Last week, a woman working in a Philadelphia (not the one in the photo) was brutally attacked, beaten to death by metal pipes. She was at work where she represented the landlord of office spaces in the building, reportedly sitting at a receptionist’s desk, and her attacker was a tenant. A motive is unclear, perhaps some sort of disagreement about rent or some prior personal friction come to a head, but unimportant given that it’s clear what happened and who did it. There is no question of guilt. The fact that he came up behind her and apparently started their final interaction by hitting her in the head with a pipe, multiple times, makes his intent and maliciousness undeniable in any case. I suspect that many of us have had that coworker that we were a little afraid of, a little nervous around because we wondered if they would go off the deep end, but we didn’t really know what we could do about them. This kind of story is rough because it’s the nightmare outcome. Fortunately, like many tragedies, there are lessons we can learn that can help us stay safer ourselves, and help others stay safer too, as not all of us are living the work from home life anymore.
The attacker was able to approach the victim from behind, and surprise her with his opening blows. On one hand, that could be a reminder to us to never have our backs to doors and to always have the very best in situational awareness (however you want to define that). More productively though, I think, is the reminder that it’s not always possible to be optimally prepared for a bad event and work on what we do when we can’t be that preparedd. While we probably aren’t sitting down to veg in front of the TV or grabbing a nap at the office, there are other times we might be understandably distracted from what’s going on around us. It’s not always possible to lock a door when we’re focused on a work task, or we might need to turn our backs to a room to file or put things away, or maybe we just want to hide our lunch or snack from direct view of our coworkers and office visitors. It can help to keep the noise levels low around you (and take out the earbuds), perhaps install a chime on doors to more public areas, and to consider if we can set up our workspaces to spend more time than not being able to see doorways. But it won’t always be possible, and that’s normal and okay too. It’s important that we make our peace with that, and understand that it’s part of the human experience to be surprised, and not always by good things.
The victim knew her attacker and they apparently had a rocky professional relationship. When we think about people who might hurt us, we often forget about the people who are in the orbit of our lives, not necessarily close but certainly not complete strangers. Statistically, though, it’s going to be someone you know, and that includes the folks you may interact with regularly but not intimately. So when you have that person who makes you worry, it’s worthwhile to listen to that voice and be cautious around them even if you feel that you can’t report that concern to a manager or someone else with authority, or have that report taken seriously. They may have done nothing that you can act on yet, but having the idea in your head that they might means you will be less shocked and surprised if they do, and that means you have the possibility of reacting more quickly to defend yourself. Every microsecond you can shave off from being frozen in disbelief that that person really did do that thing is a microsecond that might help you win a fight for your life. It might not, but in that moment, I bet you’d like to find out.
About ten people witnessed this attack, though it’s not clear exactly where they were when. We also don’t know what they may or may not have done, since it’s not clear who or what stopped the attack and what aid they may have rendered to the victim beyond calling 911. The fact that they were present, not to mention the mid-afternoon timing of the attack, shows that the bad guy here didn’t really care that he could be seen doing his thing anyway. Just having others around doesn’t necessarily stop violence, especially when they have a specific target in mind. That can seem sad and hopeless, but I’d prefer to take it as an opportunity to think about what I could do as a witness. Getting involved in someone else’s fight is always fraught with danger because of the potential of becoming a victim yourself or causing a worse outcome for the intended target. It demands a high level of skill and wise tool selection to intervene effectively, if you choose to do so. The time to figure all that out is now, not when the kind of crazy person at the office goes wild. And either way, even though you might not be able to predict the type of workplace violence you might witness, you can prepare yourself to treat all sorts of traumatic injuries so that you have the ability to do more than call for help for your beloved coworker.
For us women especially, we might feel mean or rude, acknowledging or saying that someone is making our spidey senses tingle, in a way that makes us fear violence. There might not be anything we can put a finger on to articulate what about that person makes us nervous, or we might worry that we are overreacting to a workplace tiff. It can be very important to us to be seen as “nice,” and “nice girls” generally don’t accuse someone of being an imminent violent offender. You can see, though, it’s important to at least be honest with yourself if and when you see that it’s possible. You don’t have to – and shouldn’t – let concern about that potential take over your life, but you can make small shifts in your mindset and skills so that you better respond to the reality if it occurs.