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Triggers that lead to workplace violence

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Shooting scene
An officer walks through Accent Signage Systems as police investigate a shooting at the business that they say left "several" people dead, including the shooter, who was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 in Minneapolis.
AP Photo/Craig Lassig

The fatal shooting at a sign shop in Minneapolis is the state's deadliest workplace homicide in at least 20 years. 

Six people, including the gunman, are dead from the shooting rampage at Accent Signage Systems in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood west of downtown.

During a news conference Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan told reporters that the gunman, 36-year-old Andrew Engeldinger of Minneapolis, had been terminated from his job before opening fire on his coworkers. Dolan said the suspect killed five people and killed himself. A fifth victim died today.

Until Thursday, the highest number of employees killed in any one case of workplace violence was two, according to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which began collecting data on such cases in 1992. Since then, there have been 95 workplace homicides in Minnesota.

Nationally workplace homicides have been falling for more than a decade. In 1997 there were 860 workplace homicides in the United States. Last year there were 458, according to a preliminary tally by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job termination is a well-known risk factor that can lead to workplace violence. But although a job loss can lead to work-related violence, it is rare, said Dr. Thomas Mackenzie,a professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.

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"People lose their jobs every day in the United States and I think the number is probably pretty big," Mackenzie said. "And most of them don't go home and get a gun and shoot anybody. So I think what we have to believe is that there was an additional vulnerability."

The Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness released a statement on behalf of the Engeldinger family. "Our son struggled for years with mental illness," they said. "In the last few years, he no longer had contact with us. This is not an excuse for his actions, but sadly, may be a partial explanation." No one may ever know exactly what happened at Accent Signage Systems. But there are some ways that employers can reduce the likelihood of violence in such situations. 

When dealing with an erratic or threatening employee, it's important not to reject the person, said Kate Harri, a licensed psychologist who counsels employers who have concerns about their employees' behavior.

"What's better is to sit down with the employee and say, 'Sounds like you're in a lot of distress. It sounds like things aren't going very well for you. Is there anything I can do to help because usually you don't say things like this. Usually you're a pretty steady person. We can rely on you, but something seems different,' " she said.

If the work relationship can't be salvaged and the employee must be fired, it helps to offer a severance package and health coverage to help ease the person's transition, said Harri, who works for Behavior Medical Interventions, based in Minneapolis. That used to be a tough sell with employers, but Harri said it's not anymore.

"There'd be this long pause on the phone and they'd say, 'You've got to be kidding me. I've got to give this person money after what they did?' " she said. "And I'd say, 'Well it's not about giving them money, it's about supporting them in a transition so that they don't come back and focus on you as the bad guys, that they will move on and move away from you and not keep you the focus as a target.'"

Offering employees support doesn't always work. Harri said she has been involved in two situations during her career where despite multiple attempts by an employer to diffuse a dangerous work situation, the individuals were killed by the person who was threatening them. She said both of those cases involved employees in domestic violence situations that played out at work.