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.”
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.”
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.
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.