What kind of person commits mass homicide in the workplace? The answer may surprise you.
Intent is one of the key distinguishing factors. A domestic assault perpetrator has a single target, a burglar is motivated by financial gain, and an arsonist is focused on property damage. But mass shootings are often a form of attention-seeking behavior.
"A robber generally wishes to remain anonymous, enter and exit quickly, and avoid contact with anyone during the crime. An active shooter, on the other hand, wants to be recognized, create fear and panic, and inflict as much damage as possible," posits Anthony Pizzitola, a certified facility manager and disaster recovery practitioner.
To pinpoint active shooter characteristics, researchers Seungmug Lee and Robert McCrie examined 44 incidences of workplace mass homicides since 1986 (schools were not included). Their 2012 ASIS report, Mass Homicides by Employees in the American Workplace, focused on deaths caused by a single perpetrator who was a current or former employee.
"The disgruntled employee is most likely a white male in his 30s or 40s, may have prior military service, lives alone, and possesses an antisocial or asocial personality," the authors found. "Contrary to general impressions, lethal employees rarely have a violent criminal record and are unlikely to have undergone psychiatric treatment. Further, they are not likely to be drug users."
Mass shooters may also be reported as aggressive, routinely ostracized by coworkers, and struggling with financial difficulties. Only 30% have military service and a scant 15% had a criminal history of violent behavior.
The report also identified these three red flags:
In many instances, the worker was struggling with job performance or interpersonal problems with colleagues. According to Lee and McCrie, "offenders are often motivated by revenge and anger over job termination, disagreement with job performance evaluation, or long-term arguments with coworkers."
Over 40% of mass shooters had previously made verbal or written threats, yet these exchanges were either ignored or undocumented. "Workers who make threats against others in the workplace should be regarded as risk factors, even months or years after their departure," the report cautions.
While victims can be chosen indiscriminately, management personnel are frequently targeted. The study found over 65% of workplace homicides involve the death of a supervisor, manager, or employer.
Be aware that the decision to act out isn't a knee-jerk reaction. There is often a trigger event – such as a heated argument, poor review, or termination – that motivates the employee. However, the length of time between the final straw and the mass shooting could be days or months.
"In about half the instances, the worker had been discharged and returned months later to settle a score," the study finds.
Independent studies by the FBI, Secret Service, and Department of Education offer several insights on shootings committed by students. Like their adult counterparts, these students are often male, may be struggling with academic performance, have had conflicts with teachers or peers, and are described as loners.
Beyond these characteristics, however, there are few commonalities among mass shooters. This can make it difficult to weed out an employee or student who's just having a bad day and one who might act on their grievances.
"The fact of the matter is it's not our job as facility managers to psychoanalyze the intentions of employees or identify potential active shooters. We're here to protect the facility and its occupants," says Pizzitola. "Our only responsibility is to prepare the building so the exterior acts as a deterrent and ensure the interior can respond to a critical incident."