for the Post Office at a general mail facility knows onl y too well how the Post Office actively "promotes" workplace violence. The bosses sit in offices and do little or nothing since this is a very low tech occupation. The supervisors on the floor are picked through belonging toa clearing house which is generally a "social Club" in which they ask certain people if they want to be a supervisor. These types generally try to hang out and go to the bosses homes every chance they get. They do favors like home repairs, lay carpet, hang doors or windows to ingratiate themselves for personal gain. Your education, your knowledge, your supervisory ability means "nothing". You are appointed supervisor only on the basis of what bosses you hang around with and do favors for. As a supervisor you do no work. You just stand in back of everyone and watch them. You make sure the employees do not talk to each other. You make sure that if an employee needs to take a bathroom break that no one else does their work. When the employee gets back their work is stacked up waiting for them. Is it any wonder the rank and file post office workers " Go Postal" and gun down the supervisors first followed by those who "suck up" . If you check out the names of the top supervisors and lower level supervisors you will find that it is to your advantage to belong to one group and try to join the "unofficial clearing house if you need a job and need to be made permanent.

    October 22, 2009 at 1:02 pm |
  4. john kesrouan

    Many employers have managers who have absolutely no training on personel management and workplace violence. Often there are indicators that an employee is an upcoming problem. But if that employee is important to the organization nothing is done. Remember the postal service it took them a long time and multiple tragedies to get in front of this.

    October 22, 2009 at 8:50 am |
  5. quasar63

    Thank you. for bringing this up. Even though it can still bring powerful emotions, It is important that people be aware. Know your surroundings and the people there abouts. It could save your life.

    October 13, 2009 at 7:26 am |
  6. Betty

    The main issue with the aforementioned case was that the murderous co-worker was mentally ill and not taking medication or receiving proper counseling. There are people who are not stable enough to be working with the public or in any type of unsupervised situation with fellow co-workers. It is unfortunate that mentally ill people will often not be hired, but if the person is not faithfully taking his/her medications and getting therapy then he or she should not be allowed to work. There should be some kind of screening/accountability for these workers if they are allowed to have these types of jobs–and even then they should not be left to work shifts unsupervised by someone who can control any outbursts in a physical manner if need be. The panic button is an excellent idea–especially if it is an accessible but discreet place that can alert the authorities without setting off more violence. Employees need to be trained in how to protect themselves and a protocol should be adopted, practiced, and followed. Cell phones should be allowed on the co-worker's person for emergency situations only. Security cameras have to be in place, but also monitored frequently by someone offsite. There cannot be enough provided to protect young women especially from work place violence and harassment!!! This case should have brought national attention and been a catalyst for all workplaces–especially those with shifts–to make changes to ensure the safety of all of its employees. Thank God for people, usually the grieving people, who are out there advocating for these changes!!!

    October 8, 2009 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Dana O. Vogelsang

    My name is Dana Vogelsang, and I am the Security Chief at A.G. Holley Hospital in Lantana, Fla. We are a State facility that treats T.B. patients and most of our patients are court ordered. Being as they are both patients (with full patient rights), and court ordered here, it makes security "Interesting" at best.
    >
    > I am writing to you because I may have some additional insight and recourses on the prevention of Workplace Violence issue. About eight years ago I completed a power point presentation on preventing violence in the workplace. It was originally done as a project for the Public Health Leadership Institute of Florida, of which I am an alumnus. This presentation is designed to educate everyday employees, and managers about workplace violence specifically targeted at them. The powerpoint portion of the presentation is approximately 35 minutes long and each slide contains voice overs (for the reading and sight impaired). It covers the 4 various categories of workplace violence, risk factors, prevention strategies, and program development. There are also special sections dedicated to management indicators (precursers to violence), and termination procedures.
    >
    > Preventing workplace violence is a subject dear to my heart. I have been doing this work for over 18 years and it is my belief that we are losing too many quality employees simply due to the nature of our jobs. I also believe that this is a major factor contributing to the nursing shortage. I would like to share this presentation with your organization because I believe you have set high standards and I think my presentation will fit those standards. My main interest for offering this is to get these tools out to anyone who could benefit from this knowledge and I think that you could reach and help many more people then I am reaching now.

    October 8, 2009 at 9:43 am |
  8. Chuck Baldwin

    You had a story this morning about a worker who pays $500 a month for Heath Insuranance. I pay just under $1200.00 a month for my wife child and myself. My deductable is so high I cannot afford to go to the doctor. I'm a teacher and I don't make near the money you quoted this morning for salaries.

    October 8, 2009 at 8:11 am |
  9. Katie Weaver, Awareity

    Issues such as workplace violence, bullying, harassment, theft, and discrimination are serious problems that are often not reported. Whether an employee is a victim or just a bystander, there are often several reasons why they are reluctant to tell anyone about it. The employee might feel like they will get in trouble if they tell on someone, they may feel threatened or they might feel like their report will just be ignored. But lessons learned clearly show that if an organization does not provide a safe environment, workplace violence will continue to escalate until it is too late.

    Experts say there has been an 18% increase in workplace violence in 2009 and 99% of incidents have clear warning signs ... if you know what to look for.

    My company believes people can make a difference when given the opportunity and we help organizations provide simple, confidential, secure and easy ways for employees and staff to report incidents and red flags anonymously. By implementing a secure and anonymous incident reporting process, employees and staff will not feel threatened or intimidated when reporting a suspicious incident and lives will be saved.

    October 7, 2009 at 4:21 pm |
  10. Ann

    Dear Steven,

    Work place violence is a "people" issue, meaning, it doesn't matter what position one holds, if that bully has issues, he/she is going to have victims. The people that were bothering me were part of the union. Those union stewards kissed up to the managers and did not honor, but rather, manipulated the union contract to benefit these managers.

    Only an H R dept., when serious about the nature of a work environment, is responsible in molding it to the way it should be, which should be a pleasant and professional working atmosphere.

    October 7, 2009 at 12:28 pm |
  11. Steven

    The overwhelming abuse of employees in the work place comes from abusive supervisory personnel. If CNN really wants to break a big, relevant story that relates to the working people in this nation you should investigate this. These days employees are terrified about loss of income and benefits and companies every where are taking advantage of this on a massive scale!!!!!!!!!! Most do it in not so subtle ways, raising productivity standards, foregoing raises, cutting benefits and retirement pkgs. etc,,,,,, Some are outright abusing employees and the result is a rise in violence. To threaten ones economic abilities these days is perceived by many to be a threat on their actual life and unfortunately the are a few who will react with violence at work. Strong unions and aggressive enforcement of workers rights laws would go a long way to reduce these incidents.

    October 7, 2009 at 11:53 am |
  12. Ann

    I was once harassed by the whole freakin' office; it's called mobbing. It starts out with one person, who is the bully and spreads to the sub-bullies, if you will. My episode was with women and the bully was a woman so, of course, there was gossip, ostracism, subjected to "silent treatments" where no one talked to me, I'd find scratch marks on my car, I would be pushed or "brushed up against"; and when I'd tell the head manager, all she would ask is were there any witnesses and to tell me to write a statement. She never resolved those issues. In order to survive in a hostile environment, one joins in on the bulling to keep the socipath from bothering them. This exists in all levels of employment because it's a "people" issue. Just like there are irregulars in fruit or pantyhose, there are irregulars in people. There are some people who are socio-psychotic deviants, but appear normal because they know how to talk their way out and tend to explain how they are the victim. The human resources department know who they are hiring. The problem lies with them. I quit my last job because the head supervisor got in my face, violating my personal space.

    October 7, 2009 at 9:26 am |
  13. gloria lewis

    I just dont get it how is the media helping when they dont post all the comments .The media is 90% of the problems in this country you are only will to air what you want and not all comments .My comment about violence in the work place could shed more light on this situation but of course .No one wants to see that side just blame it all on the employees .I know you will not post my comments and thats fine it will eventually send my info to a newsnet works oversees where people will get both sides of the story .

    October 7, 2009 at 9:04 am |
  14. "Tom"

    Another area of workplace violence that may or may not be as widespread is abusive bosses. I once worked for a local government organization for a man who left some of his middle managers emotionally wounded. A management consultant he hired because he sensed morale was poor told him he was the problem. His then assistant who was present at the time told me she witnessed him raise his voice to the consultant in protest. After 14 years as a middle manager under this man and after being diagnosed major depression and post traumatic stress disorder I resigned, unable to work anymore. Thanks to a wonderful psychiatrist and more than three years in psychotherapy I am still alive. I continue to take prescribed medications to manage my depression and anxiety symptoms. I am beginning to tremble now as I type this. There should be laws to protect employees from abusive bosses.

    "Want to remain anonymous"

    October 7, 2009 at 9:01 am |
  15. Ervin Long

    I was a victim of violence in the workplace. I was assaulted, battered, threatened, intimidated, hospitalized and subsequently fired all at the hands of management. I was originally threatened by a vice president, assaulted and battered at the hands of a mid level manager, threatened by a sr. vice president who orchestrated the actions of the mid level manager, ignored by the executive vice president when I reported everything to him, dismissed as a liar when I reproted it to the HR vice president and once again ignored by the owner of the company when I complained to him. This went on for over one year until I had to file a complaint with the EEOC who in turn gave me a right to sue letter. I have now been unemployed for almost two years and cannot gain employment because I am over sixty years old, African American and male in the state of TX. What do you do whent he violence is committed by the ones who are suppose to guard and protect the right to safety in the workplace? All the above was witnessed by other employees who refused to step up except for one lady. When she did, she was fired.

    October 7, 2009 at 8:51 am |
  16. Chris

    I think that the supervisors of individuals should be more closely checked. Often times the Federal Government hires supervisors that they select for supervisory positions that are not throughly checked. I had a supervisor who harrassed me on a daily basis knowing I had a anxiety disorder on a daily basis in order to get me to quit my job I had held for almost 20 years. I brought this up to my bosses supervisor and he refused to listen to my side of the story. Unfortunately, I ended up losing my job due to my supervisors and coworkers harrassment . I was forced to resign due to her evident harrassment and incompetence. Bullying laws need to be more widespread not just for among workers but for supervisors as well. If that would have been the case I might have still had my job.

    October 7, 2009 at 8:46 am |
  17. Bluefish

    My experience first hand, as a citizen living and working in the state of Arizona, works with a firm, who recently had a Director of the company carry a gun in his office! The Director was a bully, and I believe, used the 'power of the gun in his presence' to coeherce co-workers and subordinates to increase his power. The Director used this as a 'possible threat' without having to say exact words. Co workers and subordinates were threatened by this, therefore, did as he directed or said. The story ends where this Director, I found as the auditor, this man was embezzling money and commited fraud within the company. Therefore, he was fired immediately upon the company discovering this, and arrested w/ multiple charges. To say the least, I was worried for my safety, and others, because he was 'going-down'; I believe to this day, he knew his last day was near. I was scared for my life knowing he could pull the gun any minute!

    Guns in the workplace are absolultely outrageous; even if the gun is stored in the car. There are too many people who are not properly trained and/or mentally stable to have one. It takes only one statement or look to piss off the person with the gun, and for them to go mad-bizerk and innocent people get harmed! Changes need to be made!!

    October 7, 2009 at 8:43 am |
  18. gloria lewis

    It is so sad over 6 years ago i was so mentaly and emotionaly abuse by and employer ,i actually wanted to run my car over a bridge .I called the eeoc they said there was nothing they could do in florida employees have no laws to protect them .It is getting worst as the economy is the way it is . No ones are dealing with these issues employers talk to employees like trash they treaten you ,it is worst than a domestic violence situation .You guys are dealing with employees against each other i can tell you .
    The employers are 100 times worst than the employees you feel traped i have cried so much from this abuse they were so many times i wanted to strangel my boss. Unfortunately it is all over florida employers humilate employees so bad it is a crime .They also make you work with out breaks yet you get breaks taken out of your check .you work long hours hours with out as much as a ten minute to rest your feet .Some employers refuse to pay overtime when you work overtime ,some get very upset when they ask you to work holidays or overtime and you refuse .I am so scared of these employers breaking people mentally i refuse to let my 20 year old high school son work .It tears me up as an adult and i wish i was dead at time rather than deal with this abuse ,so i do not want my son to feel this kind of treatment .Thanks for bring light to this problem but 90%of it is the employers and mangers causing the abuse .

    October 7, 2009 at 8:36 am |
  19. Catie

    Workplace bullying and harrassment is a very serious issue. I have experienced serious harrassment in my workplace...and once I filed a complaint about it... on-going retaliation. And, this has been on-going for over 9 years! I can't explain how trying and difficult it is to deal with such things. Thank-you for doing your series on this as it really needs to be discussed and addressed. I do not know what can change this situation...perhaps lawsuits? Or more stories like the ones you are doing. Thanks!

    October 7, 2009 at 8:36 am |
  20. RJ

    Tell Lovely that he would have found more justice by replacing Shumway and serving his sentence. Lovely should have taken matters into his own hands! Let someone do that to my daughter and I wont give them a chance to keep on living whether its in prison or not!

    October 7, 2009 at 7:42 am |
  21. Sharon,Daniel Island

    I have been victimized by a workplace stalker. Would you consider this apart of the workplace violence grouping

    October 7, 2009 at 7:20 am |
  22. Patricia

    Please also explore a coalition of organizations referred to as CAEPV which has existed for a number of years. The organization is dedicated to preventing partner violence in the workplace. The groups within the coalition have valuable information to share relative to prevention and partnerships.

    October 7, 2009 at 7:16 am |