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Yale Student’s Death Cited as Case of Workplace Violence

September 17, 2009
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Safety and Workplace Violence, Latest News
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The arrest of a co-worker in the strangulation death of Yale University student Annie Le has led police in New Haven, Connecticut, to portray the killing as an example of workplace violence that has become increasingly prominent nationwide.

Police on Thursday, September 17, charged Raymond Clark III, a technician who worked alongside Le in one of the school's animal research laboratories, with murder, alleging that DNA evidence linked him to the crime. New Haven Police Chief James Lewis told reporters the homicide could have happened anywhere in the country.

“It is important to note,” Lewis said, “that this is not about urban crime, university crime, domestic crime, but an issue of workplace violence, which is becoming a growing concern around the country.”

Yale University president Richard C. Levin said in a statement that Clark had been a lab technician since December 2004, and that his supervisor said nothing in the history of his employment at the university indicated he might commit a violent crime against a student.

Levin urged members of the Yale community “to engage with each other in the classroom, to collaborate in the laboratory, and to trust one another in workplaces across the campus.”

He added, “This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace. It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”

Lewis told reporters that Le and Clark did not appear to have a romantic relationship and there was little indication that he could become violent.

Experts on workplace violence say early intervention is the best way to deal with troubled employees but that incidents of conflict in the workplace are typically underreported.

“There is very severe underreporting of a preliminary conflict that leads up to violence,” said Richard Denenberg, author of the book The Violence-Prone Workplace. “So when violence breaks out no one [first] bothered to report it or intervene.”

Workplace homicides accounted for 517 of the 5,071 workplace fatalities in the U.S. last year, a drop of 18 percent from 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While workplace homicides are particularly disturbing and garner intense public interest, the number of murders committed in the workplace has fallen 52 percent from a high of 1,080 workplace homicides in 1994.

Workplace suicides, on the other hand, increased last year by 28 percent to a high of 251 cases, federal statistics show.

Ewa Antonowicz, a clinical psychologist and clinical director at Chicago-based ComPsych, a provider of employee assistance programs, said it is hard to predict who among co-workers may turn violent.

“When something like this happens everybody is looking for a profile,” she said. “And there really isn’t one.”

More important, employers should have corporate policies in place to deal with outbursts and inappropriate behavior. Policies should allow managers to report incidents to HR, unions and executives. Training for managers would allow them to intervene early without fear of reprisals from troubled employees.

Too often, though, employers dismiss inappropriate behavior as a person’s individual quirkiness. Or they overreact and fire someone at the first sign of unusual behavior.

“We as a society do not know how to resolve conflict,” Antonowicz said.

Employers should watch for employees who have a history of poor impulse control; get angry or frustrated easily or engage in verbal confrontations; have a history of drug or alcohol abuse; or have a history of unstable work performance or personal relationships, Antonowicz said.

Resources for preventing and dealing with workplace violence

—Jeremy Smerd

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