The answer to whether the recent horrific massacre in San Bernardino, CA was "workplace violence" or an act of terrorism is that it constituted "workplace violence" no matter what the motive of Syed Rizwan Farook was. The definition of workplace violence is extremely broad. The attacker’s motivation in any particular attack is not what defines the incident as “workplace violence” although some may think otherwise. Rather, it is the fact that violence was committed against workers while at work or performing their job duties regardless of the attacker's motivation. In fact, according to OSHA the definition of “workplace violence” is “the threat of violence against workers. It can occur at or outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide, one of the leading causes of job-related deaths.”
After the 911 terrorist attacks, Director Thomas Mueller of the FBI in a report entitled “Workplace Violence: Issues in Response.” stated:
“The terrorist attacks that occurred in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, were a tragic reminder to the Nation of the threat posed by international terrorism. With the exception of the attack on the Pentagon, the targets chosen by the terrorists were not military in nature, but were workplaces where thousands of people work every day to support their families and their country. Workplace violence was put in a new context that day. Prior to 9/11, this type of violence was viewed as perpetrated by disgruntled employees, customers, or a domestic violence/stalking relationship that surfaces at a workplace. Since that time, America’s workplaces have to be prepared not only to face the more traditional internal workplace threats, but now have to consider the external threat of terrorism.”
Thus, whether in any particular incident an attacker’s motivation for the attack was domestic violence against an ex-spouse, a stranger seeking notoriety with no ties to the workplace coming in and attacking employees, a disgruntled employee, or an employee inspired by terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the incident would still constitute “workplace violence”. Thus, in the recent horrific massacre in San Bernardino, CA whether ultimately the investigation reveals that the attack was “ISIS inspired” or whether the attack was motivated due to a disagreement with another employee, the attack still constituted “workplace violence”.
It is important for employers to understand this because employers need to take action to protect their employees from all types of violent attacks, even those that may be “ISIS-inspired”. Failure to do so may lead to legal liability. Employers need to provide training to managers and employees, perform security drills, install better security measures, conduct background investigations and be much more aware of the many different types of workplace violence that can occur in the workplace today.