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What is red collar crime and how common is it?

You might want to reconsider sneakily eating your irritable colleague’s lunch, because homicide has been named as the third most common cause of death in the workplace. HRM looks at ‘red collar’ crime.

When you think about a white collar criminal, you’re likely to picture a Wall street type; a suit, tie and bad intentions. But there’s a whole different sub-category of workplace criminals with blood on their hands, the ‘red collar’ criminal, and according to new US research, they’re more common than you might think.

The latest look into workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, shows that homicide ranked as the third highest cause of workplace death, sitting below “falls” and “roadway collisions with other vehicles”.

What makes for a red collar criminal?

“Red-collar criminals are not an anomaly to ignore simply because they may not reflect the street-level homicides typically observed by society, investigated by law enforcement and studied by academia,” says Frank Perri for the International Journal of Psychological Studies.

Perri says the personality traits most commonly linked with a red collar criminal are, perhaps unsurprisingly, narcissism and psychopathy.

According to Ronald D Brown, author of ‘Dying on the Job’, “approximately 800 employees are killed in brutal homicides in the American workplace [each year], nearly 75 percent of them committed by single men in their 40s.” And only 14 per cent of perpetrators are women, Jeff Tolvin reports.

But while certain personality traits are correlated with red collar crime, there’s context to each one. And they’re not just caused by personal grievances, such as a failed office romance. According to Rene Chun, who wrote an article on red collar crime for the Atlantic, an overlooked cause is fraud and other illegal business activity.

“Imagine a boss who kills his assistant to keep a Ponzi scheme afloat, or a crooked accountant who poisons an especially thorough auditor,” writes Chun.  

Brown concluded that 25 per cent of the perpetrators attribute their violence as a response to being teased at work. Other circumstances to spark a violent outburst include: being fired, death of a partner, news confirming an incurable disease or a drug/alcohol problem.

While America’s circumstances are different than most – due to their gun laws, amongst other things – red collar crime happens in Australia too.

Just a warning to readers, the following content is occasionally graphic in nature.

“A crazy overreaction”

Founder of Australian business, The Muesli Company, recently pleaded guilty to stabbing his business partner of 18 years to death.

The perpetrator Peter Pavils, who was diagnosed with dementia, has been described as a father figure to his longtime colleague and victim, 49-year-old Jennifer Borchardt.

Borchardt had worked at the company since she was a teenager and remortgaged her home in 2000 to buy into the business.

Prosecutors have argued that he killed Borchardt as he was jealous that she had just moved in with her fiance. Pavils’ lawyer denies this claim stating that Pavils had “flared up and had a crazy overreaction” due to financial concerns.

Either explanation would fit into the pattern described by Perri’s research.

A report from the ABC states that “Ms Borchardt’s co-workers and friends fought back tears in court as they tried to come to terms with how their boss had killed their friend and then come to work like nothing had happened.”

“What I did I had no right to do. I’m sorry – she was a nice person,” Pavils said.

A bullet in the heart

Former NSW officer at the Office of Environment and Heritage, Glen Turner, was shot dead in 2017 by disgruntled farmer Ian Turnbull at what should have been a routine property inspection.

Turner and his colleague Robert Strange – who was present at the murder – were visiting the property as Turnbull was being investigated for illegally clearing native vegetation.

After killing Turner, Turnbull threatened Strange, saying that he’d receive bullet to the heart if he moved.

“Every time I saw him look away I tried to move forward toward the vehicle to be near Glen but he kept pointing the gun back at me and threatened to shoot me if I went any closer,” Strange said to the SMH.

Turnbull was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment and died in May 2017 of a heart attack while serving his sentence at Long Bay Correctional Centre. Being connected to an original illegal act, Turnbull’s actions fit with the theory that red collar crime can be caused by a desire to cover up past behaviour.

And while a regional farmer might not fit into the aforementioned Wall Street criminal category, Perri says that “the socio-economic status of an offender… is not relevant in classifying red-collar crimes because the offender’s socio-economic status does not alter the definition of what constitutes a homicide”.

Link between gambling and murder

In 2006, a 26-year-old Melbourne man, described as a “highly intelligent computer geek” stabbed his colleague, Joanne Zhang, to death.

Yiwen Pan allegedly hid, waiting for Zhang to finish work, and then grabbed her by the throat, broke her neck and stabbed her 50 times. He then took the company’s earnings for the day, amounting to $9,000, and proceeded to gamble at a casino. He was sentenced to 19 years imprisonment.

At the time, Zhang’s fiance called on the Victorian Government to review its gambling policies, saying: “Clearly there is a very strong link between crime, and in many cases violent crime and gambling… I believe the government should accept this as a fact and be at least partially accountable for the consequences.”

As Perri says, “because white-collar crime is classified as non-violent, the offender is assumed to be non-violent by nature” which quite obviously isn’t the case here. Perri warns that when these assumptions are regularly repeated, we start to accept it as a fact.

“Research shows the more that people reflect our own image, the more we are inclined to give them what is called an ‘implied credibility,’ ” he said to The Atlantic. “But these people can be very predatory.”

Access the online HR resource AHRI:ASSIST for guidelines, legislation and best practice on ensuring your employees’ workplace health and safety. Exclusive to AHRI members.

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